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Trump's Border Wall Builders Carry On Even Though Projects May Never Be Completed

In the Guadalupe Canyon, in southeastern Arizona, work crews are dynamiting mountainsides and bulldozing access roads in this stunning landscape to make way for the border wall.
John Kurc
In the Guadalupe Canyon, in southeastern Arizona, work crews are dynamiting mountainsides and bulldozing access roads in this stunning landscape to make way for the border wall.

Work crews are dynamiting mountains and bulldozing access roads in the badlands of southeastern Arizona, while government lawyers have acquired a beloved birding preserve along the Rio Grande in South Texas — all to make way for a border wall that may never get built.

The completion of President's Trump's signature wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is very much in doubt. Before winning the presidential election, Joe Biden flatly told NPR: "There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration."

But that hasn't stopped Trump's wall builders, who are hurrying to get as many miles completed as they can before the next president can cancel their contracts. That's happening from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas to Arizona's stunning Coronado National Memorial and Guadalupe Canyon, a wildlife corridor for Mexican gray wolves and endangered jaguars. At $41 million a mile, the Arizona sections are the most expensive projects of the entire border wall.

"Every single day, the Department of Homeland Security continues to dynamite, to blow up these rugged mountains in order to clear a path for a wall that, in all likelihood, will never be built," says Laiken Jordahl, with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz. "So now it's just destruction for destruction's sake."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the wall project, said it expects contractors to continue work through the remaining two months of Trump's term and "will not speculate on actions the administration may or may not take."

A portion of the border wall is under construction in Guadalupe Canyon, Arizona, which is a wildlife corridor for Mexican gray wolves and endangered jaguars.
/ John Kurc
John Kurc
A portion of the border wall is under construction in Arizona's Guadalupe Canyon, which is a wildlife corridor for Mexican gray wolves and endangered jaguars. The United States is on the left.

Trump has ignored his critics and beat back nearly every court challenge to his border wall. Currently, 11 different contractors are at work on 27 separate construction contracts, including the demolition in Arizona, according to the Army Corps. So far, $8 billion has been spent, part of the $15 billion that has been set aside for the gargantuan project — more than the price tag for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Cranes and concrete trucks are erecting steel panels from the subtropics of the Texas Gulf all the way to the Pacific hills of San Diego.

Last month, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf stood in the shadow of the iron bollard wall in the Rio Grande Valley to announce the completion of nearly 400 miles since Trump came into office.

"While this is an important milestone, we're building even more wall," Wolf said. "Currently we have nearly 210 more miles under construction and expect to complete 450 miles by the end of this calendar year."

And the pace is quickening. In the week after the election, government lawyers filed a "motion for immediate possession" against an elderly landowner in Mission, Texas, to quickly seize a strip of his family's ancestral land to raise the border wall.

"We're still seeing filings," says Roberto Lopez, community organizer with the Texas Civil Rights Project that represents the property owner. "And the government isn't stopping or slowing. It seems like they're trying to speed up."

Another case in point is the Salineño Wildlife Preserve on the banks of the international river in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

"The Salineño preserve in Starr County — which is 2 1/2 acres of some of the best bird habitat, brings in birders from all over the country and the world — has been acquired by the Army Corps of Engineers and is set to be destroyed for the border wall," says Scott Nicol, a longtime conservation activist in the region.

Customs and Border Protection says the sale was completed on Election Day, Nov. 3. After a public outcry over the voluntary sale, the Valley Land Fund, which owns the preserve, announced Friday that it had decided to cancel the whole deal and fight the government to keep out the bulldozers.

A CBP statement said the property "is necessary for the execution of planned border barrier in support of U.S. Border Patrol's operational requirement in the Rio Grande Valley." A spokesman added that the agency, at present, has no plans to stop construction of the border wall because of the incoming administration.

Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary is sworn in during his Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C.
Greg Nash/Pool / Getty Images
Getty Images
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, shown at a Senate committee confirmation hearing on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C., said last month: "Currently we have nearly 210 more miles under construction and expect to complete 450 miles by the end of this calendar year."

Immigration hawks want Biden to keep building Trump's border wall. They want Biden to do what President Barack Obama did in 2009 when he allowed border fence construction contracts signed under President George W. Bush to be completed.

Bush and Obama together installed 654 miles of barriers. Obama wanted to show he was serious about border security so that a divided Congress would pass comprehensive immigration reform, which it didn't.

"It should not be a, 'Hey, I made a political commitment and therefore on Jan. 20 at 12:01 I'm shutting this down.' I would have to say that's irresponsible," says David Aguilar, national chief of the Border Patrol who oversaw completion of the border fence under Obama.

"What needs to happen," Aguilar continues, "is take a step back, take a look at what is in place and what the appropriate path forward should be."

Early termination of contracts can be costly, says Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

Setting aside the overwhelming opposition to the wall in U.S. border communities, Amey said: "It may be easier, especially if the money has already been appropriated, to finish and complete those sections of wall to ensure we have a decent barrier down there."

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, is among the members of Congress who represent districts along the U.S.-Mexico border, all of whom are dead-set against the wall. He says Biden's new CBP chief can simply call for a "termination for convenience," which is the right of a government agency to sever a contract, though it will likely include a termination penalty fee.

Cuellar says this is what he expects of the new administration: "One, tell the Department of Justice to stop all the condemnation lawsuits. And the second thing is send instructions to the Army Corps of Engineers to tell all those contractors to stop construction of the wall. They will have to pack up and leave."

In Texas, where most of the borderlands are in private hands, the progress of the wall has been slowed by the tedious condemnation process that winds through federal court. The government has signed four contracts to build 121 miles of wall in the Laredo region, for instance, but they haven't acquired a single acre of land to erect it on.

Many landowners have fought the government in court, hoping to run out the clock on Trump's time in office. The delay tactics appear to have worked.

"Our coalition feels confident that the wall is dead and that nothing more will happen between now and the inauguration," says Tricia Cortez, co-founder of the local No Border Wall Coalition.

Added Ricardo De Anda, a local lawyer representing property owners: "Landowners have been involved in hand-to-hand fighting against the government lawyers for over a year now, denying them access to their property. There's no way CBP can get a bulldozer down on the river between now and the swearing-in."

That comes as a huge relief to Sacred Heart Children's Home, a Catholic orphanage in Laredo situated on the Rio Grande. The tall steel panels, along with a 100-foot-wide enforcement zone, would have plowed right through the campus, which is run by an order of nuns.

"I'm very happy for that," said Tomás Rodriguez Jr., secretary of the Sacred Heart board of directors. "The wall, it seems, will not be built, and that will help our cause because we would not lose any property, and we would be able to help young boys and young girls."

That is, if Joe Biden follows through on his promise to stop Donald Trump's wall and abandon the unfinished project in the borderlands.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.