Immigration

How Joe Biden is proving he won't hesitate to use his power to undo Trump's damage

On day one of his presidency, Joe Biden signed numerous executive orders to undo his predecessor's "deeply inhumane" anti-immigrant policies. These included reversing the "Muslim ban," ensuring non-citizens are counted in the census, pulling back on the harsh deportation priorities of the past four years, and cutting off funds to Donald Trump's most vaunted border wall with Mexico. For many among us who feared that Biden would hesitate to use his presidential power to undo Trump's damage, these actions offer immediate vindication of the idea that there is indeed a difference to the lives of marginalized human beings between having a Democrat versus a Republican in the White House.

Anticipating Biden's executive actions on immigration, the Trump administration created some potentially difficult hurdles to Biden's agenda, via a series of so-called Sanctuary for Americans First Enactment (SAFE) agreements between a handful of states and the Department of Homeland Security, which signed them during Trump's final days in office. These agreements require cooperation between the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies and require a 180-day notice of intent to terminate. It was Trump's parting shot to a nation that uses and abuses immigrant labor, revenue, culture, and other benefits.

But President Biden has not restricted himself to executive actions on immigration. He has sent an outline of a comprehensive immigration bill to Congress for consideration that has as its centerpiece a pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented residents of the nation. It is a bold move but precisely the correct one in a nation reeling from four toxic years of Donald Trump. Given that Trump rode into office on the winds of anti-immigrant hate that he vigorously fanned during his campaign, it is fitting that Biden begins his term by undoing the damage by whatever means he can—legislative and executive action.

With a view to the long-term problems of immigration, Biden's proposed bill includes a mechanism for immigrants registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to immediately apply for legal residency if they meet certain work or educational criteria. Those enrolled in the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, as well as farmworkers, will also be eligible for the same. Others in the nation without papers as of January 1, 2021, would have a five-year pathway to legal residency if they pay their taxes and pass a background check, and then have the option of pursuing citizenship three years later.

It will not be an easy task to pass such a bill. For decades, congressional failure to tackle immigration reform has stemmed from a toxic recipe that includes one-part Republican intransigence and one-part Democratic spinelessness. Those two forces have worked in tandem to ensure the nation marches ever-rightward. Democrats will need to adopt the combative and aggressive posture that Republicans do when they cut safety net programs or hand more money to billionaires.

As if on cue, Republicans denounced the bill before they had even read it. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called it "blanket amnesty," while Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas denounced it as "total amnesty." Iowa senator and top-ranking Republican Chuck Grassley echoed the same, calling it "mass amnesty," and a "nonstarter." Even Trump's former White House adviser Stephen Miller, the architect of the cruelest anti-immigrant policies of the past four years, and who by all rights ought to disappear from public view in shame, had the audacity to speak out against the bill.

When Republican critics of the Biden immigration plan use the word "amnesty" to refer to an arduous pathway to citizenship, they are already playing hardball. By characterizing the plan in these terms, they are once more playing into nativist sentiments in the American public to stoke mass resentment and imply that those breaking U.S. law will simply be forgiven without consequence. It is the same dangerous impulses that gave rise to Trump.

If anything, the word "amnesty" when used in relation to immigrants ought to be associated most directly with the GOP demigod Ronald Reagan, whose signature on a sweeping immigration bill helped nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. In order to reconcile the cognitive dissonance on Reagan's mythical status and their racist anti-immigrant hate, conservatives turned to their favorite pastime: claiming the opposite is true. In a 2013 op-ed, Cotton claimed that Reagan considered the bill to be "the biggest mistake of his presidency." More recently, former Arizona state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Kelli Ward echoed the same, saying it was Reagan's "biggest regret." It was not.

A researcher with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative organization, wrote on the far-right website the Daily Caller that the claim of Reagan's regret is built on hearsay and concluded that "Reagan would understand that his law failed to stop illegal immigration, not because we allowed people to stay, but because we refused to allow more to come." He added, "in his farewell address, he said he wanted an America 'open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.' That doesn't sound like regret to me."

Indeed, various times over many years, Republicans have openly backed immigration reform that offered pathways to citizenship. "The reason we have Donald Trump as a nominee today is because we as Republicans have failed on this issue," said former Republican congressman Raúl Labrador, a Tea Party conservative who was one of the "gang of eight," a bipartisan group of lawmakers who came tantalizingly close to pushing through comprehensive immigration reform during President Barack Obama's second term. Even Fox News' virulently nativist host Sean Hannity said nearly a decade ago, "If people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done."

The Trump presidency revealed just what is wrought when anti-immigrant sentiment infuses the ideology of a political party. By any ethical standard, the GOP ought to have been cowed after four years of shamelessly backing a president openly seething with a hatred for nonwhites and who after fanning the flames of racism for years guided his white supremacist mob to attack the Capitol itself. But Republicans have proven over and over again that there is no depth to which they will not fall to declare self-righteous shock at the barest hint of progress if it is under Democratic leadership. Regardless of political brinkmanship, the well-being, safety and security of millions of human beings are at stake, people who are forced to exist in the margins of a society that is content with exploiting them indefinitely.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

DOJ lawyers admit the Trump administration is openly defying a court order to stop deporting migrant children

Justice Department lawyers admitted on Saturday that the Trump administration is openly defying a court order issued by a federal judge who has frequently tangled with the DOJ since President Donald Trump took office.

Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered border officials last month to stop deporting unaccompanied migrant children without a court hearing or a chance to seek asylum in the United States. DOJ lawyers acknowledged in a court filing over the weekend that the Department of Homeland Security has ignored Sullivan's order and since deported at least 66 unaccompanied migrant children in "contravention" of November's ruling.

"Defendants regret that class members were expelled contrary to the Court's injunction and are committed to full compliance with the Court's injunction going forward," the DOJ filing said.

The Trump administration is using a public health law that allows the government to temporarily block noncitizens to summarily deport more than 13,000 unaccompanied migrant children amid the coronavirus pandemic. Sullivan ruled last month that the law does not allow the administration to deport border-crossers without due process and that the policy was in violation of the legal safeguards Congress created for migrant children. Federal law requires border officials to transfer unaccompanied migrant children to facilities run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is required to provide the children with lawyers as they seek asylum or to avoid deportation.

The DOJ's filing on Saturday showed that 34 children between the ages of 12 and 17 were deported by Customs and Border Protection despite November's court order. One of the deported children was an American citizen who was later allowed to reenter the country.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement also admitted earlier this month that it deported 32 unaccompanied migrant children on the day of Sullivan's decision. The agency claimed it was unaware of Sullivan's order at the time.

"At the time the flight arrived in Guatemala City and the unaccompanied minors were transferred, neither the ICE personnel on the flight, nor those on the ground in Guatemala City, were aware of the injunction," ICE official Jeffrey Lynch said in a filing, adding that the department then made a decision not to return the children back to the US.

The CBP deportations came despite agents being issued guidance to follow the court order, agency officials admitted, but said that some supervisors and agents were unaware of the guidance. The officials cited the pandemic as a contributing factor, noting that it has impacted in-person training.

Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott and William Ferrara, the head of the CBP Office of Field Operations, said in the filing that they regret the improper deportations and have notified authorities in Mexico and Canada of the children that were illegally deported. Scott said the agency is considering "formal discipline" for some supervisors.

The ACLU said the policy is inhumane and must be reversed.

"The widespread failure to comply with the injunction is deeply concerning and we hope the illegally expelled children will not be harmed before they can be found, if they can be found," Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the ACLU who is challenging the deportations, told CBS News. "This cruel and unlawful policy, like so many others from the Trump administration, was putting thousands of children in grave danger," Gelernt continued. "Not surprisingly, all three federal judges who have looked at it have concluded it should be halted."

The policy was implemented in mid-March. By the end of September, the administration had used the policy to deport more than 200,000 migrants. Sullivan's order does not affect other migrants who can still be deported without due process, including families with children. The administration has argued that the policy was called for by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent outbreaks at immigration facilities but three former administration officials told CBS News that the White House overruled career experts and pressured the CDC to implement the policy this spring.

"We were forced to do it," one former health official said. "We exhausted all of the options. We delayed. We slow-rolled. We flat out said there's not a public health justification. We said no. And then we were told, 'Do it.' So, at the end of the day, your options are to resign in protest or sign it. And if you resign in protest, the next person is just going to do it anyways."

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to direct the CDC and DHS to review the policy so that migrants are allowed to make asylum claims though he did not say he would end the policy.

Advocates say the policy is unnecessary and should be reversed.

"It is unconscionable that they are leaving the kids there and that they did not immediately bring them back," Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute told BuzzFeed News.

"This policy is counter to our nation's longstanding commitment to protecting refugees, including unaccompanied kids on the move, and the court rightly enjoined it," Wendy Young, the president of legal assistance nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, told Vox. "The United States is capable of determining the protection needs of these children while at the same time addressing public health concerns."

Efforts to stop Trump’s border wall construction could extend long past Inauguration Day

"Efforts to stop Trump's border wall construction could extend long past Inauguration Day" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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When Carlos Flores filed suit against the Trump administration last summer, the Laredo-based attorney said he wanted to help his clients try to stave off border wall construction on their stretch of the Texas-Mexico border at least until the presidential election in hopes of seeing a new administration take over.

But with the election over and Trump set to give way to President-elect Joe Biden next month, Flores said the court battles over Trump's signature promise could stretch well past next month's inauguration.

“I could foresee that there are going to be some significant legal battles between now and at least Jan. 20 and possible further into 2021," he said. “It depends on how quickly and how decisively the Biden administration reacts to what's going on down here."

Flores represents Zapata County and two South Texas landowners in a lawsuit challenging Trump's 2017 executive order mandating construction of a physical barrier on the border. It also challenges a series of environmental waivers issued in May aimed at fast-tracking almost 70 miles of barrier from Webb County to Zapata County.

The lawsuit alleges the administration violated the Fifth Amendment's due process clause, which provides for equal protection under the law. The executive order “creates a 2nd Class United States citizen at the southern border who can have their land seized wholesale based on racist and white nationalist motives," the lawsuit states.

During the campaign, Biden said his administration would not build another mile of barrier should he win, and his campaign website states that during his first 100 days in office, he will end the “so-called National Emergency" that Trump declared in order to divert Department of Defense money to help build the barrier.

Still, Flores worries that the border barrier may not be among Biden's immediate priorities, which could allow the Department of Homeland Security to continue moving forward until it gets new marching orders.

“The thing I am really concerned about is that as we head into the winter months, the pandemic is going to get worse," Flores said. “And on day one he's going to have an economic crisis."

Jessica Bolter, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, said last month that Biden could immediately end Trump's emergency declaration, but it's unclear how that would affect ongoing construction projects and the money already dedicated to them.

“Ending the transfer of future funds doesn't mean in itself that wall construction stops," she said.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration shows no signs of slowing progress on one of his most high-profile campaign promises. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection online tracker of border wall construction indicates a 69-mile stretch of new barrier is under construction in Webb County, and another 52-mile project is in the “pre-construction" phase.

The government hasn't built anything on the land that's part of Flores' lawsuit; court documents show that last month the federal government was granted more time to file documents seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, which would allow the project to proceed. Flores said hearings are possible as late as next month.

“It's all going to depend how aggressive the feds are in moving forward with the construction," he said. “I just don't know why they would spend all this money. I guess people feel like they're going to get fired by President Trump between now and Jan. 20, I don't know."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/12/08/trump-border-wall-lawsuits-biden-zapata/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Trump accused of withholding data needed to reunite families separated at border: 'Unconscionable'

Following what one attorney described as months of deliberate stonewalling, the Trump administration has finally handed over key data that could help legal advocates reunite immigrant families separated under the Justice Department's destructive "zero tolerance" policy.

In a court filing (pdf) Wednesday, attorneys with the ACLU said they have not yet been able to locate the parents of 628 children, down from 666 last month. The filing revealed that the Trump administration provided "information from another government database that had not previously been disclosed (the Executive Office for Immigration Review)" last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.

"Among other things, the information includes phone numbers that had not previously been disclosed," the court document reads.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project and one of the lawyers working to reunite families, told CNN that "we've been asking them for any additional information they have forever and we only finally got this information after outcry that parents still could not be found and the issue reached the presidential debate level."

"We hope we can find a significant number of parents and children through this information," Gelernt added. "But make no mistake about it: Not only has the Trump administration not been helping us, but it's now clear they failed to disclose information in their possession."

During the pre-election presidential debate in October, President Donald Trump claimed his administration was "trying very hard" to reunite the families it separated—contradicting the accounts of lawyers and advocates—but expressed no regret over ripping children from their parents, a practice psychiatrists and human rights organizations have denounced as torture.

"Children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels," Trump said, a claim immigrant rights groups refuted.

In response to the new court filing, government watchdogs and lawmakers demanded a probe into the Trump administration's intentional withholding of information that could prove critical to reuniting hundreds of families.


Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) tweeted late Wednesday that "a human rights commission should investigate what happened, even refer prosecutions."

"These families belong together here in the United States," said Castro.

Border wall has inflicted 'incalculable' damage on surrounding land: environmental activist

Laiken Jordahl of the Center for Biological Diversity writes in The New York Times that the damage impeached president Donald Trump's border wall has inflicted on the surrounding lands is "incalculable." The borderlands are home to precious wildlife, ecosystems, and monuments that are supposed to be protected by law. But the federal government gave itself the ability to waive away those protections, and the Trump administration has done this to devastating effect.

"Saguaro cactuses, some nearly a century old, in shards on the desert floor," Jordahl writes. "Jaguars, lost, because a metal wall has blocked their migratory path. Endangered species homeless because their critical habitats have been destroyed. Living and working along the U.S.-Mexico border means watching the surreal, slow-motion leveling of the wild and fragile ecosystems I've spent my career fighting to protect."

Jordahl writes that law passed by Congress in 2005 "included a provision that allows the secretary of homeland security to waive laws that the secretary deems an impediment to building walls and roads along U.S. borders." The Trump administration has done just that and "cast aside dozens of laws that protect clean air and water, endangered animals and Indigenous burial grounds to rush wall construction."

"So we've watched as this senseless, multibillion dollar vanity project ravages our state's beautiful wild lands," Jordahl continued. He writes that in just one example of the damage to wildlife, surveillance cameras captured a confused family of javelina stranded for hours at the fencing, looking for a way through. "Until recently, those animals could have walked under waist-high vehicle barriers," he said.

With President-elect Joe Biden vowing to stop construction of Trump's monument to racism on day one of his presidency, the outgoing administration is reportedly rushing to build—but in all actuality destroy—as much as possible before noon on January 20.

NPR reported that in the Guadalupe Canyon and the Coronado National Memorial areas of Arizona, "work crews are dynamiting the sides of pristine mountains and bulldozing access roads in this stunning landscape" for wall the administration likely won't have time to build. Jordahl, who has used social media to document the administration's intentional disregard of the region, called it "destruction for destruction's sake."

"The damage the border wall has inflicted in just the past year is incalculable," he continued in The Times. "Much of it will last forever. No amount of money could repay the O'odham and all Indigenous people of the borderlands for the sacred sites, cultural history and natural heritage that's been destroyed. To right these wrongs, we must start somewhere. Tearing down the wall would be a good start." Read his full piece here.

House committee to subpoena records on Border Patrol agents disciplined for offensive secret Facebook group posts

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In a blistering 17-page letter, the head of a congressional committee on Friday accused federal officials of improperly withholding information on Border Patrol agents' misconduct in a secret Facebook group from congressional investigators.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said in the letter that she plans to subpoena internal Border Patrol documents detailing misconduct related to the Facebook group, which included some 9,500 current and former agents. First exposed by ProPublica in July 2019, the social media community called “I'm 10-15" was rife with dehumanizing and misogynistic postings, including an image of President Donald Trump sexually assaulting Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The dispute that prompted Maloney's letter centers on the refusal of the Border Patrol's parent organization, Customs and Border Protection, to turn over documents identifying by name, rank .and geographic location the agents who were disciplined or fired for making offensive posts in the Facebook group. CBP has also failed to provide congressional investigators with any details about specific incidents that led to agents being punished or fired. The records that CBP has provided to the committee are heavily redacted, according to Maloney.

“While I did not come to the decision to subpoena the CBP lightly, it is necessary," said Maloney, a New York Democrat, in a statement to ProPublica. “The Committee needs these unredacted documents to oversee whether CBP is properly disciplining its employees and whether employees who CBP found to have committed misconduct are still working directly with immigrant women, children, and babies."

CBP has long insisted that it is barred by federal law from disclosing key details about its disciplinary process, including the names of employees who've faced discipline for violating the agency's policies.

In the letter, however, Maloney called CBP's refusal to turn over the unredacted disciplinary records as “legally baseless" and asserted that her committee “has direct jurisdiction over federal employees and agency disciplinary procedures."

CBP has said publicly that it investigated 136 employees in connection to the “I'm 10-15" group and another Facebook group, and that the probe led to the firing of four agents and the suspension of more than three dozen others. Still, the agency has kept most other facts about the investigation confidential, declining to share information with the committee or issue a public report.

“To date, CBP has provided a significant volume of documents on the matter, some of which were publicly released by the Committee without CBP's consent, in addition to providing numerous briefings on the matter," a CBP official said in an emailed statement. “Since the beginning of this investigation, CBP's primary goal has been to provide transparency while still protecting the health and safety of our personnel, given the high degree of social unrest and the potential hostile targeting of employees for the nature of their employment." The official said the agency is aware of Maloney's intent to subpoena the documents.

Her letter states that the documents CBP has already turned over show that the agency “reduced penalties for numerous employees" who engaged in misconduct; three agents who were slated to be fired had their punishments reduced to suspensions from work, while 19 others had the length of their suspensions cut down.

The committee is seeking further information about an agent identified only as “Fired Agent #1" in the letter. ProPublica's reporting indicates that this is Thomas Hendricks, who served as a supervisory agent in Calexico, California, until he was ousted from the Border Patrol in October 2019 because of his offensive posts in the Facebook group. It was Hendricks who posted the image of Ocasio-Cortez being assaulted.

According to Maloney's letter, Hendricks told internal affairs investigators that his postings were “just having fun" and later described them as “good natured."

Hendricks appealed his firing, but in a decision handed down last month a federal appeals board denied his request to be reinstated. The decision shows that the agent made offensive Facebook posts demeaning women and gay men while working. “It's not a big deal to post a meme on duty," Hendricks told investigators.

His attorney, Joel Kirkpatrick, did not return requests for comment.

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Trump’s border wall is costing taxpayers billions more than initial contracts: federal spending data review

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

On the same day in May 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a pair of contracts worth $788 million to replace 83 miles of fence along the southwest border.

The projects were slated to be completed in January 2020, the Corps said then. Four months into this year, however, the government increased the value of the contracts by more than $1 billion, without the benefit of competitive bidding designed to keep costs low to taxpayers.

Within a year of the initial award, the value of the two contracts had more than tripled, to over $3 billion, even though the length of the fence the companies were building had only grown by 62%, to 135 miles. The money is coming from military counter-narcotics funding.

Those contract spikes were dramatic, but not isolated. A ProPublica/Texas Tribune review of federal spending data shows more than 200 contract modifications, at times awarded within just weeks or months after the original contracts, have increased the cost of the border wall project by billions of dollars since late 2017. This is particularly true this year, in the run-up to next week's election. The cost of supplemental agreements and change orders alone — at least $2.9 billion — represents about a quarter of all the money awarded and more than what Congress originally appropriated for wall construction in each of the last three years.

President Donald Trump made construction of the border wall a signature issue during his 2016 campaign, claiming that his skills as a builder and businessman would allow his administration to build the wall in a more cost-efficient way than his predecessors. “You know the wall is almost finished," he told a crowd of supporters in Arizona recently, and they weren't paying a “damn cent" for the border wall. It was “compliments of the federal government."

Yet an accounting of border wall contracts awarded during his presidency shows that his administration has failed to protect taxpayer interests or contain costs and stifled competition among would-be builders, experts say. In all, Trump's wall costs about five times more per mile than fencing built under the Bush and Obama administrations.

Experts say the frequent use of so-called supplemental agreements to add work or increase the price has amounted to giving no-bid contracts to a small group of pre-selected construction firms, many with executives who have donated to Trump or other Republicans.

Some contracts and add-ons have been handed out without press releases or announcements, making it harder for the public to track the expanding costs.

Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore contracting expert, said the contracting actions involving the border wall project are unusual for the normally restrained Corps, whose contracts aren't typically characterized by massive price increases. Tiefer called the amount of money awarded through modifications “amazingly high."

“These (border wall) modifications do not look like something the Army Corps of Engineers would get by competitive bidding," Tiefer said. “The taxpayer is paying much more than if the whole contract were out for competitive bids."

The Government Accountability Office told ProPublica and the Tribune that it was looking into the contract modifications as part of a broader review of the process the Corps has used to award border wall contracts using military funds. The report is expected to be released early next year.

While adding work to a contract is not unusual on its own, some of the very rapid and significant supplemental agreements in some of the border wall contracts raise red flags and don't always provide enough information to determine if they are problematic, said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of Celero Strategies and former deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and reform during the Clinton administration.

Raini Brunson, a spokesperson for the Corps, said she couldn't comment on specific contracts, instructing reporters to file records requests for more information. But she added that modifications are “made all the time for a variety of reasons." And while the Corps doesn't provide specific updates on a regular basis, she said contract awards and modifications are posted on federal procurement websites and in databases accessible to the public.

But the sites can be difficult to navigate, and the databases often don't reflect recent changes. Neither U.S. Customs and Border Protection nor the Corps publicly maintains a comprehensive list of all border wall contracts and their modifications. Some projects lack enough detail on government websites to even determine basic facts, such as what the additional work is for.

Some of the border wall contract modifications essentially amount to new projects that in some cases then undergo their own modifications.

A review of recent Corps non-border wall contracts shows no recent contract add-ons that approach the scale of border wall awards. Two contracts for walls surrounding a Florida reservoir awarded in early 2019 for about $130 million have had no cost increases, according to federal procurement data.

Of the Corps' five largest active non-border wall contracts in fiscal 2020, three received no additional money through supplemental agreements, and a fourth received three supplemental agreements totaling $584, according to usaspending.gov. A fifth contract, to replace locks along the Tennessee River, did increase substantially, but 98% of the rise was due to pre-agreed contract options, not after-the-fact supplemental agreements or change orders that have been added on to so many border wall contracts.

Building a wall along the southern border has been one of Trump's core promises and perhaps one of his most politically divisive battles.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit brought by advocacy groups over a move to shift billions of dollars from the military for border wall construction after Congress refused to fully fund the project. The federal government's own watchdog agencies are reviewing some of the contracts after lawmakers raised concerns that political favoritism played a role in how the government awarded them.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of the wall contract changes is Galveston-based SLSCO, which has won the second-most in border wall contracts since 2017, about $2.2 billion, including nearly half a billion dollars in supplemental agreements. North Dakota-based Fisher Sand & Gravel has also won more than $2 billion in contracts since building a controversial private border fence in the Rio Grande Valley, which a ProPublica/Tribune investigation found was in danger of toppling if not fixed and properly maintained. On May 6, federal officials gave the firm a $1.2 billion contract, first reported by the Arizona Daily Star; the government did not publicly announce the massive award. The company's CEO, Tommy Fisher, could not be reached for comment. SLSCO officials referred questions about its border wall contracts to CBP.

“Spiraling Costs"

When Trump first touted his plan to build a “beautiful" wall all along the southern border, he said it would cost $8 billion — $12 billion tops — and that Mexico would pay for it.

The nation's self-anointed “best builder" bragged in 2017 that his construction know-how and savvy would bring the price of his border wall “WAY DOWN!" once he got involved in the process.

In the last three years, the administration has awarded nearly 40 contracts to 15 companies worth at least $10 billion to build more than 500 miles of fencing plus roads, lighting and other infrastructure, according to the most recent usaspending.gov data compiled by ProPublica and the Tribune. (Initially, the president proposed building 1,000 miles of wall, but he later revised that figure down to 450 to be completed before the end of his first term.)

In an October update, the administration said it had identified $15 billion — most of it from military funds — to build a total of 738 miles, which comes out to roughly $20 million a mile.

That's compared with the $2.4 billion the government spent from 2007-15 to build 653 miles of fence, as well as gates, roads, lighting and other infrastructure, according to the GAO.

Roger Maier, a CBP spokesman, said it's not reasonable to compare prior expenses to current ones. “CBP is constructing a border wall system which includes a combination of various types of infrastructure such as an internally hardened steel-bollard barrier 18' to 30' high, new and improved all-weather roads, lighting, enforcement cameras and other related technology to create a complete enforcement zone," he wrote in response to questions. “This is very different than the barriers we constructed in 2007-2009 where it was just the 18' steel-bollard barriers in some locations and vehicle barriers in others."

So far, Trump's administration has completed 360 miles, with an additional 221 under construction, according to CBP. Very little of that has added new fencing where there was none, though. Most of the work has been replacing shorter vehicle barriers and dilapidated fences with more imposing 30-foot bollard poles largely on land already owned by the federal government in Arizona and California.

Much less work has been done in Texas, one of the busiest border regions in terms of drug and migrant crossings, but which features the border's largest stretch without barriers. That is due both to the Rio Grande that snakes its way along the 1,200-mile Texas border, dividing the U.S. and Mexico, and the fact that most of the land is privately owned.

Trump declared a national emergency in 2019 after the Democrat-led House refused to give him more than $5 billion to fund the border wall, instead offering $1.4 billion to build fencing in the Rio Grande Valley Sector. The impasse led to a 35-day partial government shutdown before Trump bypassed Congress. By declaring a national emergency, Trump was able to shift billions of dollars from the Department of Defense and the Treasury Department. The rest comes from CBP appropriations.

To those following the border wall construction closely, the contracting process has triggered alarm.

“I'm just extremely concerned about the spiraling costs of the border wall … and about the amount of money that they are having to take away from DOD projects to build this wall," said Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, which is tracking the increasing costs of border wall-related contracts.

“Trump is trying to make good on a campaign promise that he made four years ago, and he's rushing through the construction of the wall," he added.

In February, the administration waived 10 federal contracting laws to speed up construction along the southwest border, doing away with rules that promote contract competition and small-business participation, as well as requiring justifications for the exercise of contract options, which prompted experts to issue warnings about the potential outcome.

In awarding additional money through contract modifications, the agency has frequently cited “unusual and compelling urgency" to further erode rules requiring a competitive bidding process. Experts say that “urgency" has little credibility and has led to environmental and other damage along the border.

“Whenever you do that, there are some compliance risks, and ... there's the risk of not getting really adequate, robust competition," Soloway said. “The more and better competition you have, the more and better decisions you can make."

A July report from the DHS Office of Inspector General said costs for the border wall could grow exponentially due to CBP's poor planning ahead of construction in an apparent rush to build the wall.

The agency “has not fully demonstrated that it possesses the capability to potentially spend billions of dollars to execute a large-scale acquisition to secure the southern border," the inspector general reported.

Until it improves its acquisition planning and management, the DHS watchdog said, “any future initiative may take longer than planned, cost more than expected and deliver less capability than envisioned to secure the southern border."

In response, DHS and CBP said they were being “chastised" for following the president's executive order from 2017, which directed the “immediate construction of a physical wall."

The inspector general countered that DHS' lead role in building the border wall doesn't exempt it from “following congressional requirements and established acquisition practices to safeguard taxpayers dollars from fraud, waste, and abuse."

A Track Record of Violations

There's no universal list of all border-wall-associated contracts. ProPublica and the Tribune found 68 contracts since late 2017 using CBP news releases, DOD and Corps announcements, and a search of federal databases for a group of 12 companies given pre-approval status by the Corps. Roughly two dozen of these contracts have only been awarded a minimum guarantee of about $2,000 but no border wall work yet. Not included in this list are millions more awarded to companies for peripheral services including acquiring land, aerial imaging, the removal of munitions debris and cactuses, and environmental monitoring.

Of the awarded contracts identified by ProPublica and the Tribune, four companies earned the vast majority of the funds — about $9 billion. The analysis focused on the total value of the contracts, rather than the amount spent to date. Top officials at the firms have been frequent donors to Republican candidates, and records show some of the companies have a host of safety violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for offenses including failing to provide adequate shade to workers and not operating equipment safely, as well as wage violations.

One contract obtained by a Montana company shows how the awards can grow to several times their original size. In May 2019, BFBC LLC, a subsidiary of Barnard Construction, won a$142 million contract just a few days after it learned it was one of 12 construction firms selected by the Corps.

The contract called on the firm to replace about 5 miles of aging, low-slung vehicle barriers with 30-foot-high steel bollards near Yuma, Arizona. The project, one of the first to be paid for with diverted military funds, was widely publicized and featured a quick turnaround, with completion scheduled for Jan. 31, 2020.

What was less publicized was that the contract was open-ended. In technical terms, it was “undefinitized," which is allowed when the government seeks to begin work immediately, but which experts say provides little incentive to keep costs contained.

Four months later, the contract was “definitized," bringing the cost to more than $440 million. A DOD announcement says the money was for “replacement of El Centro and Yuma vehicle and pedestrian barrier," but it gives no additional details.

Six months later, in March 2020, the Corps issued a $172 million change order. This time, no press release or announcement hailed the contract modification; a federal database says the money is for “additional miles" near Yuma, but it provides no details.

Then, in April, a week after Democratic members of Congress urged border wall funds be redirected to the then-exploding coronavirus pandemic, BFBC received its biggest contract modification to date: $569 million for 17 additional miles in San Diego and El Centro — or $33 million per mile. A Corps spokesperson told the Daily Beast it awarded the half-billion-dollar contract add-on without competitive bidding because the firm was already “mobilized and working in close proximity."

Congressional Democrats called on the GAO to investigate what Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, called a “no-bid contract to an apparently politically connected, private contractor" as part of the federal watchdog's broader review of Corps contracts. Campaign finance reports show BFBC's owner is a longtime GOP donor who has given nearly $200,000 since 2017 to Republican causes and candidates, including to those in his home state of Montana as well as Texas and Arizona. Company officials could not be reached for comment.

Southwest Valley Constructors, a New Mexico-based affiliate of Kiewit Corp. that formed several months after Trump's inauguration, has received the most in border wall contracts since 2017. This subsidiary alone has been awarded contracts worth at least $2.7 billion for about 100 miles of border wall work in Arizona and Texas. More than $2 billion of that has come from the single May 15, 2019 contract and subsequent modifications.

While most of the work is ongoing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials in Arizona have already raised concerns that the company's work is dropping groundwater levels at a wildlife refuge, according to emails obtained by the Arizona Daily Star. In South Texas, a judge issued a temporary restraining order against the company after descendants of the family that started the Jackson Ranch Church and Cemetery accused it of working in such “hurried manner" that it was causing excessive shaking and vibrations at the historical sites.

The firm already faces three serious OSHA violations related to excavation safety rules that stem from a single inspection, sparked by a complaint. Southwest Valley Contractors is contesting them. Kiewit and its subsidiaries have a long track record of violations related to worker safety, the environment and employment. Since 2000, it has paid more than $5 million in penalties, records show. Kiewit representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The $2.2 billion Texas-based SLSCO has won since 2018 has been for at least nine contracts for border wall construction, including about $300 million to build 13 miles of fencing on top of concrete levees in the Rio Grande Valley. That fencing skirts the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, La Lomita Chapel and the National Butterfly Center, which Congress exempted from border wall construction in 2018.

The firm's work has come under scrutiny previously: A section of fencing built by the company in Calexico, California, blew over in January during the construction process, which officials blamed on high winds and drying concrete.

The firm has also received more than $410 million in supplemental agreements to a $390 million contract originally awarded in April 2019 to build fencing west of El Paso. Some of that money went to pay for an additional 2.4 miles of fencing; it's not clear what the rest went to.

As the presidential election approaches, both contractors and administration officials are racing against the clock: Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, has pledged to cancel the existing contracts if he is elected. If this happens, construction firms would likely be awarded termination fees and get paid based on the amount of work they have completed by the time contracts are canceled.

While there's not an overall estimate of how much that could cost, court documents filed by the administration as part of the legal battle over the use of military funds provide a window into what a Biden administration might face come January: A single contract awarded to BFBC in November 2019 for 33 miles of fence replacement in Arizona, currently valued at about $420 million, could cost the government nearly $15 million to terminate.

“While ending construction is easy to say, it might not be so easy, because he'll have to consider the phase of construction, gaps in the wall that could be exploited and the termination costs for existing contracts, which can come with a high price tag for taxpayers," said Amey, with the Project on Government Oversight. “President Trump might have boxed in Biden, requiring completion of certain portions of the wall whether he likes it or not."

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