Bill to ease private border wall construction advances

By: - January 23, 2020 10:09 am

Ground views of different border wall prototypes taking shape in 2017 during the Wall Prototype Construction Project near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego. Photo by Mani Albrecht | U.S. Customs and Border Protection

A bill that would allow private border wall construction in Arizona cleared its first legislative hurdle. 

House Bill 2084 would bar cities towns or counties from requiring a corporation or nonprofit to obtain a building permit for a wall on or adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border if certain criteria are met. 

The bill cleared the House Federal Relations Committee Jan. 22, along with an amendment that requires property owners to provide an affidavit from an engineer stating the construction met safety requirements within two months of completing construction.

The committee heard two presentations from speakers in favor of the bill, including one from a group that stands to benefit directly if the bill becomes law. 

Former Colorado congressman and longtime anti-immigration activist Tom Tancredo, an advisory board member for We Build the Wall, a nonprofit trying to privately build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, spoke at length for why he thinks the bill is needed to the committee. 

“We pride ourselves on building the best possible barrier that can be done,” Tancredo said of We Build the Wall’s barriers. 

The bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, is a reaction to a town in New Mexico issuing a cease-and-desist order to We Build the Wall because the group failed to obtain proper permits. 

The mayor of Sunland Park, N.M., later withdrew his order and the group continued its work.

We Build the Wall has not yet begun constructing any barriers in Arizona, nor has it publicly identified any potential sites where it could do so. According to a Phoenix New Times investigation, there are few places in Arizona where a wall could be privately built. Most of the land that they could feasibly build on is either owned by the federal government, on the Tohono O’odham reservation or already has some form of border protection in place.

Tancredo himself told the committee that only about 9% of the land on Arizona’s border is on private land that they could feasibly build on. 

Tancredo said that the bill would help streamline the permit process, which he said presented the biggest challenge in building the section of wall in New Mexico. Of the 57 days it took to get the project done, 11 of it was focused on construction while the rest on securing permits, he said. 

That is the only wall project the organization has finished.

One of the other key reasons Tancredo said HB2084 was important was because he said We Build the Wall had “overheard” that some officials had stated they would have denied the permits if they “knew” what the organization was building. 

The committee also heard from National Border Patrol Council Vice President Art Del Cueto. 

Del Cueto said a wall is not a “be all end all,” but a “deterrent” that would give agents at Arizona’s southern border “added time” when patrolling the region. 

Del Cueto also said that trash along the border is a bigger issue than the environmental impact a wall could have, and that humans “are one of the species that are in trouble when we are talking about the southern border.”

The amended bill was approved along party lines, with Democrats voting against it. 

“We are trying to change state policy based on one city,” Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, said. 

Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, said that her family lives along the border and she doesn’t believe even the highest border wall would stop the flow of traffickers into the state. She said the conversations need to be “constructive,” but that the bill is not something that will work to fix the problems being seen. 

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, disagreed, stating that “we don’t take those things lightly,” when it comes to the state preempting local governance. 

“I think of the human remains I’ve personally seen down at the border,” Townsend said, recalling trips she has taken to the border.

Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, said that she has had immigrants pass through her property and has had to remove three truckloads of trash, including sleeping bags. 

Finchem dismissed arguments that the bill removes local control, and said the “ultimate local control is the property owner.” He suggested that the owner of a private wall “could paint a desert picture on it,” before bringing up the protests in Virginia in which the governor stood behind a fence, using it as an example of how walls work. 

We Build the Wall Inc. is being investigated by the state of Florida for consumer complaints, where it is based.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.