Private Border Wall Expands Onto Federal Land, Blocking Access to Historic Site

We Build the Wall has expanded its private border wall to land owned by the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, a federal agency.

We Build the Wall erected an extension to the U.S.-Mexico border wall, including a locked gate, on U.S. government land, seen here on June 6, 2019. Photo: Jordyn Rozensky/Frontera Studio

We Build the Wall, the crowdfunded, ultra-right group that put up a multimillion-dollar border wall just west of El Paso in southern New Mexico, has said that it only builds on private land. But earlier this month, the group extended its wall onto government land — without asking first for government permission.

The extension is a wall with a locking gate that has closed a federal road next to the Rio Grande, at the intersection of Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico. Beyond the gate is a storied monument celebrating binational cooperation known as Monument One. For decades, it has been visited by locals who’ve enjoyed the area as a park. A We Build the Wall supporter last week said that the only people allowed to unlock the gate would be employees of the Border Patrol, the owner of the adjacent American Eagle Brick Company, and the International Boundary and Water Commission.

We Build the Wall adviser Steve Bannon bragged last month that the private border wall, which now snakes for almost a half-mile up a mountain, had for months been planned in secret, so as not to give protesters or civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union time to mount challenges. Heavy equipment started rumbling onto the property in late May, as land co-owner Jeff Allen forbade the media and the curious from getting near enough to see what was going on.

Allen did permit a group of armed vigilantes known as the United Constitutional Patriots to freely roam his property, where they captured and harangued immigrants, and livestreamed their sadistic activities on Facebook.

We Build the Wall’s secrecy allowed it to erect the wall without performing environmental impact studies or receiving building permits. The small, impoverished, and mostly Latinx city of Sunland Park, New Mexico, after initially resisting the illegal wall-building, eventually gave in after a barrage of phone calls, death threats, and harassment.

IBWC has seemed open to the  right-wing lobbying group’s taking over of federal land and since June 2 has entertained giving We Build the Wall a permit. After nine days of waffling, the federal agency took action Monday to keep the gate open. In response, We Build the Wall has begun a bullying campaign against IBWC.

A Sensitive, Historic Site

On May 31, the new wall was feted on site by right-wing supporters, including anti-immigration politicians Kris Kobach and Tom Tancredo. The next day, Jim Benvie — formerly a leader of the United Constitutional Patriots vigilante group and now active in a spinoff called the Guardian Patriots — livestreamed migrants walking past the wall. They were headed into New Mexico to surrender to Border Patrol agents and request asylum. “A group of illegals just pushed across our construction site!” tweeted Brian Kolfage, founder of We Build the Wall. Benvie told his Facebook audience that We Build the Wall would soon be blocking the road that the migrants had used — the IBWC road.

On June 2, according to IBWC public affairs spokesperson Lori Kuczmanski, employees working near the Rio Grande saw the extension being prepared. That afternoon, IBWC received an emailed request for a permit to block the road. The permit application was incomplete, and IBWC Commissioner Jayne Harkins told the construction company that “the gate needs to stay open.”

But building began immediately. Kuczmanski said the agency asked We Build the Wall to halt construction, but the next day the construction on the gate was completed, locking the IBWC off its own land. Mike Furey, a construction foreman, told the media that Harkins had approved it. For several days thereafter, the IBWC asked We Build the Wall to keep the gate open, but it remained closed.

Historically, the IBWC has promoted binational friendship and cooperation. Founded in 1889, the agency works with its Mexican counterpart, the Comisión Internacional de Límites y Aguas, to manage irrigation and drinking water for both countries. The U.S. and Mexican commissioners meet regularly to discuss their shared stakes in the Rio Grande and Colorado and Tijuana rivers.

IBWC’s management of rivers entails stewardship of the larger environment. But the potential environmental ramifications of the new wall remain unclear. With We Build the Wall failing to complete an environmental assessment, scientists and policymakers can only estimate the potential damage to the area from mudslides, erosion, and air and water pollution caused by the displacement of contaminated soil.

Furey, the foreman, was quick to point out how close the new wall is to the Rio Grande. What he ignored are the risks associated with a massive build directly uphill from the American Dam, which diverts drinking and irrigation water to Mexico and West Texas farmland. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Rio Grande is highly endangered. It suffers from over-extraction of water, pollution, and high usage. To further complicate things, the remains of the ASARCO smelter, an EPA-declared Superfund site, sit a stone’s throw from the new wall.

ASARCO processed lead, zinc, silver, and copper from 1887 through 1999 in El Paso. Sulfur dioxide and heavy metals billowed out of the company’s giant smokestacks, with lead and arsenic contaminating soil and groundwater throughout the area. At one point, the Centers for Disease Control found that more than half of the children living within a mile of the smelter had blood lead levels dangerously higher than the acceptable limit. The American Eagle Brick Company, site of the wall, sits less than a third of a mile from ASARCO’s former plant.

In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency named the American Dam site a spot of high contamination. A 2015 study demonstrated that the force of demolishing the ASARCO smokestacks enlarged the contaminated area, and found higher levels of lead in 2015 than had been recorded in 1993 and 2001. These findings suggest that bulldozing contaminated dirt releases toxins into the air and water.

Now, thanks to We Build the Wall’s construction work, tons of dirt from the contamination zone have been bulldozed. Environmental experts agree that the dirt will make its way into the Rio Grande, although it is too early to fully assess hazardous effects. Without an environmental impact assessment, one El Paso-based hydrologist told The Intercept, the long-term repercussions are “anyone’s guess.”


Monument One, which marks the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, on June 6, 2019.

Photo: Jordyn Rozensky/Frontera Studio

Decades of Community History

The natural environment is not the only aspect of the border region that is endangered by the private wall. Border society is also an ecology. Binational human culture, people’s ease with living in and loving two countries, is seriously endangered by the increasing depredations of border militarization.

Monument One, also known as International Boundary Marker No. 1, was established more than 160 years ago, before the Civil War. It defined the first surveyor’s point on the land border from New Mexico to California.

Local historians and policymakers began lobbying for a binational park on the marker site as early as 1938, and their efforts paid off in December 1972, when a landscaped park was dedicated much to the delight of Mexican and American citizens. Two bronze plaques, one in English and one in Spanish, were placed among flowers and trees planted by community garden groups. Dignitaries from Juarez, El Paso, and Sunland Park spoke of the importance of unity over division, marveling at the shared land and pointing toward a future of continued solidarity and partnership.

In recent years, the monument has been known as a quiet piece of history. It’s famous as a unique spot to snap a photo of oneself in two countries while also enjoying the stark beauty of the high desert mountains. In the summer, Mexican families travel there after spending the afternoon splashing and fishing in the Rio Grande. On the U.S. side, hikers and naturalists have used the federal levee road to watch birds, fish, and visit Monument One.

The road partly belongs to the IBWC, but other sections are owned by George Cudahy and Jeff Allen, who are now the hosts for We Build the Wall’s construction. At least since 2017, the two have been intermittently chasing visitors off the road. On June 7, a local ACLU lawyer tried to visit the monument, but was turned away by Allen amid a stream of epithets.

The IBWC has been slow to challenge this private blockade. When it finally took action this week, We Build the Wall and its militia allies launched a vicious attack on the agency, using tactics similar to those they lobbed against Sunland Park.

On Monday, IBWC, accompanied by sheriff deputies, opened the gate and, according to Kuczmanski, told We Build the Wall that any tampering with the gate would be “considered trespassing and further action will be taken.” We Build the Wall reacted with outrage. The group called for the firing of Commissioner Harkins and mobilized supporters. Kolfage fulminated on his Twitter feed that the opening of the gate was due to the IBWC’s being “half owned by Mexico,” and Benvie live-streamed on Facebook that if the IBWC and the ACLU “want a war, they’ll get war.”

But the agency has called only for the gate to remain open – it has taken no action to tear it down. Nor has the IBWC shown regard for the surrounding community’s history.

“A lot of people keep asking me and calling me,” Kuczmanski, the agency’s public affairs officer, told The Intercept. She said they are insisting that Monument One is a park. “It’s not a park,” she said.

Since the wall was erected, tourists have continued to visit Monument One on the Mexico side, said Mexican police who patrol the area. But if they step too close to the wall, they are intimidated by people just over the line on the U.S. side. There have been incidents, according to Mexican authorities, of verbal harassment shouted through the slots of the bollards by construction workers and others.

Days after the wall went up, congressional Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso spoke to the El Paso Times and condemned the wall’s hosts for “furthering this xenophobic narrative.” She called the wall “necessary fuel” for Trump’s further political ambitions. El Paso City Rep. Peter Svarzbein evoked the wounding of the binational psyche, saying that he was concerned that public access to Monument One would be interrupted. He called the monument a “federal park that highlights the best of the values, culture, and history of our community here on the border.”

Meanwhile, We Build the Wall promotes its multimillion-dollar structure as a model alternative to Trump’s stymied, public-works wall project. That rhetoric has seduced Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a border native who staunchly opposes publicly funded walls. CNN recently asked him about the wall and the people who erected it. “What you do on your private property, including building a wall, is your business,” O’Rourke said. “Good for them.”

Border residents who do know the area and hold it dear have tried to explain why few organizations so far have protested the new wall or the blocking of Monument One. Some cite safety concerns, knowing of We Build the Wall’s connection to an armed militia. Only the ACLU of New Mexico has taken action, asking the public to call and write to the IBWC. “You have a private group that is allowed to appropriate federal land to carry out a political purpose,” said director Peter Simonson. He said the ACLU is still analyzing the situation to determine its next steps. Meanwhile, the public’s access to Monument One remains fraught.

A public middle school teacher, Tom Wilson, said he has hiked and bicycled the area with his family for over 30 years and is now furious and grief-stricken at the prospect of being banished from Monument One.

“For a long time now,” Wilson said, “Trump’s sons of bitches have declared this area ground zero in the war on immigrants. It’s exhausting. It never stops, and one thing follows another so fast. There’s a weariness here now. The border is our heritage, but people are tired. They shrug their shoulders and say, What’s next?”

Join The Conversation