November 18, 2008 - 4:18 PM
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON — The government has awarded construction contracts for all but five miles of the border wall, leaving little doubt the controversial barrier will be completed, despite missing its initial deadline.
As costs and legal delays mounted in late September, the chances that the Department of Homeland Security would finish the wall by the end of the year — its congressionally mandated deadline — grew slim. Asked if the department would revise the deadline, officials in Washington pointed to an October statement by Secretary Michael Chertoff.
"It is a little hard to project because, as you pointed out, the biggest uncertainty is the court proceedings. They have been slower than, frankly, I would have projected," Chertoff said at a news conference. "I am going to give you a projection, but it is not a guarantee. I believe by the time we leave the office and hopefully by the time we are at the end of the year, we will have 90 to 95 percent either completed or at least under construction, meaning we will have broken ground."
As of Nov. 5, contractors working for the department had built more than 217 miles of pedestrian fencing and 160 miles of vehicle barriers. Contracts for a further 141 miles of vehicle barriers and 141 miles of pedestrian fencing had also been drawn up. Five miles of pedestrian fencing remained to be contracted.
In all, the department plans to build 665 miles of pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers. About 40 of the 109 miles planned for Texas will stretch through the Rio Grande Valley, long a trouble spot for the department.
The department faced few hurdles building the wall on federal property along the border in California, Arizona and New Mexico. Texas, where much border property is privately owned, proved thornier.
Lawsuits from Valley residents slowed construction. The department, which has won all cases that have gone to court, couldn't say how many are pending.
More recently, environmental worries prompted the department to delay 14 miles of movable fencing in Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos.
"The problem is that we're building there on the river in the flood plain," said Angela de Rocha, a Customs and Border Patrol spokeswoman. "We got conflicting information from the engineering and hydrology studies."
The Army Corps of Engineers, federal contractors and the International Boundary and Water Commission are all studying whether the fencing could change water flow, which could require Mexican approval. The department isn't sure when it will begin construction.
Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, who doubts the fencing will stem the flood of drugs and immigrants that regularly pass through the county, said he's "elated" about the delay.
"We feel the wall was a waste of federal monies," Vera said. "So this delay, as far as we're concerned, is a blessing."
Locals want to secure the border, he said, but feel that increasing the number of Border Patrol agents or boosting surveillance would produce better results.
Isolated settlements across the river from Rio Grande City, Roma and Los Ebanos have made all three cities "some of our heavier drug trafficking corridors," said Dan Doty, one of the Valley's supervisory Border Patrol agents.
During the first nine months of 2008, the Drug Enforcement Agency seized 1,405 kilograms of cocaine and 74,170 kilograms of marijuana in the McAllen area. The agency's figures include packaging and don't take into account drugs intercepted by local, state or other federal agencies.
As of last week, Border Patrol agents had caught 67,741 people attempting to cross into the Valley illegally, Doty said.
The total cost of the border wall, which includes environmental studies and research designed to determine the most effective barriers, will reach about $1.6 billion, according to figures from Customs and Border Patrol.