Private group must stop building border wall in South Texas, judge says in temporary order
For nearly a year, allies of President Trump ignored seemingly every obstacle that might keep their right-wing group from building a crowdfunded wall at multiple points along the U.S.-Mexico border.
They didn’t get permits in advance. They refused government orders to stop and study their engineering. And on the banks of the Rio Grande, they began bulldozing land where, true to their group’s name — “We Build the Wall” — they plan to erect more than three miles of 18-foot steel fencing.
But a Texas judge on Tuesday issued what may be the strongest rebuke yet to the group, which is led by Stephen K. Bannon, ordering it to temporarily halt all construction because of possible harm to a nearby nature preserve.
State District Judge Keno Vasquez, of Hidalgo County, ruled that the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre riverfront preserve in Mission, could face “imminent and irreparable harm” if We Build the Wall continues with plans to erect a “water wall” between the nature refuge and a state park.
Javier Peña, a lawyer for the butterfly center, told The Washington Post the wall could act as a dam that would redirect floodwater to the sanctuary — a popular spot for school groups and birders — and wipe out its vegetation, thus destroying the site or reducing its property value.
“You can do almost anything with your property. But what you can’t do is hurt other people’s property,” he said. “For these guys to come down and use fear and hate to destroy it [the center] for their personal gain — that’s what troubles us.”
Yet the Florida group, and its founder, outspoken military veteran Brian Kolfage, may be barreling forward anyway.
“We have many people who try to stop us legally with silly attempts, and in the end we always prevail,” Kolfage said in an email to The Post. “I would put a 50/50 chance this is fake news, and if it’s not it will be crushed legally pretty fast.”
In a video posted to Twitter on Tuesday evening, the group’s project manager — a man in a hard-hat identified only as “Foreman Mike” — said a mile and a half of land had been cleared beside the river, and steel bollards and panels would be installed within 48 hours.
“We’re going to be putting this up,” he said, asking for more donations, while pledging to have the whole project complete by Jan. 15, 2020. “We have to supercharge it now. It’s time to get really moving.”
Kolfage, a triple amputee in Florida who received a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq, first went viral last December, when he launched a GoFundMe looking to crowdfund $1 billion to privately build Trump’s border wall.
As he raised $25 million online, his campaign drew scrutiny about where all that money was going. But Kolfage, who enlisted the likes of Bannon and Kris Kobach to serve on his board, then revealed the group had hired a North Dakota construction firm to erect a half-mile of fencing on private land in Sunland Park, N.M.
In May, the town’s mayor sent We Build the Wall a cease-and-desist letter, seeking to block its construction on private land belonging to a brick company. Days later, though, the construction firm — headed by a major GOP donor and touted by Trump himself — was later allowed to finish carrying out the project.
Over the summer, Kolfage and his group set its sights on South Texas, where they again hired the North Dakota firm to erect a “water wall” on private land along the Rio Grande belonging to a sugar cane farmer.
The U.S. Army Corps typically builds on higher ground along river levees, placing steel bollards far from the ever-shifting curves of a river that has been especially prone to flooding. (The butterfly center has sued the Trump administration over its plans to extend such construction into the protected area, and a circuit court is set to hear arguments later this week.)
Unlike the federal government’s construction, Peña said Kolfage’s plans ignore the possibility of damage to neighboring properties.
“Whether you’re for the wall or against the wall, they [the government] are cognizant of the dangers that construction could cause,” he said. “These guys are just going in there to stoke everyone’s anger and fear, raise money, and then move along to the next victim.”
The International Boundary and Water Commission, a joint U.S.-Mexico agency that issues permits to build along the Rio Grande, asked the group to halt construction, submit an engineering study and remove heavy equipment from the levees, The Post’s Nick Miroff reported. The group appeared to ignore that request.
During that time, Kolfage and the butterfly center erupted into an online flame war. Kolfage accused the center of assisting cartels and partaking in insect smuggling, calling them “left wing thugs with a sham butterfly agenda.” The center took its own jabs at Kolfage on social media, sometimes including the hashtag “#LiarLiarPantsOnFire.”
Then, the butterfly center sued Kolfage and his group. Peña said the preserve’s leaders wanted to conduct a study of the fencing itself, but have been blocked from doing so until the court grants them access to the land being used by We Build the Wall.
“They’re not stopping. They’re not planning on conducting studies. They’re not concerned with what damage it would do to neighboring properties,” he said. “They just want to build the wall.”
The temporary restraining order will last at least until Dec. 17, at which point it can be extended for another two weeks and may then lead to a temporary injunction hearing.
Should Kolfage and his group continue construction anyway, a judge could call them in for a hearing and consider sanctions ranging from monetary fines to jail time, Peña said.
Reis Thebault contributed to this report.
2019 Texas Tribune