(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated)
MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — Tommy Fisher’s border wall may not be less controversial, but he is proud to declare it far better than any other design.
Most importantly, his prototype is cheaper and better for the environment, the president and CEO of Fisher Sand & Gravel Company said Saturday during a private tour of a construction site.
With his patent-pending system he can “put up 40 feet every 20 minutes,” and it costs substantially less to build — $16.5 million per mile, versus the $26.5 million per mile the federal government is currently spending, he said.
The galvanized steel bollards won’t rust and are too slippery to climb, Fisher said. The sections have no crossbars to put a rope on, and the spaces in between the slats are wider than current border walls being built throughout the United States. Those features will be more friendly to wildlife than the other barriers being built to deter illegal immigration, Fisher said on Saturday.
His company wants to build the barrier along the banks of the Rio Grande south of Mission, Texas, and he said he is currently negotiating with 50 landowners in South Texas to build up to 100 more miles of a private border wall. However two lawsuits filed against them currently are stopping their plans.
The 18-foot-high prototype panels that he has built here are not built on the river’s banks.
This is per a federal judge’s order as two lawsuits brought by different parties — including the U.S. Justice Department, on behalf of the U.S. Sector of the International Boundary and Water Commission — are currently being heard. The lawsuits oppose the building of this non-traditional border wall so close to the Rio Grande.
Fisher had plenty of time to show off the design on Saturday as many of his 70 workers currently have nothing to do as long as a temporary restraining order remains against the first private border wall site in Texas. The order specifically forbids the placement of the steel bollards.
But Fisher, 49, did prevail somewhat in court last week when U.S. District Judge Randy Crane of the Southern District of Texas in McAllen lifted a previous restriction, allowing him to continue to grade and cut the riverbanks. He also is allowed to dig trenches and place rebar, which crews this week continued on the 3.5-mile section of private land.
Fisher said he is confident that this week he will convince the court that he is not violating a 1970 U.S. water treaty with Mexico because he believes his plan will help, not hurt, the riverbank. He said by building so close to the riverbank and clearing the land of invasive carrizo cane, and replacing it with Bermuda grass and Cypress trees, it will reduce shoreline erosion and create a golf course-like riverbank slope that he says will preserve the shoreline and make it hardier against floods. In fact, he believes that stripping the shoreline of the overgrown reeds is actually helping the IBWC.
An IBWC news release from April called carrizo cane “an invasive weed of the Rio Grande Basin, infesting hundreds of thousands of acres of riverine habitat,” writing the “giant reed causes a multitude of societal impacts including reduced water conservation, displacement of critical native vegetation, reduced access and visibility of the international border for law enforcement, and spread of cattle fever ticks.”
The clearing also will help Border Patrol agents to see the shoreline, and he believes that will deter illegal crossings from Mexico, he said.
“If there was a wall or something there and you knew you couldn’t game the system, you’d have to come in the right way,” Fisher said. “But the bottom line is once this system is up no one will get in without being detected or being caught.”
The bottom line is once this system is up no one will get in without being detected or being caught.”Tommy Fisher, president & CEO of Fisher Sand & Gravel Co.
His main complaint with the current federal government’s border wall plans — which President Donald Trump has promised will have 500 new miles built this year — is that it is slated to be set back too far from the actual international boundary line. One to two miles at places, in fact, including in Hidalgo County where new border wall construction is scheduled to be built atop IBWC flood levees.
He says he is working with a local realtor to convince up to 50 other property owners to allow him to begin building on their land that could result in 100 miles of private border wall in South Texas. But he concedes that nobody is willing to allow him to start with two pending lawsuits.
In the meantime, he took a loan for $22 million on this $40 million project, which he said he hopes the court will eventually allow him to complete and then he will try to sell it back to the Department of Homeland Security.
Acting Homeland Security Commissioner Chad Wolf in November praised the building of a private border wall. At stops in El Paso and South Texas, he called the private border wall “a game-changer,” saying “I welcome all efforts to help secure the border as long as they’re done in concert with the men and women at the Border Patrol.”
Fisher said that millions of dollars promised to him by the nonprofit advocacy organization We Build The Wall has not been delivered, and he said he has severed ties with them, at least for the time being.
He said they promised $8 million, but so far have only given $1.5 million. The organization crowdsourced online and has posted on social media that it raised $25 million for the project.
We Build the Wall representatives did not return a call for comment, but Fisher said he has been told his company will be paid once construction resumes. In a tweet on Tuesday night in a response to this story, We Build The Wall’s founder Brian Kolfage wrote: “We aren’t investing all our money up front on a project that’s barely begun. We pay when it’s complete.”
Wearing a red “Trump 2020” hat as he kicked dirt in his construction boots on the site on Saturday, Fisher said he’s not political. But has been an open Trump supporter. And he admits his life hasn’t been without turmoil.
His company recently was awarded a $400 million contract to build 31 miles of border wall through Arizona. That triggered U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, to send a letter to the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General requesting a review of the contract.
His company has been fined 16 times by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2000 and has paid more than $430,000 in fines. In 2009, his company was ordered to pay nearly $1.7 million for tax violations after his brother, Micheal Fisher, pleaded guilty to tax fraud and the company admitted responsibility for defrauding the federal government. His brother was sentenced to more than three years in prison.
Tommy Fisher said that his brother is no longer with the company, and he said some of the troubles stemmed from “substance abuse” issues.
Now, he says he just wants to help the American public.
“A lot of times I get labeled ‘Hey you’re building this. You’re a bad person. You don’t like people of color or women or anything.’ But in my company we love everybody and we love workers. The only people I discriminate against are lazy people,” he said.
He grew up working in his father Gene’s construction business in North Dakota, which he said the elder started by shoveling gravel. Now he is preparing his two sons to take over.
A life in the construction industry has enabled him to rattle off riverbank slope angles, operational procedures, equipment limitations and how he has designed a patent-pending system that he says allows his six 117,000-pound Caterpillar 349E Hydraulic Excavators to basically do all the lifting and placement of 40-foot sections of bollard wall. He says the process “is lightning quick.”
If given the green light, he said he can complete this section in eight days. Aside from a wall, he also plans to build a concrete road beside it, put in floodlights, underground sensors, and overhead cameras.
“The more transparent everyone can be, the better off our immigration system will be. So with our system of cameras, lights, technology, everybody is transparent,” Fisher said.
A hearing on the two lawsuits is scheduled for Thursday morning in McAllen, and Border Report plans to be there.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.