Conservatives head to Texas to try to build their own wall

HOUSTON — What started as an online fundraiser to provide President Donald Trump with donations for his southern border wall has morphed into a foundation whose members vow to build a wall themselves.

The "We The People Will Build the Wall" campaign has surpassed $20 million since it was created in December by Air Force veteran and triple amputee Brian Kolfage. The campaign has received almost 350,000 donations even as wall opponents derided the effort and after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ended with Congress refusing Trump's demand for billions in wall funding.

Kolfage and other Trump supporters have now organized a nonprofit corporation, WeBuildtheWall Inc. Its board of directors includes former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a hardline immigration opponent who has advised Trump. The group spent part of this week in South Texas touring the U.S.-Mexico border and meeting landowners the group hopes will allow private construction on their land.

Whether a private group could build such a wall remains to be seen. There are legal and environmental obstacles in South Texas that have delayed the U.S. government, even with its powers to seize land and waive laws for national security.

The group acknowledges the obstacles. But Dustin Stockton, one of the group's leaders, said he still believed they could build something in "months, not years."

"We talked to several people who weren't interested in having a wall five or six years ago who have since changed their mind based on what they're seeing happening on their land," Stockton said. He declined to identify the landowners they met, but said they said the security situation at the border had gotten significantly worse.

Experts on border walls are skeptical.

"If there is a landowner who wants a wall built on their property and they happen to have property near the border, I suppose they could convince the person to let them build on their property," said Efren Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project who is organizing landowners against a border wall. "It's extremely silly for achieving any kind of objective."

The fundraising so far "is still a tiny sum compared to the cost of any significant fencing on the border," said Reece Jones, a University of Hawaii professor and author of the book "Violent Borders."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is working to build 33 miles (53 kilometers) of new walls and fencing in the Rio Grande Valley. The construction was funded by Congress in March. So far, the government has awarded 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) of construction for a total of $313 million, or roughly $22 million a mile.

The average cost of 1 mile built by the government exceeds what the campaign has raised.

"Walls alone are a very ineffective way to secure a border because they are expensive and still need to be constantly guarded," Jones said. "Even then, people regularly go over, under, around, or through them."

Most land along the Rio Grande is privately owned, and many landowners oppose surrendering their land for a border wall.

The U.S. government has the authority to seize land under eminent domain and will likely have to sue many landowners to build more barriers. It can also waive environmental laws to speed construction. A private group doesn't have those powers.

The river also feeds wildlife — including many endangered species — as well as farmland on both sides. A bi-national commission governs flood control on the river, and building at the water's edge is particularly difficult due to concerns about terrain and flooding.

Kolfage originally promised to donate any proceeds from his campaign to the U.S. government. But the group announced in January that it would instead fund a private construction effort. Donors before the change had 90 days to opt into the new effort or receive a refund. A spokesman for GoFundMe, the online fundraising site Kolfage used, says 53 percent of donors have opted in, and 57 percent of donors had responded as of last Friday.

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Migrants in Tijuana trickling over and under the border wall
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Migrants in Tijuana trickling over and under the border wall
Honduran migrant Joel Mendez, 22, passes his eight-month-old son Daniel through a hole under the U.S. border wall to his partner, Yesenia Martinez, 24, who had already crossed in Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Moments later Martinez surrendered to waiting border guards while Mendez stayed behind in Tijuana to work, saying he feared he'd be deported if he crossed. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Central American migrants planning to surrender to U.S. border patrol agents climb over the U.S. border wall from Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, late Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. Thousands of migrants are living in crowded tent cities in the Mexican city of Tijuana after undertaking a grueling, weeks-long journey to the U.S. border. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In a photo taken from Playas of Tijuana, Mexico, Honduran migrants climb over a section of the U.S. border fence before handing themselves in to border control agents, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. A steady trickle of Central American migrants have been finding ways to climb over, tunnel under or slip through the U.S. border wall to plant their feet on U.S. soil and ask for asylum. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Honduran migrants who jumped the border wall to the U.S. side, help other members of their families to jump the wall, in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Thousands of migrants who traveled via caravan are seeking asylum in the United States, but face a decision between waiting months or crossing illegally, because the U.S. government only processes a limited number of cases a day at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Honduran migrant Joel Mendez, 22, feeds his eight-month-old son Daniel as his partner Yesenia Martinez, 24, crawls through a hole under the U.S. border wall, in Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Moments later Martinez surrendered to waiting border guards while Mendez stayed behind in Tijuana to work, saying he feared he'd be deported if he crossed. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Yesenia Martinez, 24, carries her eight-month-old son Daniel as she looks for a place to cross the U.S. border wall to surrender to border patrol and request asylum, in Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Martinez surrendered to waiting border guards while her partner Joel Mendez stayed behind in Tijuana to work, saying he feared he'd be deported if he crossed. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A woman climbs the U.S. border wall, planning to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents and apply for asylum, as she crosses from Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. Often within minutes, border guards quickly arrive to escort migrants to detention centers and begin "credible fear" interviews. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A woman holding a baby peers through the U.S. border fence as she tries to reach a point where scores of migrants have been crossing in recent days, now blocked by private security, in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. Legal groups argue that federal law states that immigrants can apply for asylum no matter how they enter U.S. territory. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Honduran migrant Leivi Ortega, 22, wearing a rosary, looks at her phone while she, her partner and their young daughter, wait in hopes of finding an opportunity to cross the U.S. border from Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. In early December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that the San Diego sector experienced a "slight uptick" in families entering the U.S. illegally with the goal of seeking asylum. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Yesenia Martinez, 24, reaches back from the San Diego, California side of the U.S. border wall to get her baby's bottle, after crossing underneath from Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Martinez is among a wave of Central Americans getting past the imposing barrier between Mexico and California and expediting their asylum claims by readily handing themselves over to U.S. agents. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A Honduran migrant helps a young girl cross to the American side of the border wall, in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. In November, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation suspending asylum rights for people who try to cross into the U.S. illegally from Mexico, although a divided U.S. appeals court has refused to immediately allow the Trump administration to enforce the ban. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Salvadoran migrant Cesar Jobet, right, and Daniel Jeremias Cruz hide from U.S. border agents after they dug a hole in the sand under the border wall and crossed over to the U.S. side, in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. When the two youths were detected by agents they ran back to the Mexican side. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A Honduran migrant walks with his son in his arms after jumping the U.S. border wall with plans to turn himself over to U.S. border patrol agents in order to apply for asylum, seen from Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. In twos or threes, or sometimes by the dozen, migrants arrive at the U.S. border wall and manage to cross over. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A Honduran migrant walks with his son in his arms after jumping the wall to the U.S that separates Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, in Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Aid workers and humanitarian organizations expressed concerns Thursday about the unsanitary conditions at the sports complex in Tijuana where more than 6,000 Central American migrants are packed into a space adequate for half that many people and where lice infestations and respiratory infections are rampant. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A Honduran migrant walks with his son in his arms after jumping the wall to the U.S that separates Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, in Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Aid workers and humanitarian organizations expressed concerns Thursday about the unsanitary conditions at the sports complex in Tijuana where more than 6,000 Central American migrants are packed into a space adequate for half that many people and where lice infestations and respiratory infections are rampant. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A Honduran migrant walks after jumping the wall to the U.S that separates Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, in Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Aid workers and humanitarian organizations expressed concerns Thursday about the unsanitary conditions at the sports complex in Tijuana where more than 6,000 Central American migrants are packed into a space adequate for half that many people and where lice infestations and respiratory infections are rampant. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In a photo taken from the Tijuana, Mexico, side of the border wall, a guard on the U.S. side, at left, watches Honduran migrants jump the wall into the United States, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Thousands of migrants who traveled via caravan are seeking asylum in the U.S., but face a decision between waiting months or crossing illegally, because the U.S. government only processes a limited number of cases a day at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In a photo taken from the Tijuana, Mexico, side of the border, two immigrants on U.S. soil try to jump the second wall before border police arrived and arrested them, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Thousands of migrants who traveled via caravan are seeking asylum in the U.S., but face a decision between waiting months or crossing illegally, because the U.S. government only processes a limited number of cases a day at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In a photo taken from the Tijuana, Mexico, side of the border wall, a U.S. Border Patrol agent is seen as Honduran migrants who jumped the wall surrender on the U.S. side, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Thousands of migrants who traveled via caravan are seeking asylum in the U.S., but face a decision between waiting months or crossing illegally, because the U.S. government only processes a limited number of cases a day at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
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The online fundraiser claims to have Trump's blessing, though the president has not tweeted or spoken publicly about the effort. The White House did not respond to a request for comment last week.

Kolfage posted a photo Monday of the sign outside the CBP Rio Grande Valley sector headquarters. He captioned it: "Time to see what USCBP thinks of our border wall plans." An agency spokesman said Kolfage did not have any meetings with local agents or chiefs; Stockton later confirmed there'd been no meeting.

WeBuildtheWall Inc. will employ a paid staff, though the group has not said how many employees it will have or how much they will be paid.

It continues to raise tens of thousands of dollars a day, Stockton said.

"It's an expression of the frustration of people all over the country about our politicians in Washington's inability to get the job done," he said.

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