SUNLAND PARK, N.M. — After dramatically issuing a cease-and-desist order on a crowdfunded border wall project earlier this week, the mayor of Sunland Park, New Mexico, said the nearly-completed project would be allowed to move forward.
At a news conference on Thursday, Mayor Javier Perea said that two permits had been prematurely issued to a group known as We Build the Wall, which was born from a GoFundMe campaign aimed at raising money for a wall along the U.S-Mexico border. The group was being allowed to proceed with the caveat that it complies with city and state regulations going forward, and rectify any issues in its paperwork.
We Build the Wall organizers maintain that they had filled out the appropriate permit applications and received a verbal green light from a city official late last week to start building their border fence, which they then constructed over Memorial Day Weekend. Perea contends that they had not received the official building permit from the city that would have let them begin working, and that were outstanding issues with their documents.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Perea conceded that it was essentially too late to stop construction on fence, because so much of it had already been built by the time the city caught up to what was happening.
"I do believe that a lot of this work was done with the intention of, 'get it built and then we'll deal with it after the fact,'" Perea said of the project's haste. "For a small community like ours that does not have large teams of people who can look at these issues, it's difficult and it's straining on the city to do a quick turnaround on a project like this."
After stopping the construction on Tuesday, the city received a deluge of calls and emails from supporters of We Build the Wall after the organization asked the public to voice their support for the project. Perea said that his family, and his staff had received death threats and hateful messages.
The Thursday permits that prompted We Build the Wall to resume work, he said, were prematurely issued by a lower-level staffer. Now the city was asking the builders to comply with city and state regulations going forward.
"I guess there was scrambling on the city's part," he said. "But it does serve as a learning opportunity for the city to respond to these situations, not just to this development but any development inside the city."
After the organization was allowed to proceed, We Build the Wall's founder, Brian Kolfage, declared victory on Twitter and tweeted an image of one of the permits. The organization held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and media availability near a newly constructed wall segment on Thursday.
"We were positive that we were in compliance from the get-go," Kolfage told The Washington Post on Friday. He said his organization had worked with lawyers to ensure the work met regulations, and blamed miscommunication within the city government for the confusion over their permits.
"I think this shows the lack of competency of the city themselves that they're having these issues," he said.
We Build the Wall had contracted Fischer Industries to complete the construction, according to Kolfage. The Post reported that in recent months President Donald Trump has urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to give a border wall contract to the company, whose executive is a prominent Republican donor and frequent guest on Fox News.
Kolfage said city officials had led them to believe they had a green light after a site inspection last week. The city provided The Washington Post with the project's application packet to the Community & Economic Development Department.
Kolfage said the half-mile segment of wall was about 90 percent complete, and he expected work to be finished this weekend. In addition to a border fence, he said the project was also installing lights, fiber-optic sensors, a road, and security cameras. He estimated the project would cost between $6 milllion and $8 million.
The group was staking out 10 more sites where it is seeking to fill gaps in the existing border barriers, but did not say where. "It's not our job to build an entire border wall, that's the government's," Kolfage said.
We Build The Wall raised $23 million with the intention of helping President Trump accomplish a signature campaign issue: to "build the wall" along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Its leadership team includes supporters of the president, including former White House adviser Stephen Bannon, former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, and Erik Prince, the founder of the security firm Blackwater USA, now known as Academi.
The New Mexico project sparked criticism from Democrats who oppose the president's immigration policies. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said in a statement to the Silver City Sun News that she found it "deeply disturbing when outsiders, like Kris Kobach and Steve Bannon, come in and use our community and people as a backdrop to further their racist agenda."
"It's even more disturbing that a business in our community is furthering this xenophobic narrative," Escobar continued. "While this wall may be necessary fuel for the president's political campaign, it will not prevent people from seeking asylum."
But for Perea, the border fence saga was a symptom of a larger problem facing Sunland Park, which has become a flashpoint of the debate over sovereignty and security.
"The issue of immigration has been a concern for many years, it is frustrating that people are using the city to move their political agendas," he told The Post. "The biggest frustration for us is that Congress and the president can't come to a compromise and come up with legislation that addresses the issue. Until that happens were going to continue seeing the problem we're seeing."
This article was written by Michael Brice-Saddler and Kayla Epstein, reporters for The Washington Post.