The pro-Trump organization that raised millions of dollars online in a controversial crowdfunding effort to build a private wall along the southern border has quietly launched a second construction project in Texas, brazenly casting aside legal requirements and ignoring permits required to build the barrier, officials said.
On Facebook, We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage, a decorated Iraq War veteran with a history of profiting from fake and conspiratorial websites, announced that crews working for the group had broken ground on Veterans Day on a new 3.5-mile border wall on private land along the Rio Grande.
But the group that has blasted undocumented immigrants for circumventing the law has itself skirted the legal process, failing to receive proper documentation for its wall and leaving its privately funded projects, ironically, undocumented. County and international water officials charged with governing the Rio Grande and the land where the group plans to build told BuzzFeed News that We Build The Wall has not been granted any construction permits for its latest project in Mission, Texas.
"We have asked them to submit their project documentation to us and complete our review process before continuing construction," said Sally Spener, foreign affairs officer for the International Boundary and Water Commission.
That hasn't stopped We Build The Wall from moving excavators and dozers onto a lush plot of private land near a state park and butterfly reserve, deploying the same tactic it used earlier this year in New Mexico where officials said the group ignored construction requirements and attacked federal and local officials when they pointed out the group was circumventing legal requirements.
Even as it moves forward with a second million-dollar project, the IBWC said the group had yet to submit its plans or receive approval for a large gate it constructed back in June at the site of its first border wall in New Mexico.
Instead, Kolfage boasted on social media that the group intentionally constructed the New Mexico wall over a holiday weekend to fly under the radar of local city officials.
Worried about the impact the new wall construction might have on fragile lands along the Rio Grande, and fearing that the group might try to once again muscle through a border wall without permits or proper oversight, the nearby National Butterfly Center told BuzzFeed News it is considering filing a lawsuit to halt construction of the barrier.
"We can't imagine that permits even exist for this," said Marianna Trevino-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center. "They're already at work razing all of the property so we imagine they'll start digging and footing for whatever structure they're going to put in real soon."
The 100-acre wildlife center is located about a quarter-mile from the private land where the group plans to construct its wall. There, the center has worked to conserve and study wild butterflies, an effort they fear will be set back by the wall's construction.
"That barrier is going to force water upstream and downstream and to other private properties," Trevino-Wright said. "It will destroy other people's land and, fortunately, in Texas we have laws against that."
Workers and volunteers with the National Butterfly Center have seen heavy equipment clearing land up to the waters of the Rio Grande and recently observed a film crew for We Build The Wall touring the area on a Border Patrol boat.
Officials with Hidalgo County, where the construction is taking place, said they have not granted permits to We Build The Wall nor received any plans or studies for the project, which would typically include watershed and flood impacts caused by the structure. IBWC officials said it has only received general information about the project from Fisher Industries, the construction company hired by We Build The Wall.
Kolfage, who has said the wall is being constructed to "save Texas," and representatives from We Build The Wall, did not return BuzzFeed News requests for comment.
The controversial group has faced trouble since its inception as a GoFundMe effort, becoming a cause célèbre on the right and raising millions of dollars after Kolfage initially promised to donate all of the funds to the federal government to build President Trump's long-promised border wall. But those funds could not be designated exclusively by the government for a barrier, so Kolfage created a non-profit organization that would instead use the funds to build a private wall of its own.
Since then, influential Trump supporters with hardline immigration views have joined We Build The Wall's board of directors, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Donald Trump Jr. has also appeared at events in support of the group.
But shortly after becoming a 501(c)(4) in Florida this year, the state confirmed the organization was under criminal investigation over complaints of how organizers were handling donations.
Between construction projects, leaders of the group have voiced unyielding support for President Trump, promoting a podcast hosted by Bannon to defend Trump amid impeachment hearings, and posting memes depicting immigrants as criminals and welfare recipients.
In recent months, We Build The Wall has attempted to keep the location of its new construction site a secret, telling supporters on social media it had to keep quiet for "security reasons." But after recently seeing videos posted online by the group, Trevino-Wright said officials with the butterfly center were able to determine the crews were virtually next door.
"We found out because the We Build The Wall morons were posting videos," she said.
And while construction crews were "breaking ground" at the secretive wall site on Monday, local officials told BuzzFeed News they were initially under the impression the work was being done by federal contractors working on Trump's border wall.
Trevino-Wright said she has been speaking with attorneys about a potential lawsuit to halt the project, and believes the National Butterfly Center will have to act quickly because of the pace of construction.
Organizers with We Build The Wall have claimed that once construction is completed it will hand over the property and barrier to the Department of Homeland Security. But Theresa Brown, director of Immigration and Cross-Border Policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, and a former policy adviser in the office of the commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, said DHS can't take possession of the wall just as it couldn't take donations to build it.
"If it's not built under the standards and construction requirements that [DHS] have built, and if it doesn't intersect with what [DHS] wants, they would probably tear it down and rebuild," Brown told BuzzFeed News. "They can't donate the wall any more than they can donate the money."
The group's claim, which it has used in its fundraising efforts, is concerning, she said.
"These guys are continuing to raise money off of this idea," Brown said. "To me, this is a political stunt."
Meanwhile, Kolfage and We Build The Wall have gone on the offensive, attacking the National Butterfly Center and accusing it, without evidence, of being complicit in sex trafficking — a familiar response by the group.
Kolfage has previously accused the IBWC, without evidence, of coordinating with human smugglers. On Saturday, he also attacked a local Catholic priest who spoke with Border Report, which first reported the location of the second wall.
“This sure is a special place. This is a sacred place. This should be respected and honored,” Father Roy Snipes said while viewing the property from an old motorboat on the Rio Grande. “I’m not an immigration specialist but I know we have got to treat people the same way we want to be treated."
On Facebook, Kolfage lashed out in response to his more than 500,000 followers.
“He is promoting human trafficking and abuse of women and children," he said of the priest. "Instead of driving around in expensive boats with media he should be helping to feed the record poor and homeless in his own community."
The boat, however, had been passed on to him from a fellow priest who had died.