The viral crowdfunding effort to build a wall on the southern border aimed at deterring immigrants from crossing illegally was only recently completed, but on Monday the newly installed wall suffered a major setback — a large gate built into the barrier was ordered opened by officials.
The controversial half-mile wall constructed along the US–Mexico border near Sunland Park, New Mexico, was erected earlier this month after organizers raised more than $23 million on GoFundMe, the online crowdfunding site. But We Build the Wall organizers failed to obtain the required authorization to build the barrier on federal land, cutting off access to waterways and a public monument.
"This is normally done well in advance of a construction project," said Lori Kuczmanski, a spokesperson for the International Boundary and Water Commission, the agency that addresses waterway issues between the US and Mexico. "They think they can build now and ask questions later, and that's not how it works."
In response, IBWC officials on Monday afternoon propped open a large gate installed in the wall. The gate, constructed on roughly 33 feet of federal property, had blocked officials from accessing a levee and dam, and cut off public access to a historic monument known as Monument One, the first in a series of obelisks that mark the US–Mexico border from El Paso to Tijuana.
On Tuesday evening, after publication of this story, IBWC announced the gate would would remain open "during business hours" and locked at night "due to security concerns." The IBWC will maintain "operational control" of when the gate is open or shut, a spokeswoman said.
In a statement, the agency said it "is continuing to work with We Build The Wall regarding its permit request."
Attorneys with the agency and We Build The Wall have been in contact daily to resolve the issues surrounding permits, the spokeswoman said.
The initial decision by the agency had prompted a series of angry tweets from We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage, who claimed that "Mexico just opened all gates" through IBWC for a "mass invasion."
Water agency officials, however, said We Build the Wall organizers went forward with construction of the fence without turning in the proper paperwork for the barrier.
"Their permit is still in the works," Kuczmanski said. "We're asking for documentation."
The decision marked the second time We Build the Wall organizers have been accused of moving hastily on construction of the border wall without first obtaining authorization from public officials.
In May, the city of Sunland Park issued a cease-and-desist order to the group stating that the proper permits had not been issued and that the wall's construction team had not submitted adequate plans to the city.
Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea told BuzzFeed News the city was caught off guard by the wall's construction, but that the city had limited resources to address the issue.
Kolfage, meanwhile, claimed on Twitter that the project was in compliance and that construction had intentionally started during a three-day weekend "when corrupt city was partying over the weekend" because the group had "planned for battle."
While Kolfage has touted the project as the "Cadillac of walls," BuzzFeed News recently observed dozens of people crossing the border into the US in search of Border Patrol agents to request asylum just a short distance from the wall. City officials and local residents, even those who supported a border wall, also told BuzzFeed News they were concerned the half-mile privately funded wall will only direct migrants to other parts of town, creating a new host of issues.
We Build the Wall has come under increased scrutiny since its viral online fundraiser, most recently prompting an investigation by the state of Florida, where the group is incorporated as a nonprofit.
“In response to consumer complaints, including those referred by the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has opened an investigation into this charity,” a Florida Department of Agriculture spokesperson told WLRN.
The group selected the section of the New Mexico border to build the wall because it was "the number one most important mile to close," said Steve Bannon, the former strategist for President Trump and advisory board chair for the project.
But in a statement, US Customs and Border Protection said the "project is not connected to our efforts," and that it had already prioritized building border barriers in locations that "will most impact border security operations." The site where North Dakota–based construction company Fisher Industries built the crowdfunded wall on private land was "not prioritized under current funding," the agency said.
Kuczmanski said the international agency had been made aware the wall was being built near federal property but was told the project would remain on private land. Then on June 2, We Build the Wall organizers submitted a letter and "a couple of drawings" requesting to build a gate across federal property.
"It was not a complete application packet," she said.
The next day, IBWC officials learned that We Build the Wall's construction crew had already poured a cement slab on federal property. The gate was immediately shut upon completion, Kuczmanski said, cutting off access for the agency, its security agents who patrol the area, and the public.
IBWC officials asked that the gate be left open and attorneys for the project said in response that "'it will be handled immediately,' but it was never opened," she said.
A representative from We Build the Wall did not immediately return BuzzFeed News' requests for comment.
"This is policy and procedure, and you don't just come into our property and build first," Kuczmanski said. "We're treating them the same we treat anybody else."
The agency also addressed allegations from Kolfage and his organization that IBWC had left other gates opened in order to facilitate a "mass invasion."
"T'he USIBWC is not charged with security other fences or gates as reported by We Build The Wall," the agency said. "The USIBWC did not open any other gates in the El Paso area as erroneously reported."