Elon Musk's SpaceX could disrupt construction of Trump's border wall with Mexico

Land intended to be home to commercial spaceport stands in way of US president's 'big, beautiful' wall

Ron Nixon
Washington
,Mitchell Ferman
Thursday 13 December 2018 17:03
Comments
SpaceX rocket carrying 64 small satellites lifts off from California in December 2018

Four years ago, Elon Musk, the brash, outspoken Silicon Valley entrepreneur, strolled into South Texas for the groundbreaking of a site for SpaceX, his private rocket company.

Joining Mr Musk was representative Filemon Vela, D-Texas, and Rick Perry, who was governor of Texas at the time and is now Donald Trump’s energy secretary.

On that windy September day, the trio smiled and dug shovels into a mound of dirt in front of a large sign reading: “Future home of SpaceX’s South Texas launchpad.”

The rural tract of land that was supposed to be home to a commercial spaceport now stands in the path of Mr Trump’s border wall.

Mr Musk is just one of the potentially hundreds of private landowners in Texas who would be disrupted by the president’s desire to build a “big, beautiful” wall.

The border wall was a signature campaign promise for Mr Trump, but Democrats oppose it.

Congress has said it would provide up to $1.6bn (£1.3bn) for border security this year, but Mr Trump wants $5bn (£4bn) for his wall alone — and is now threatening to shut down the government without it.

“The Democrats and President Obama gave Iran 150 Billion Dollars and got nothing, but they can’t give 5 Billion Dollars for National Security and a Wall?” Mr Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday.

He was referring — erroneously — to $100bn (£79bn) in frozen Iranian assets that were released as part of the nuclear deal with Tehran that the United States no longer follows.

Here is where things stand on Mr Trump’s proposed wall.

So how much of the wall is already being built?

A year ago, the Mr Trump administration unveiled wall prototypes at the border in San Diego in a $20m (£16m) showcase of imposing barriers stretching up to 30 feet high and made of steel bars, concrete slabs and metal spikes.

But construction still has not begun on a new wall — despite Mr Trump’s repeated promises to build it along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico, at an estimated cost of $25bn (£20bn).

In the 2018 fiscal year, Congress provided $1.6bn (£1.3bn) for border security, much of it to repair existing barriers. The Department of Homeland Security has already spent millions of dollars to replace fences in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Additionally, last year’s funding was to pay for 33 miles of a new wall in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, where 41 percent of all migrants apprehended on the southwestern border are stopped.

In November, Customs and Border Protection awarded two contracts for border wall construction there: $145m (£115m) for a six-mile levee system in the Border Patrol’s McAllen Station area, and $167m (£132m) for an 8-mile levee in the Rio Grande Valley sector.

Together, the two projects will mark the first brand-new section of wall to be built under the Trump administration. Construction is expected to begin in February.

Trump vows to 'close government' to build Mexico wall- August, 2017

Do good fences really make good neighbours?

The new wall in the Rio Grande Valley could potentially encroach on hundreds of landowners, farmers and companies near the border.

For example, the six miles of wall near the Texas border city of McAllen is slated to cut through a 100-acre butterfly refuge, blocking access to the wildlife sanctuary and, effectively, shutting it down.

And then there’s SpaceX. Its launch site is still under construction in Boca Chica Village, a small community wedged between the border town of Brownsville and the Gulf Coast.

In an email, James Gleeson, a SpaceX spokesman said Customs and Border Protection and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, recently asked to conduct a survey on the property.

“At this time, SpaceX is evaluating the request and is in communication with DHS to further understand their plans,” Mr Gleeson said.

How long would it take to build the rest of the wall?

First, Congress must approve the funding — and Mr Trump faces an uphill battle in getting it.

Most Democrats have questioned whether a wall will, in fact, stop migrants from illegally entering the United States. Even some Republicans doubt its utility. Representative Will Hurd, R-Texas, has called the wall the “most expensive and least effective way to secure the border”.

But even if Congress approves the amount Mr Trump wants, construction most likely will stall — perhaps indefinitely.

That’s because seizing property from landowners is a legally tricky process that can take years.

Most of the land along the border where Mr Trump wants to build the wall is in Texas, and is privately owned — as Kevin K McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, confirmed to senators on Tuesday.

And landowners who oppose the wall, and may not take kindly to seeing their property appropriated, are likely to try to block it in court.

Legal challenges by landowners who objected when the administration of President George W Bush tried to build a border wall in South Texas in 2008 have dragged on for more than a decade. There are still 82 cases pending from that time, according to Efrén Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project in Alamo, Texas, who is representing several landowners.

The New York Times

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