Tommy Fisher heard that there was a need for a wall and he made a three-mile fence along the Rio Grande. He currently needs someone to buy it back, according to Bloomberg.
Fisher is 51 years old with a husky build and a gentle voice.
Across the river, near the city of Reynosa, which has lately been wracked by unusually intense cartel violence, is a park with wooden docks and straw-roofed gazebos. Beyond the park, according to Fisher, is at least one cartel stash house, where drugs or people are stowed before being smuggled to America.
There are two private-sector border walls attempting to separate Mexico from the U.S., and Fisher Sand & Gravel Co.has built them both. The first, erected in the summer of 2019, is nestled in a mountainous half-mile stretch of New Mexico. The second—this one—is more ambitious. Completed last year, it’s about a 90-minute drive from the Gulf of Mexico, under the low, heavy skies of South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. The structure is 3 miles long, hugging a severe bend in the river, and consists of roughly 15,000 18-foot-tall gray steel bollards, spaced 5 inches apart and set in a wide concrete foundation.
Republicans have pounced, crowing that Biden is pulling the plug on wall-building at exactly the wrong time. And Fisher would argue he’s pulling the plug in the wrong place. The Rio Grande Valley, where his 3-mile wall sits, is by far the most highly trafficked of the nine Southwest sectors policed by CBP. Of the 79,519 unaccompanied minors the Border Patrol apprehended in the first six months of this year, 40,507 entered via the valley, up from about 3,800 in the first half of 2020.
With the We Build the Wall trial looming, Fisher’s critics still tend to associate his fence with the group. “I think it was some racist front scheme,” says Ricky Garza, a McAllen-based attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents landowners in border disputes with the government. Ryan Patrick, the now former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas who led the IBWC case, has publicly described Fisher’s wall as a “scam,” a “vanity project,” and “beyond vaporware.”
From this point of view, Fisher appears to have erected two small walls nobody asked for while leveraging his connection with Bannon & Co. to build a lavish, taxpayer-funded political dog whistle.
As he angled for wall contracts, Fisher quickly encountered the vagaries of the federal contracting process. A prototype he built in 2017 was rejected by the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initially denied his bid to compete for the contracts at all. But the cable news exposure helped him draw the attention of We Build the Wall (WBTW), a nonprofit founded by Brian Kolfage, an Iraq War veteran and triple amputee, and co-led by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
The group, which sought to crowdfund border security, attracted a mix of true believers and attention hounds, among them immigration hawk Kris Kobach, who served as its general counsel, and former baseball player Curt Schilling, who sat on its board. Blocked from erecting Trump’s official wall, Fisher became the in-house builder for the ersatz private version.
WBTW sent Fisher an initial payment of $1.5 million, for what he says ended up being a $30 million job. Fisher ordered a bunch of steel and started clearing vegetation. However, the project was soon overshadowed by the group’s antics. WBTW deployed a kind of human mascot known as Foreman Mike to patrol the site in a hard hat and scout for immigrants, while Kolfage sent out increasingly aggressive tweets about the National Butterfly Center, a nearby wildlife preserve whose executive director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, vocally opposed border wall construction. Kolfage called the center a “big business” that “openly supports illegal immigration and sex trafficking of women and children.”
Eventually, Fisher got the sense that Bannon’s gang wasn’t necessarily committed to another wall. After he called WBTW for another payment and it never came, he kicked Foreman Mike off the site, parted ways with the organization, and started funding the project with company money. Several months later, in August 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York indicted Bannon, Kolfage, and two other WBTW figures for allegedly enriching themselveswith money Kolfage had assured donors—mostly ordinary cable-news-watching types—would go to wall construction. Before Trump left office, he issued a preemptive pardon that appears to have shielded Bannon from prosecution, rendering his not-guilty plea moot. Kolfage and the other co-defendants, who also pleaded not guilty, are set to go to trial in November.
Fisher was later sued by the National Butterfly Center, which claimed that his wall could divert water and debris onto its land if a flood were to ever occur. He was also sued by an obscure government agency, the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which argued diverted water could end up displacing the U.S.-Mexico borderline.
Fisher contested the suits, confident that when construction was complete, the U.S. government would want to buy what he was calling the “Lamborghini” of walls. The bureaucrats may have sniffed at his earlier building proposals, but his peacocking for the White House was starting to pay off.
In the last year of Trump’s term, even as federal prosecutors were hovering around WBTW, Fisher Sand & Gravel was awarded $2.5 billion to build 135 miles’ worth of federal wall sections near Yuma and Nogales in Arizona and El Paso and Laredo in Texas.
Then Joe Biden was elected president, and the odds that America would buy an unsanctioned border wall associated with an allegedly criminal enterprise helmed by Steve Bannon dropped significantly. Once in office, Biden halted construction of Trump’s wall, too, freezing the eleventh-hour building frenzy that had taken place in the runup to Inauguration Day. Fisher’s private 3-mile wall seemed destined to live on as a monument to the opportunism of the Trump era.
Nevertheless, Fisher is still eager to promote the wall simply because the border crisis is not going away anytime soon.
In June, Fisher was handed a potential lifeline when Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that the state was getting into the wall-building business. Whether or not the state hires Fisher or builds anything at all, at least one element of its operation will be familiar: In the week following Abbott’s announcement, Texas raised $459,000 from private donors.