Texas Awards Biggest Border Wall Contract Yet to Trump-Tied Firm
Texas has handed out the biggest contract yet for its border wall project to a construction firm run by Tommy Fisher, arguably the most notorious border wall builder during the era of former President Donald Trump. Fisher waged a political influence campaign that won over the president and secured more than $2 billion in federal border wall contracts.
Fisher and his company, Fisher Sand & Gravel, also drew national attention for constructing a private border fence in South Texas that was part of a fraudulent crowdfunding scheme called We Build the Wall. The 3-mile steel fence that Fisher built prompted federal lawsuits and is reportedly at risk of collapsing into the Rio Grande.
At a Texas Facilities Commission meeting Wednesday, commissioners unanimously approved a $224 million contract with Fisher Sand & Gravel to build just over 9 miles of wall along the border in Webb County—a cost of $24 million per mile. Contract records indicate that the planned wall segment will stretch south from the outskirts of Laredo through the small border towns of El Cenizo and El Bravo.
This is the fourth and largest contract that the agency has awarded to construction firms since Governor Greg Abbott’s border wall project began in 2021. Abbott put the Facilities Commission, a small agency in charge of construction and maintenance of government facilities, in charge of this massive infrastructure project. The agency has in turn hired a slew of project consultants and contractors to carry it out. But progress on the wall has been slow as the state must negotiate voluntary agreements with landowners along the proposed border paths; so far Texas has completed less than 2 miles of new wall on a stretch of state-owned land in Starr County. Officials have said they expect the pace of construction to quicken this year.
“More border wall is going up next month. It took months to negotiate with private property owners on the border for the right to build on their property,” Abbott tweeted last month. “We now should be building more border wall all of next year.”
The state’s latest wall builder played a central role in the saga of Trump’s “big beautiful” border wall, using political influence to overcome initial concerns about the company’s qualifications.
The Army Corps of Engineers had initially rejected his company’s bid to become a preapproved wall contractor, citing the firm’s limited track record and missed deadlines on past contracts. But its fortunes eventually changed as Tommy Fisher started going on Fox News to make a direct pitch to Trump and tout his claims that his company could build the wall faster and more cheaply than anyone else. U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota (Fisher’s home state) aggressively advocated for Fisher and railed against the Army Corps’ contracting process. Trump soon became a personal fan of Fisher.
Fisher was also tapped around this time to build private border fencing for a nonprofit called We Build the Wall that was launched by right-wing allies of Trump. Those at the helm of the group, including Steve Bannon, have since been charged with fraud after allegedly siphoning millions in donor funds from the nonprofit. Fisher Sand & Gravel was not implicated. Tommy Fisher said in 2020 that the group cut ties with his company after only contributing $1.5 million to the wall project.
In 2020, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an extensive investigation that found Fisher’s private wall, right on the bank of the Rio Grande, was unsoundly built and at significant risk of falling into the river due to soil erosion. Those findings were confirmed by a federal engineering report, though the company has repeatedly contested the findings. Fisher was also sued by the federal government, which sued to bring the private wall down because of possible violations of the United States’ water treaty with Mexico. Ryan Patrick, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas and the son of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, led the fed’s lawsuit and has called Fisher’s wall a “vanity project” and “scam.” “The whole thing was stupid,” he recently told the New York Times. “The erosion began almost immediately. I would not be happy if I lived in the vicinity of this thing.”
Earlier this year, the company reached a settlement allowing the wall to stand but requiring Fisher to conduct regular inspections, install a floodgate, and take out a bond in case of property damage. Fisher spent $30 million to build his private wall in Texas, reportedly 20 times the original estimated cost, and has since tried to get someone to buy it.
Fisher’s affiliation with We Build the Wall helped his company go on to win over $2 billion in federal border wall contracts. One award prompted allegations of political cronyism and the Department of Defense to launch an investigation into whether the Trump administration had inappropriately steered the bids to Fisher. Investigators eventually found that the process was above board, but said that they were unable to get key testimony from Trump administration officials.
When Trump lost reelection, the Biden administration halted border wall construction and eventually canceled existing contracts, including one that Fisher had won to build several miles of wall in Laredo and surrounding Webb County.
With federal wall money dried up, Tommy Fisher pinned his hopes on Texas as Abbott announced plans for the state to pick up where Trump left off. As the Texas Facilities Commission prepared to put out a call for construction firm bids in 2021, Fisher Sand & Gravel hired a team of lobbyists that included Trump’s former U.S. Customs and Border Protection chief Mark Morgan and former ICE Director Tom Homan, hoping they’d have sway with Abbott, Bloomberg reported at the time. Fisher also told the right-wing Center for Immigration Studies in 2021 that Abbott should use his emergency powers to skirt the state’s contracting procedures and empower the private sector to build the wall.
“If they go into regular procurement, it’ll never get done. It takes frickin’ forever in Texas. It’s one of the slowest places in the country, outside of the East Coast,” Fisher said. “There’s only one way; they have to enter some kind of public-private partnership.”
That didn’t happen. But Fisher still had success through the state’s traditional procurement system. In October, Texas announced that Fisher and four other companies had made the short list of qualified contractors to build the state’s border wall. All five had worked on Trump’s border wall.
The Facilities Commission has now awarded contracts to four construction companies, including Fisher’s. Together, the contracts are worth nearly $700 million for 31 miles of planned wall segments in Starr, Cameron, and Webb counties and near Del Rio in Val Verde County.
Unlike the feds, Texas is not using eminent domain powers to seize private property for the wall and has faced significant delays as it tries to acquire rights from Texans who own land along the state’s targeted paths. Several landowners sued the federal government for condemning their property for Trump’s wall, which, along with the complex land deed records along the Texas borderlands, significantly delayed construction and resulted in contracting boondoggles. The state’s process of voluntary acquisition has so far proven to be similarly arduous, though officials said they expect the pace of construction to pick up this year.
“Our biggest obstacle is negotiations with landowners. We are dealing with thousands of landowners,” Facilities Commission Chair Steven Alvis said at the meeting. “It is a maze that I just have never anticipated. … It took us months and months to get us to this point now.”
“I believe we have about every landman available in South Texas working on this project. If I could find some more, I’d do it,” Alvis said. The agency said that it has identified about 550 parcels that are in the path of its planned wall segments and is in the process of securing easements with about 240 landowners.
The Texas Facilities Commission quietly announced in late December that the contractor Posillico Civil, which built the current state wall in Starr County, had shifted crews to begin construction in Cameron County. As the Texas Observer first reported last November, state records show that the commission has secured easements from property owners in a rural stretch along the border near Los Indios.
Rick Cavazos, a former Border Patrol agent and city councilor for the town, confirmed that construction began there right before Christmas and that crews had so far raised two panels of steel wall. This marks the first segment of state-funded wall built on private property in Texas. The Facilities Commission has kept a tight lid on the exact locations of its planned construction and negotiations with landowners, claiming that the release of certain records would slow down progress and increase costs for the project.
In 2021, the Texas Legislature appropriated about $1 billion for Abbott’s border wall project, and the Facilities Commission has said that it will use those funds to build roughly 45 miles of wall by the end of 2024. At the Wednesday meeting, commission officials indicated that they expect lawmakers to provide even more funding in the coming session as construction plans expand.
Abbott has previously said that the state has tagged 730 miles along the border for potential wall construction. At the current rate of spending, a project of that scope would cost over $16 billion and likely take several years to complete.
While Fisher Sand & Gravel’s contract was promptly approved by the commission, one member did raise concerns about the exorbitant cost and slow progress of the state’s wall project. Commissioner William Allensworth, an Abbott appointee, pointed to a barrier that Poland built along its border with Belarus to stop migrants. He cited news stories about how the country built an 18-foot high steel barrier 115 miles long that was finished within six months and cost just $400 million.
“Help me out on why our costs are 10 times as much per mile to go through South Texas,” Allensworth said.
“Not all walls are created equal,” agency Executive Director Mike Novack replied. Abbott’s directive requires the state to follow the same costly specifications as Trump’s border wall, including 30-foot-high steel bollard panels and concrete foundations up to 12 feet deep.