BY MARIA RECIO
WASHINGTON — The Rio Grande Valley is emerging as a high priority for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, according to a top official of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Acting Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitiello said at a briefing this week that the agency would proceed with four to eight prototypes of the border wall by the end of this summer.
“The Rio Grande Valley has been an area of exploitation and an area lacking in border infrastructure,” he said.
He noted that with funding for the current fiscal year, the CBP was looking at “installing 35 new gates in the Rio Grande Valley, gates that will cover current gaps in the infrastructure that’s there now.”
The CBP has set aside $20 million in current funding to finance the prototype construction for walls that would be 30-feet high and go extend six feet into the ground to prevent tunneling.
The implementation of Trump’s signature issue of building a wall on the southern border started earlier this year with the president’s executive order and requests for bids for two types of walls, concrete or of some “other” material by the Department of Homeland Security. CPB is part of DHS.
In funding for fiscal 2018, which Congress must still approve, the agency has determined that in the Rio Grande Valley it will build 28 miles of new levee wall as well as 32 new miles of border wall.
Vitiello said that the agency had made an assessment of the border in determining that RGV would have priority.
“I have talked about Rio Grande Valley as being one of the busiest and active areas on the border; so we’ve looked at those things that agents face while they’re enforcing the law at the border, how many arrests are they making, what are the kinds of people they’re encountering, what is the drug smuggling situation?” he said.
“So we’ve looked at all that activity output, and then on the last end, we’re going to look at, and we have looked at, what is feasible from an engineering and design prospective as it relates to the terrain,” said Vitiello.
As for the criticism that a wall was ill-conceived in such places as Big Bend, Vitiello confirmed what DHS Secretary John Kelly has said, that there will not be a wall from “sea to shining sea.” CBP has ruled out fencing or barriers for about 130 miles of the border because of geographic formations.
“We know there are places like Big Bend where there are these deep river canyons along the border, where fencing is just not practical, it’s not necessary. The natural barrier already slows people down as they’re trying to cross the border in that space,” he said.
Vitiello also mentioned Del Rio and Lake Amistad, where a human-made lake is on both sides of the border. “Fencing is not practical nor necessary in a place like that,” said Vitiello. “So we’ve ruled out those kind of obvious commonsense places.”
Asked about Trump’s recent comments that having solar panels on the wall would be a good way to have the project paid for, Vitiello said he was not aware of any discussion between the agency and the White House on using solar panels.
Some bidders included the solar panel concept in their proposals. “So some of these companies went and put their stuff on their own sites and put them in the news, and so we are aware that there are people out there that were thinking that a wall that had solar panels on it was something that somebody out there was thinking about,” he said.
Vitiello said that the CBP had not completed the selection of the small group of bidders who would build the wall prototypes in San Diego.