McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The deputy secretary of defense and a high-ranking member of Congress toured the border wall and spoke with National Guard troops Monday, a day before a high-ranking DHS official is set to visit this region of the border.
Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist, second in command at the Pentagon, toured a section of border wall that is being built south of Donna, Texas, with U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican who is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, which holds the purse strings for border wall and infrastructure money.
Surrounded by National Guard troops inside a private hangar, Norquist said the trip is “to get a first-hand look at new border wall construction and other important border security operations in the Rio Grande Valley.”
“The ability of a nation to secure its border is vital to its sovereignty, security and safety. Put simply: Border security is national security,” Norquist told media during a news conference shortly after arriving at McAllen International Airport.
Department of Defense Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist is seen at a private hangar on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, after arriving at McAllen International Airport in McAllen, Texas, with U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas. Both toured the border wall near Donna, Texas, and met with National Guard troops, such as those shown above. All photos by Border Report’s Sandra Sanchez.
Norquist used to work for the Department of Homeland Security. He said DHS and the DOD work well, adding that both agencies have funded over 700 miles of border fencing. He thanked officials from the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection as they work to build a border wall and patrol the borderlands.
“From Day 1, President Trump has made securing the border a top priority for his administration. To this end, he directed the secretary of defense to support the Department of Homeland Security to secure the southern border,” Norquist said. “This is a team effort and you are doing a tremendous job.”
Norquist said there are currently 5,000 National Guard troops assisting DHS nationwide. He said the number and location of the troops fluctuate depending upon need and requests by DHS officials.
National Guard troops, however, perform very different border functions and do not make apprehensions. Norquist said he is here to talk with troops and gauge their morale and how they are assisting with ground operations.
“We attempt to learn from the troops. Are they getting the support they need? Are there other areas we can adjust?” Norquist said.
The entourage of vehicles carrying the high-ranking brass and Granger drove about 20 miles to see the border wall construction in progress south of the town of Donna. They were led around Monday by Lt. General Todd Semonite, commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of design and construction of the Southwest border wall.
Although construction began in early November on this segment of border wall, it has been slow-going. The area is restricted to the public, but Border Report was given a New Year’s Eve tour of the site, which is located in a desolate area of farmland and fields near the Donna International Bridge. Loud construction now emanates from what used to be quiet fields, which are now full of earth-moving and heavy equipment and pre-fabricated panels of border bollards that have a 5-foot anti-climb metal plate at the top.
Norquist said building at this spot “is some of the most challenging of the border wall part to do,” because the 18-foot-tall metal bollards must be posited on several feet of concrete that are built on an earthen levee that were built decades ago by the International Boundary and Water Commission for flood control.
The cost of building the border wall here averages about $26.5 million per mile, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Acting Commissioner Chad Wolf confirmed to media when he visited this site on Nov. 21.
Granger said she was on-hand Monday to report back to Congress how much money might be needed next fiscal year for border wall-related costs. This includes not only the fence but all-weather roads that are being built beside the border wall; floodlights; infrared cameras; underground technology sensors; and other security measures associated with what Border Patrol officials call the Border Infrastructure System.
“There’s been significant money used to build a wall and we’ll see what else is necessary as we start the appropriations season as soon as we get back,” Granger said to a question from Border Report.
Congress appropriated $1.4 billion in December and avoided a government shut down that was prompted by a standoff over border wall funding the year before. But the money is way short of what the Trump administration needs, and once again President Trump recently dipped into military funds to help make up the shortfall.
DOD leader defends taking of Pentagon funds for wall
Two weeks ago, Trump announced that the Pentagon was slashing $3.8 billion from its budget in order to transfer the funds to border wall projects throughout the Southwest. The money that is being taken was earmarked for two F-35 fighters sought by Granger, as well as funding for eight Reaper drones, four Air Force C-130 transport aircraft, two Marine V-22 Osprey helicopters, amphibious ships, National Guard equipment and Army trucks.
Norquist on Monday defended the action, saying money was taken from Pentagon projects that either had excess funds, or were pre-funded and were so far into the future that the projects did not need the money right away.
It’s unclear if the funding for the F-35s will be restored, however, because on their way to South Texas, Norquist said he and Granger stopped at an F-35 production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and he described it as “an amazing plant.”
DHS No. 2 coming to South Texas on Tuesday
On Tuesday, DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli is scheduled to fly into McAllen and also tour the region. He plans to hold an afternoon news conference with the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector Acting Chief Patrol Agent Austin Skero; Immigration and Customs Enforcement Executive Associate Director Henry Lucero; and CBP Director of Air and Marine Operations Rafael Cabrera, Border Patrol officials said.
Cuccinelli is expected to discuss new deportation agreements the Trump Administration has with Central American countries, as well as the new Public Charge Grounds Rule. This rule went into effect on Monday and disqualifies immigrants from getting green cards if they use government benefits, or have a past history of taking public benefits, like food stamps.
Border Report plans to cover Cuccinelli’s visit and will update with information.
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