Tommy Fisher will be turning fifty this week, and on Thursday he got the birthday present he wanted: the green light to finish building a wall along the banks of the Rio Grande in South Texas. Once the three-mile border wall is finished, he plans to sell it to the Trump administration—despite the government’s formal objections to his project and its plans to build a wall two miles away.
In McAllen on Thursday, the president and CEO of Fisher Industries won twin victories in court. Federal district court judge Randy Crane declined to permanently block construction of the wall near Mission, the latest development in a lawsuit brought against Fisher by the federal government. Crane ruled that that the government had failed to prove that the project would violate an international treaty with Mexico by worsening flooding. “It’s highly speculative that any injury would occur,” he said in announcing his decision from the bench. The judge also refused to issue a temporary restraining order at the request of the National Butterfly Center, whose land abuts the property upon which Fisher is building.
Immediately after the hearing, Fisher declared that he would resume wall construction on Sunday. With much of the prep work on the site completed, he said he would start erecting eighteen-foot-tall steel bollards in a trench he’s already dug, then pour concrete. “I believe we’ll put up three miles of border security fence in eight days,” he declared as he left the court.
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Fisher’s efforts are an audacious mix of performance art and business venture seemingly tailor-made for the Trump era.
In court and during a tour of the construction site that he gave Texas Monthly this week, Fisher revealed even more about his plans. Just a month after landing a $400 million government contract for 31 miles of fence in Arizona, Fisher says he’s mostly self-funding the $42 million project in the Rio Grande Valley. He’s gambling that he can then flip the wall, selling it to the Trump administration even though it doesn’t meet federal specifications and the feds have already awarded a contract to build another wall a couple of miles north.
Fisher’s grand designs don’t stop there. He believes that once the Trump administration sees how quickly he works—he claims to be able to deliver walls at half the cost and ten times the speed as others—it will hire him to scale up his model along much more of the Texas-Mexico border. He claims to have near agreements with as many as fifty landowners in South Texas.
“It’s like if you rode horses, and all of a sudden I said, ‘I know everyone has a horse and carriage, but I have a Lamborghini, and there’s gonna be this concrete road, and we can do two hundred miles an hour, not ten,’” Fisher said. “If no one’s ever seen it, no one believes you. So it’s our chance to really show people what we can do.”
During testimony this week, Fisher said North Dakota-based Fisher Industries makes an average of $700 million in annual revenue. The company has emerged as the most prominent and controversial of the contractors seeking some of the nearly $4 billion Congress has appropriated for wall construction under Trump.
The Pentagon’s inspector general announced last month that it is investigating how Fisher secured the $400 million contract in Arizona. The Washington Post reported last May that Trump has repeatedly pushed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to award Fisher Industries contracts. Fisher didn’t deny that Trump might have had some influence. “I don’t know President Trump,” Fisher told me. “If he’s seen some of our demonstrations through other senators or Congress, maybe he could say, ‘Hey, these guys claim they can do a mile a day. I want the border secured.’”
Fisher Industries—which has paid more than $400,000 in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency as well as a $1.7 million penalty to the IRS—has also drawn fire for its affiliation with a crowdfunding group called We Build the Wall Inc., which has claimed on social media that it raised $25 million for the project and hired Fisher Industries as its contractor. Fisher said this week that the nonprofit was only a “small investor,” chipping in just $1.5 million.
During sometimes combative testimony with government attorneys, Fisher distanced his company from We Build the Wall, but he admitted in court that he is open to working in the future with the group, whose board includes former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
The Trump administration had been seeking a permanent injunction on behalf of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which said the company had not followed protocol dictated by a 1970 treaty with Mexico to secure permission to build in the floodplain adjacent to the Rio Grande. In separate action, the National Butterfly Center filed its own lawsuit seeking a restraining order and claiming that as a neighbor to the property where the wall is being built, its land would be harmed by erosion caused by the wall.
Fisher says that his wall, located just 35 feet from the edge of the river during normal flow, can withstand major floods and erosion. “No one can outthink God,” he said. “But in the end, we can do a lot with current technology and construction ability to stop the meandering of the river.”
His biggest selling point to his potential customer—the Department of Homeland Security—is that his fence is providing security right at the border. He is regrading the banks of the Rio Grande and clearing it of the invasive carrizo cane that can hide immigrants or drug smugglers. He is also installing fiber optics and ground sensors, as well as an all-weather concrete road for the Border Patrol. His wall, he said, is superior to the one planned for two miles away alongside flood-control levees owned by the federal government.
“I talked to a few of the Border Patrol agents, and I asked them if they could have anything that they would wish for,” Fisher told me. “They said, ‘border security on the border.’”