A Man and His Wall
Bloomberg Businessweek|July 26, 2021
When Donald Trump called for a big, beautiful wall, a guy from North Dakota named Tommy Fisher spent millions to build a 3-mile stretch along the Rio Grande. All Fisher needs now is for someone to buy it back
By Simon V.Z. Wood

To get to Tommy Fisher’s private border wall in Texas, I drive south from the city of McAllen, then west on Military Road, past a chunk of redundant, abandoned federal border wall, and from there onto a dirt path through a sugar cane farm down to the Rio Grande. When I arrive, Fisher is waiting, wearing a Western-style plaid shirt, wraparound sunglasses, and a mesh baseball cap featuring his company’s logo. He’s 51 years old, with an ursine build and a disarmingly gentle voice.

By trade a builder of more prosaic infrastructure, such as dams and freeways, Fisher greets me by launching into a baffling sermon on his wall’s technical specifications. Mostly what I perceive is that we’re at its very edge, meaning we could theoretically walk around it and swim 100 yards to Mexico. 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. As I poke around, Fisher says, “Make yourself at home.”

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. (In this sense it’s more like a fence, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll mainly call it a wall.) Up close, one can easily see between the bollards. From a distance they appear to be a contiguous, glinting slab of sheet metal.

Fisher continues pummeling me with information about his creation—“galvanized steel,” “modified spread footing”— sounding like a proud parent, or maybe an anxious student, at a science fair. “If I only did 1,000 or 2,000 feet, everyone’s going to make fun,” he says. “No one can really make fun of this.”

He’s also invited Scott Hennen, a conservative radio host from his home state of North Dakota, to cover this late-March visit. Hennen is broadcasting live from a booth Fisher ordinarily uses to monitor security footage. It’s a couple of miles away, so we drive over to meet him. An entourage of Fisher’s contractors joins us for the tour.

Although Hennen’s state borders Canada, not Mexico, his callers are eager to discuss the surge of Central American migration that’s occurred early in the Biden era. Three days earlier, former Trump adviser Stephen Miller joined Hennen for an hourlong segment on the issue. Wearing a headset, wiry and in his mid-50s, Hennen walks in and out of the booth, monologuing. “We’re gonna talk to Tommy Fisher, who is North Dakota-born-and-bred, which is why he was able to build 3 miles of wall in 30 days,” he says. He reads a text message from a listener about the specter of Covidpositive migrants and runs with the point, complaining that they’re being beckoned into the country while idiotic but basically innocent American spring breakers are demonized for partying.

Fisher stands awkwardly outside the booth, hands in pockets. He’s conservative, too, but Midwest-nice about it and not prone to rants. Eventually, Hennen turns to him. “We are looking at a project that you did, on your own dime,” he says. “Why did you do this?”

For ages, Fisher has dreamed of building an epic piece of infrastructure. A decade ago, Nevada hired him to construct what’s apparently the longest cathedral arch bridge in the world, but it didn’t make him a household name. When Donald Trump ran for president, promising to wall offthe entire 1,954-mile southern border, Fisher sensed an opportunity. “I was like, ‘This would be really fun. This would be a project that would be remembered, like the Hoover Dam,’ ” he says. “Today the Hoover Dam is the cheapest electricity you can find in the U.S.—anywhere. And, you know, they took a lot of heat, too.”

In the first few years after the 2016 election, Fisher spent more than $100,000 on lobbying in Washington and mounted a media blitz, claiming on Newsmax and Fox News that his company could build a wall faster and cheaper than anyone else, thanks to vertical integration that included doing its own land excavation and cement mixing. Fisher Sand & Gravel’s history with the government wasn’t pristine. In 2009 one of Fisher’s brothers had been sentenced to 37 months in prison for filing doctored tax returns on behalf of himself and the company, which paid $1.1 million to the IRS as part of a plea agreement. Separately, the company has racked up close to $1 million in fines for environmental, labor, and safety violations.

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.

In the spring of 2019, WBTW paid him $6.9 million to build its first barrier, the half-mile in New Mexico. Fisher used the gig to show off proprietary construction techniques, which he promoted with a drone-camera-filmed sizzle reel. By late 2019 he’d reached an agreement with a farmer named Lance Neuhaus to buy a 45-acre strip of riverfront land near McAllen, on which he would build a second WBTW-funded structure. Partly, Neuhaus says, he sold because Fisher offered him a good price. He also thought the structure might stem what he says was a daily flow of migrants onto his farm. The wall would be built closer to the Rio Grande than any existing federal barrier.

WBTW sent Fisher an initial payment of $1.5 million, for what he says ended up being a $30 million job. He ordered a bunch of steel and started clearing vegetation. But 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.” (Treviño-Wright, for her part, says she considers WBTW a “Cambridge Analyticastyle psy-op.” She has also filed suit against Kolfage for defamation. His lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

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 themselves with 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 wasn’t implicated—he was just building a wall. But that caused trouble of its own. For one, he was sued by the National Butterfly Center, which argued his wall could end up diverting water and debris onto its land in the event of a flood. And as if the notion of a border wall drowning butterflies weren’t bad enough, 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. According to the Washington Post, Trump and his adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had begun urging the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to give wall contracts to the guy they recognized from Fox News. 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. (Following a request by a Democratic congressman, the U.S. Department of Defense is conducting an audit to determine whether one of the contract awards was politically motivated; in a statement, the Army Corps of Engineers said it goes to “great lengths to ensure the integrity of our contracting process.”)

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 nativism, opportunism, and general half- assery of the Trump era.

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