A massive online campaign that raised over $20 million in a matter of weeks in the hopes of providing Congress with the money to build a border wall is abruptly ending that effort, Intelligencer has learned.
Instead, with Democrats in control of Congress and unlikely to appropriate even gifted money toward a border wall, the organizers behind We the People Will Fund the Wall are preparing to embark on a new effort to raise even more funds to buy land on the southern border and construct the border barrier without help from the government.
“As we have progressed further into this and seeing politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer say they were not going to give a dime for border security, we came to the conclusion that we could do a better job of building the wall ourselves,” said Brian Kolfage, a triple-amputee Iraq War veteran who began the GoFundMe account that became viral sensation over the course of the last several weeks. “We are better-equipped, and we can build walls faster, sooner, and better than the government.”
According to Kolfage, the group has been in touch with landowners in Texas about leasing or buying land along the southern border, and has enlisted a team of architects and engineers to begin the design process. The new effort will register as a 501(c)(4), a social welfare advocacy nonprofit, and it has attracted a who’s who of some of the loudest anti-immigrant voices on the far right. Some of the names on the board of directors of the new organization include former Kansas secretary of State Kris Kobach, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, former Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, and former congressman Tom Tancredo.
Because the purpose of the original fundraising effort has shifted, organizers will be emailing each of the 330,000 donors to the original GoFundMe and asking them to opt-in to the new plan. If they decide not to opt-in, their money will be refunded.
“Our ultimate goal is just to protect the American people and we are going to do it one mile at a time, and if that means we build the whole dang wall before the government can get involved, then we will build the whole dang wall,” Kolfage said. “It’s a national security question. We need to encourage the right people to come in. Open borders just don’t work. A wall would force people to come through the front door.”
The success of the original wall effort stunned political observers, raising $13 million in just four days, thanks in part to its promotion from Fox News hosts like Laura Ingraham, even as it elicited snickers on the left for raising a mere fraction of what Trump says is necessary to build a wall along the border.
As donations soared, the 37-year-old Kolfage came under scrutiny; he has founded a number of fringe right-wing news sites that have trafficked in conspiracy theories and misleading information, which were eventually kicked off of Facebook. BuzzFeed News reported yesterday that Kolfage once set up a GoFundMe to serve as a mentor for wounded veterans like himself, but ended up pocketing the more than $16,000 raised. Kolfage said the mentoring program received several awards from veterans groups, and that all the money went to his travel and expenses, which are costly because of his disability. He added that he would be taking no salary for this latest effort.
According to Dustin Stockton, a conservative political operative and spokesman for the group, construction is set to begin later this year, and they expect that it will cost between $5–10 million per mile. Feasibility studies are already underway, he said, about where a barrier would be most useful.
Kolfage announced the initial project by asking all of the 63 million people who voted for Trump to donate $80. After several days of positive news coverage from the right-wing media, the hashtag #GoFundTheWall was trending nationally on Twitter. The project was abandoned when Democrats took control of the House, since organizers behind the effort say Nancy Pelosi could not be trusted to fund the wall even if the money was donated to the government explicitly for that purpose.
Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater USA and a board member of Fund the Wall, compared this effort to how much of the Western United States was settled by private rail, telegraph, and security companies.
“This is the way for lots of Americans of good will and vision and innovation and capital to see that their country is protected,” he said. “And the private sector building it will cost a fraction of what it costs the federal government.”
Experts are skeptical that a DIY wall-building plan would have much of an effect, pointing out that, if anything, it would make the project more expensive, since the government wouldn’t be able to use eminent domain to seize land.
“If somebody wants to buy land and build a wall, more power to them I guess,” said David J. D’Angelo, the director of field research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an expert on border security. “It would have zero impact on the real political issues at play. But it’s a free country. For now.”