WASHINGTON • The US Department of Homeland Security has taken the first major step towards building a barrier on the border with Mexico, a key campaign promise of President Donald Trump, as officials announced that they had awarded contracts to build several prototypes of a concrete wall.
Four companies will build the prototypes in the San Diego area, said officials at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency within the department. The companies will each have 30 days to complete the projects after the agency gives them the order to proceed.
"The border wall prototypes and designs will complement other tools we employ to secure our borders," said Mr Ronald Vitiello, the acting deputy commissioner of the agency.
He said the prototypes would be about 9m high and the contracts were between US$400,000 and US$500,000 (S$542,000 and S$677,000) each. The department has reallocated US$20 million from other programmes to pay for the prototypes and related costs.
Homeland Security officials said the prototypes would be added to existing walls in the San Diego area and would allow the agency to evaluate which barriers are most effective in giving Border Patrol agents time to respond to reports of illegal drugs and human smuggling.
The awarding of the contracts for a border wall comes as the government assesses the damage from Hurricane Harvey, which has devastated parts of Texas. Some congressional critics have accused the administration and its Republican allies of proposing to cut billions in funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead department for disaster recovery, to pay for a border wall.
An array of Democrats and other critics have called the wall unnecessary.
"It's hard to understand the strategic value of this wall in terms of protecting US citizens and illegal activity," said Ms Laura Peterson, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, who was on the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "CBP didn't seem to need it before Trump's executive order."
Mr Trump has asked Congress to allocate US$1.6 billion this year to build a wall along the roughly 3,000km border with Mexico.
A mix of barriers - from chain- link fences and steel walling to steel beams that stop vehicles - now stretch across more than 1,000km of the border. Congress has provided US$341 million this year to repair and bolster existing barriers.