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Bannon boosts 'private' border wall at Sahuarita event

Billed as a town hall, Friday's pro-border wall event in a gated community near Tucson featuring former Trump strategist Steve Bannon was every bit as much a pep rally and fundraiser — and maybe part dry run for promoting one veteran's vision to erect a border wall on private land with private money.

Although announced as a Tucson town hall, the event was neither a town hall, nor in Tucson. Rather the event was 20 miles south in Sahuarita, and closed to the general public.

While Congress continues to negotiate over spending billions on border security, including President Trump's long-promised border wall, some residents of the luxury retirement community and their guests gathered to hear from a new group that wants to raise millions to build walls along the southern border.

The group, We Build the Wall, wants to crowdfund border-security efforts, by raising millions of dollars in private money to match the efforts of the Trump administration. But even after a 90-minute presentation Friday by seven members of the group's board, the plan remained short on details, including how many miles of border wall they hope to build, how they would secure the land needed for construction, and how their wall would thwart "very adaptable" members of the complex and interwoven cartels that generate millions of dollars by moving people and drugs through the borderlands.

'MAGA original gangsters'

The event included former Trump advisors Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach; former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo; Brandon Darby, a journalist for Breitbart; and Brian Kolfage, a triple-amputee Iraq War veteran who began a GoFundMe campaign with the aim of raising $1 billion to fund a border wall.

Bannon called himself and Kobach and Kolfage, "MAGA original gangsters" and said that President Trump was "man of action" and predicted that the White House resident would use his emergency powers to begin building a wall on the southern border using the U.S. military.

Bannon has often framed immigration as a war between cultures, referencing a 1971 French novel, "The Camp of the Saints," that describes the destruction of France through mass immigration, as a wave of people from India murder their way through the country. During a 2011 radio show, Bannon called the progressive movement, "almost a Camp of the Saints situation." 

Bannon has long relationships with far-right figures like Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France, which believes that Islam is invading the West. In 2018, he told members of the French far-right to wear charges of racism "as a badge of honor," CBS News reported

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"Our populist nationalist movement in the United States is maybe 10 or 15 years old," Bannon said. "We are here to learn from you." 

Along with Bannon, Tancredo, and Kolfage, the event also included two Mesa-area residents who have become major supporters of Trump and the wall after their sons died in two separate incidents linked to immigrants in the country illegally.

Mary Ann Mendoza became involved in the group "Angel Families" after her son, Sgt. Brian Mendoza, 32, was severely injured and later died, after a drunk driver crashed into his patrol car in 2014.

Steve Ronnebeck became an "angel dad" after his 21-year-old son, Grant Ronnebeck, was shot and killed by a man facing deportation proceedings at a Mesa QuickTrip in 2016.

Mendoza became linked to Trump during his 2016 campaign, and later she and Ronnebeck met with the president after he signed two executive orders on building the border wall and immigration enforcement in 2017, ABC15 reported.

Ronnebeck also became heavily involved in the 2018 Republican primary for Arizona's open Senate seat, originally supporting Kelli Ward before switching to support former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

We Build the Wall began Dec. 16, when Kolfage, a former Tucson resident, launched a GoFundMe campaign from his Florida home. Kolfage raised $20 million in less than a month and drew national attention.

Bannon jumped aboard with other notable figures, including Kobach and Tancredo, both high-profile immigration hard-liners; baseball player Curt Schilling; former Sheriff David Clarke of Wisconsin; and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, among others.

But while the town hall had a lot of star power — even with Schilling as a last-minute no-show — it lacked specifics and, early on, there appeared to be some crossed wires.

Ronnebeck, who serves on the board, said they have received four $1 million donations. Bannon, whose association with the group has been public less than a week, said there are potential big donors but nothing close to what Ronnebeck quoted, and nobody has written a check yet. The average donation is about $90, he said, adding "it's a grass-roots effort."

Ronnebeck said he isn't sure if the group has nonprofit status or whether the money would go for anything other than a wall; according to Bannon and the group's website, it is a 501(c)4, which affords it tax-exempt status as a social welfare organization. Unlike donations to 501(c)3 charities, donations to such groups are not tax-deductible. Bannon said the money is solely going toward building a wall, including securing land.

The group says it is looking at two pieces of property for the first section of wall but won't say where they are because they're still negotiating and fear opposition groups could disrupt the process.

Bannon said he has known Kolfage a long time and was approached to offer advice to the group.

'Town hall' closed to public

Despite organizer's initial plans, only residents of Quail Creek, a "luxury retirement community" made of 5,000 houses about 20 miles south of Tucson (and still some 40 miles north of the border with Mexico), could come to the event, along with their guests and members of the media.

Outside, security guards for the 55-plus neighborhood checked vehicles at the gatehouse, and turned away anyone who wasn't on a list.

The event was originally planned as a quiet dinner with about 25 potential supporters of We Build the Wall.

That grew to a venue that would hold 100 as big names began publicly aligning themselves with the effort early in the week; it wound up in the Quail Creek ballroom, with about 280 people attending. Planned protests prompted organizers, the Quail Creek Republican Club, to limit the audience to neighborhood residents, who had to show ID at the door, according to club president Shelley Kais. One protester stood up about halfway through the two-hour event and yelled at the group on stage. He was escorted off the property by a police officer.

Kolfage, Bannon, Tancredo and Kobach showed up Friday in Quail Creek, where they received a standing ovation from the partisan crowd and were interrupted with applause throughout the evening.

While it was born out of frustration over inaction in Washington on a wall, "President Trump's effort is still the primary effort," Bannon told the Green Valley News on Friday. He said Trump has three options to get the government to build the wall — calling for a national emergency, executive order, or the appropriations process.

"One of those three should at least get him the 238 miles he's put money in for, the $5.7 billion. We'll have to see," he said. "This is just a citizens initiative to augment that. This is 100 percent supporting President Trump."

The Southern Arizona event was the first town hall for the group and more are planned "all over the country," Bannon said. The We Build the Wall board traveled to the border at McAllen, Texas, last week and will be in Laredo for a town hall next week.

"I'm doing a number of things around the world like this," Bannon said before taking the stage. "People are tired of talking and they want to get involved in a positive way."

He said Kobach talked to Trump last week and that the president "gave it his blessing. He said, 'I love it, I love it.'"

"When we start breaking ground, we're going to be supplementing what Trump is doing, if he ever gets the money," said Kolfage, the leader of the original crowdfunding campaign that began last December.

Kolfage — a former Southern Arizona resident who was once a supporter of Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in her run for Congress — launched a GoFundMe in December called We the People We Build the Wall, with the idea to raise $1 billion in donations for a border wall, which would be handed over to the U.S. Treasury. Calling the border "porous," Kolfage said that he wanted to raise the money because " I refuse to allow our broken political system to leave my family and my country vulnerable to attack."

Ultimately, the group raised $20.6 million from more than 325,000 donors, the group said. However, because the group was far short of its goal and Kolfage had changed the direction of the funding, switching from giving the money directly to the federal government to a private foundation, GoFundMe refunded the money. Kolfage told donors they could redirect their money a new "501(c)(4) non-profit Florida corporation named 'We Build the Wall, Inc.'"

Kolfage said that his plan was not a stunt, but rather he created the original GoFundMe out of "frustration."

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'Socialists ... want us to be invaded'

"I'm a citizen, I'm nothing more than a citizen, and I feel invested in this country—I lost my limbs for this country—it's not a stunt," he said. "I have two children, 5 and 3, and I couldn't handle it if something were to happen to them. That's why this not a stunt, we're doing it for people, to protect people."

"There's too many lives that have been lost," Kolfage said. "We have 2,000 miles of open border, the cartels are very adaptable and we need to secure the entire border," he said.

Questions from the audience ranged from environmental considerations to how much border wall would be built. Kolfage said the group has already been talking to local governments.

"We have high-level officials in Arizona and Texas who are on our team," he said. "They understand the importance of border security and will make sure things go smoothly."

He said a private wall will go up "even before the government gets money to build its wall," and they would eventually come together seamlessly.

Kolfage called those who oppose the wall efforts "socialists" who want open borders and "want us to be invaded."

Kobach — who Bannon said should be the next head of the Department of Homeland Security — took a question from an audience member who asked for an explanation of the Democrats' position on border security.

A border wall was one of the central tenents of Trump's 2016 campaign, but after gaining around $1.6 billion to begin building border infrastructure last year, the president asked for $5.6 billion this year and was rebuffed by Democrats, leading to a 32-day government shutdown.

After the laughs died down, he said that in 2006, Democrats were talking about building a wall, but since Trump's election they've been dead-set against it.

"They wanted to hand President Trump a loss, and I think they are putting their partisan objectives ahead of the benefit of the country," Kobach said.

If Congress and the White House cannot come to deal by Feb. 15, the government may again close.

Kolfage said that the group wants to get the "community involved and circumvent the political stunts that the media puts out. We want the people to hear it from us personally," he said. "We're human beings who just want the best for our country."

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"Maybe the American people want it so badly that we're willing to do it ourselves and get the job done if Congress stands in the way," Kobach said. "They're willing to put their money behind it because it's so, so important."

In answer to a question from the audience, the group said that it wanted to build walls in Arizona, but that the lack of private property along the border makes it more difficult.

"The issue with Arizona is that there are very few private property land-owners in the state, so we can't touch it, so what we're doing is private property, and we have narrowed it down to a select few," said Kobach.

Around 67 percent of the border runs along private land, mostly in Texas. And, in Arizona, of the 211 miles of border in the Tucson Sector, about 80 percent has some kind of barrier, including modern pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers, as well as "legacy" fencing.

"We can't go public with it, because there are groups that will try to stop it," said Kolfage.

"We won't be able to build 1,600 miles," said Kobach, but he said that the group could build walls along the southern border at "maybe one-third or one-quarter of the cost."

"The federal government is looking at upwards of $4 million maybe $5 million per mile. Those are federal government numbers, these are people who pay $200 for a toilet—for a hammer, that's it—we thought they could build a very good hammer."

"Let's pick a number, let's say $20 million, we're able to build 10 miles of wall," Kobach argued. "Well that's 10 miles of wall that needs to get built. And, let's say that we raise $100 million, that's 50 miles of wall. That's 50 miles of wall, which is more than this administration has been able to build with the shackles that Congress has put on him."

From 2007 to 2015, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spent $2.4 billion on "tactical infrastructure" along the southwest border. Nearly 95 percent of that, or $2.3 billion was spent on pedestrian and vehicle fencing, with an average per mile cost of $6.5 million per mile of pedestrian fencing and $1.8 million per mile for vehicle fencing. The cost for secondary fencing was about $4.2 million per mile, resulting in a total of 37 miles of secondary along the southwestern border.

In a tweet, Kolfage said that the group plans to copy the bollard walls currently used by CBP, but plans to make them more effective and cost-efficient, which includes adding a "razor" angled 10 degrees at the top.

Donors can get a nameplate on their section of fence for $500, and the group sells t-shirts and hoodies on an online store.

However, the cost of repairing or replacing fence varies widely.

In Sunland Park, N.M., CBP spent $13.41 million to replace 1.4 miles of fence, while a new project to replace older pedestrian walls in Calexico, Tecate, and Andrade, Calif., is expected to cost $156 million for 11 miles of fencing, with another $88 million slated for "unawarded options."

Moreover, an analysis by the Government Accountability Office noted that in a five-year period from 2010 to 2015, the agency had to repair nearly 9,300 breaches in the fence, at an average repair cost of $784 per breach. Breaches included digging beneath the fence, as well as places where people cut through the fence.

Kobach also claimed that for "every mile you build you free up Border Patrol agents."

"Now, I don't know if it's one to one—one mile of fence is the force multiplier for one agent—or maybe it's two-to-one, but if we build 50 miles of wall, that's like adding 50 or 100 Border Patrol agents. So, it's a multiplier that increases our effectiveness."

Kobach did not explain how he calculated the effectiveness of a mile of wall, and in recent years, the GAO has noted that CBP "has not developed" systems to "assess the contributions of border fencing to border security operations along the southwest border."

The group also struggled to explain how it would avoid the inevitable lawsuit.

Tancredo argued that liberal groups "judge shop" and Kobach—who was told to take remedial law school classes by a federal judge and held in contempt for withholding records during a losing fight over voting records—said that the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn decisions made by "local" judges that included nationwide injunctions.

In the last year, several federal judges have blunted the Trump administration's efforts by issuing nationwide injunctions against the federal government.

Kolfage argued that even environmental rules intended to protect "some lizard or something" are used by liberal groups to stop the wall.

Mendoza said that the loss of her son brought the border security issue face-to-face, and she wants to fight against "a crisis" that has been created by politicians who could not get things done.

"I will make sure that my son will not have died in vain," Mendoza said. "A wall may not keep everyone out, but no wall will keep no one out."

In response to a question about the Tohono O'odham Nation's response over building a wall on their land, Darby, the Breitbart journalist, followed up his argument that Mexico was a "failed narco-state," claimed that "many" of the nation's police department were working for transnational criminal groups. 

"We have a problem with public corruption," said Darby. "The problem in Mexico has metastasized, and it is spreading across our country. It's spreading from bone to tissue, it's just spreading, so when you think about the reservations along the border, [corruption] is a significant problem. It's going to be very difficult to build anything there."

Tancredo: 'Build the fence on this side' of Tohono O'odham Nation

"Only half facetiously, a lot of people would suggest, that after we complete our wall, we should go right up, on this side of California and go all the way up to Canada. And, I be totally in favor of that," Tancredo said. 

He went further, describing the nation as an area where "every young kid" has a new truck to transport drugs and that might require building a fence around the nation itself.

"We should consider the possibility—I've been on the Tohono O'odham reservation—and five-year-old kids are walking about loaded. You know it's horrible," he said. "Every kid on that reservation, every young kid, has a new truck because they've helped actually transporting the drugs." 

"So, maybe we to build the fence on this side, instead of that other side," Tancredo said. 

During the event, the organizers recognized Wayne Scheel for donating $10,000 to the campaign.

Scheel, the 82-year-old owner of two nudist resorts, including one in Marana, said he started his own fund-raising effort, collecting pledges and backing it with his own money, but he later switched his efforts to Kolfage's first effort, and now this one.

"All I want is to see this wall built," he said.

The discussion soon grew beyond the wall, with Bannon saying Trump will win the 2020 election "in a landslide" if he focuses on three points he believes got him elected in 2016: build the wall; push for structural changes in China's economy that drive manufacturing jobs back to the United States; and get out of "pointless foreign wars."

Bannon, revered by the right and reviled by the left, said he has no plans to be involved in Trump's re-election campaign.

"I don't know," he said when asked if he could be convinced to change his mind. "I did my duty, I came in and gave a year of my life, I went from August to August, and that's what I always planned on."

Protests

During the event, Bryan Sanders, who confronted Bannon during an event in Tucson in 2017, when he asked if the former Trump campaign CEO knew how to spell "treason," briefly stopped the discussion when he tried to hand Bannon a "gift" from his backpack. As a man in the audience yelled, "shut him down," Sahuarita police led Sanders out the room.

As he departed, Sanders — who gained widespread public notice when he was punched in the face at a Trump campaign rally in Tucson — called Bannon a "racist."

Bannon said that protestors were a "good thing."

"That guy is the best spokesman for what we're doing," he said. "That shows we're winning."

Outside the event, a small band of Quail Creek residents protested the event, with signs reading "no platform for racism, hate won't make us great," and "hate does not make America great."

"To have Steve Bannon, of all people, come to our community, it's just a travesty," said Marge Delker, 76.

Next to her stood Judy Sypkens, 67, who said that she wanted to protest because Bannon was attending. "He promotes hate," she said.

"I don't want to be at odds with my good friends, you know I play tennis with people, people that I like, but to have Bannon here is very, very wrong," said Rich Kahn, 73.

Among the 10 or so protesters outside the ballroom was Marge Delker, who has lived in Quail Creek four years.

"I'm an independent, not a Democrat or Republican. I just find Bannon an abomination," she said.

Lee Peters, a Quail Creek resident for less than a year, said he was surprised the community allowed the event on its property.

"I'm eight months into the neighborhood and, certainly, this was not the picture shown to me before I bought into the community and I'm very upset that this community would allow a venue for a man of hate," he said.

The event brought 14 protesters to stand just outside the gated community. One placed in the dirt what was described as clothing from immigrant children. There were two or three counter-protesters.

Some drivers honked in support while others yelled pro-wall comments or "Make America Great Again" at the protesters.

"We didn't have a lot of time to plan, we didn't know who was going to be here," said Abby Okrent of Tucson, who protested outside the gate-guarded development.

"We don't think walls make anybody safer, we think they address fears that don't exist," said Okrent, who is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Steve Bannon, Brandon Darby, Kris Kobach, Brian Kolfage, listen as former congressman Tom Tacredo talks about the plan to raise private funding for a border wall.

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