PHOENIX — The federal government is proceeding with plans for a border wall even as communities where construction is ongoing protest the presence of workers, according to court documents.
In the Yuma, Arizona, area, the government modified a contract on March 24 to add 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of a 30-foot (9 meter) border wall with angled tops and an anti-climb plate to the cost of $55.8 million. That's according to documents the Sierra Club obtained this week in one of two lawsuits challenging the use of defense department funds to build the wall.
The federal government is looking to award another $50 million contract next month to add fiber optic cables, lighting, closed circuit TV, a ground detection system and signage.
Still, lawmakers and advocates are calling for construction to be halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, saying the workers put small border communities with few health care resources at risk.
In Ajo, Arizona, construction crews are working on a wall project and scaring residents who fear getting the virus, said resident Emily Saunders. Ajo has about 3,500 people and has seen years of border barrier construction and increases in Border Patrol personnel. Some of the workers come from the Phoenix area, a roughly 90-minute drive north.
“Here in Ajo we're so isolated that when folks come in from the city they’re bringing germs that we don’t have yet,” Saunders said, adding that the nearest hospital is 90 minutes away.
Ajo residents also often have to encounter Border Patrol checkpoints where agents are rarely wearing masks or other protective gear, Saunders said. “It is becoming very clear that our safety is not actually what the government is concerned about right now. It appears to me that border enforcement is their priority," she said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that border wall construction continues because building in high-priority areas allows the Border Patrol “to decide where border crossings take place, not smugglers,” and that the agency can deploy personnel and technology to complement border barriers.
“Illegal drug and human smuggling activities have decreased in those areas where barriers are deployed. Illegal cross-border traffic has also shifted to areas with inferior, legacy barriers or no barriers at all,” the agency said in a statement.
On Friday, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and others held a press call to urge the government to at least temporarily stop construction.
“We are continuing to push that it has to be paused, that it is a health risk, during this emergency. That’s not to say the environmental damage it’s doing,” Grijalva said. “I would like them to halt it permanently. But even when we ask for a pause, no reaction and not even a comment back from Homeland Security or the Justice Department.”
Building more barrier along the southern border has been a one of President Donald Trump's key issues. This week, Customs and Border Protection launched a web page dedicated to all things border wall, including video of ongoing construction. As of this week, the administration has completed 170 miles (273 kilometers) of border wall, and another 180 miles (290 kilometers) or so are under construction. The administration had promised to build 450 miles (725 kilometers) by the end of the year.
In Texas, government attorneys are moving forward with land acquisitions to build on mostly private property.
Efrén C. Olivares, the legal director for the Racial and Economic Justice Program at Texas Civil Rights Project, said that just on Friday morning, government surveyors tried to access the land of one of his clients without giving proper notice. The client, a woman in her 60s, was afraid because the surveyors showed up without masks, gloves or any protective gear, Olivares said.