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More border wall plans as critics push to end construction

April 24, 2020 - 4:58 pm

PHOENIX (AP) — The government is carrying on with plans for a border wall even as communities where construction is ongoing protest the presence of workers.

In the Yuma area, the government modified a contract on March 24 to add an additional 1.5 miles of a 30-foot border wall with angled tops and an anti-climb plate to the cost of $55.8 million.

It’s 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 nearby wall project and scaring residents who fear getting the virus, said Emily Saunders, who lives in the unincorporated town.

Ajo has about 3,500 residents and has seen years of border barrier construction and increases in Border Patrol personnel. Some of the workers come in 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.

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 in a statement 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 persuade the government to at least temporarily stop construction to protect small border communities from the virus.

“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 Trump's most important campaigning promises. 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 of border wall, and another 180 miles or so are under construction. The administration had promised to build 450 miles by the end of the year.

In Texas, government attorneys are forging 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.

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