A group of border state lawmakers and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee argued in a Wednesday letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department and Defense Department that border wall construction needs to be stopped because it can facilitate the spread of coronavirus in small border communities.
Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Filemon Vela (D-Texas), and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), along with Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), noted that over the past several weeks multiple members of Congress have raised concerns in communications to the federal government about “the grave risks that continued border wall construction efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic poses for border residents, Native American burial grounds and sacred sites, federal employees, and contracted workers, as well as broader efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus.”
They called it “deeply concerning to learn that government officials, contractors and construction workers in border communities will defy public health orders and continue border wall construction unabated, perhaps even accelerating construction in our border communities.”
“Workers are congregating in rural, remote border towns such as Ajo and Douglas, Arizona, and Columbus, New Mexico, endangering workers and residents, threatening to overwhelm extremely limited medical facilities,” they added. “In Ajo, Arizona, there is one market, no drugstore, and no hospital. For the safety of these workers and our communities, border wall construction should immediately stop.”
The Dallas Morning News reported last week that a contractor was building a camp to house as many as 80 workers near Columbus, N.M., while wall construction workers were seen laboring without practicing social distancing. “It’s unacceptable that any industry in any part of the state would be carrying on without taking into account the serious hazards posed by the ongoing public health emergency,” said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The Army Corps of Engineers said that the project of erecting bollard fencing continues as “essential” work. At an April 1 press conference of the White House coronavirus task force, President Trump said of the wall construction, “We’ll also have an impact, we think, on the virus.”
“You know, the wall is up to about 160 miles already. And any areas where we have that wall, it’s, for the most part, contiguous. We have fill-ins. But we’re up to 161 miles exactly,” Trump said.
At the same press conference, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said that “we continue to build miles of the wall every day — we’re up to over 150, I believe.”
“We’re continuing to build new miles of wall. And a lot of folks ask about a replacement wall or new miles. And it’s a new capability on our southwest border that we haven’t had before,” Wolf said. “…We see a lot of benefits from the border wall system. And again that includes not only the physical infrastructure, but the cameras, the roads, the lighting, the fiber-optic cables. And we’re looking forward and we’re still well on our track – well on our mark to meet 400-450 miles by the end of the calendar year.”
At a budget hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee last month, Wolf told lawmakers that he wasn’t blaming migrants for coronavirus cases in the U.S. at the time.
“Oftentimes, they don’t travel with medical history, right? So, that is of concern, because the individuals that are coming in at our 11 airports that are being funneled, we have very good information of their travel history, of their medical history,” Wolf said. “We’re not going to have that same set of fidelity for the individuals if this continues to grow at the southwest border.”
This week’s letter from the Democratic lawmakers also argued that “in addition to the serious dangers of continued construction, accelerating eminent domain proceedings in the federal courts of Texas, where most land in the path of the border wall is private, threatens a public health disaster.”
“Despite living under shelter-in-place orders, hundreds of primarily low-income and Mexican-American families in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley regions now face the prospect of fighting for their homes and lands while the courts remain open and the government continues to sue them, all but ignoring the pandemic,” they wrote. “To put vulnerable families already suffering at disproportionate rates at this time is simply unconscionable. Your agencies must immediately cease all border wall eminent domain litigation and physical surveying of land during the pandemic.”