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Lawmakers want border-wall construction to stop for safety of border communities

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Advocates say federal government filing more cases against border property owners during coronavirus crisis

DONNA, Texas (Border Report) — Four Democratic members of Congress have joined advocacy groups in demanding that border wall construction stop during this COVID-19 pandemic, saying it puts border communities at “grave risk.”

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson chairs the House Homeland Security Committee.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, along with U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, of Texas; and Raúl Grijalva and Ann Kirkpatrick, both of Arizona, wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to the acting heads of the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and Department of Defense: “We urge you to stop wasting critical federal resources and putting the lives of the millions who call the border region home at grave risk during this unprecedented health crisis and immediately cease all construction efforts.”

“At a time when we are all taking extraordinary steps to limit the death toll and economic devastation wrought by this unprecedented pandemic, it is 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,” the letter states.

The letter came after advocacy groups, such as the Texas Civil Rights Project, have been calling for weeks for border wall construction in the Southwest to halt, and have even circulated a petition that has received “a couple thousand signatures,” Robert Lopez, the nonprofit’s racial and economic justice outreach coordinator, said during a video conference with media on Thursday afternoon.

Lopez said that despite the rising number of cases of the coronavirus and shelter-in-place orders throughout most of the border, including all of South Texas, construction is still ongoing.

“The border, as we know, has many rural areas that are at risk with more construction workers there,” Lopez said. “Our ask is a total moratorium on all border wall construction at least while shelter-in-place orders are in place. Our lives are at risk and our communities are at risk and we need to use our resources in a more effective manner right now.”

Our lives are at risk and our communities are at risk and we need to use our resources in a more effective manner right now.”

Robert Lopez of Texas Civil Rights Project

TCRP was among 100 advocacy groups that two weeks ago sent a letter to several federal government officials asking that border wall construction stop during this health crisis.

Read a Border Report story on advocacy groups asking border wall construction to halt.

“Our No. 1 priority should be to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, and we do that by staying at home,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition. “Instead of focusing finite resources on the public health crisis, the administration is continuing to build a wall in a blatant disregard for social distancing guidelines and the advice of public health experts. This is dangerous and beyond irresponsible.”

Department of Homeland Security Acting Commissioner Chad Wolf, center, visited a section of border wall being built south of the town of Donna, Texas, on Nov. 21, 2019. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On Thursday afternoon, south of the town of Donna, in deep South Texas, concrete trucks were churning out mixture and construction workers were toiling in 90-plus degree heat on a small section of the border wall that has been under construction since last fall. This 3-mile segment will connect to an existing border levee system and costs about $26.5 million per mile to build.

Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf visited the site on Nov. 21, praising the need for the 18-foot-tall metal bollards and 150-foot enforcement zone, saying it is “a game-changer in helping to address this crisis.”

Read a Border Report story on Chad Wolf’s visit to Donna, Texas.

But border advocacy groups point out that the nation’s “crisis” has since changed with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that American federal resources should be focused on the health and well being of communities, not on deterring immigrants.

In fact, they say government attempts to acquire private border property through lawsuits have actually accelerated during this pandemic. TCRP lawyer Ricky Garza said Thursday that 13 cases were filed in South Texas in March by the federal government against border property owners — up from an average of three cases filed per month. TCRP currently is representing nine border landowners who don’t want to relinquish their land for a border wall, Garza said.

“Cases have been growing exponentially. We think the federal government is exploiting the fact that the federal courts are open right now despite the shelter-in-place rules,” Garza said. “It moved from a trickle to a flood during the pandemic as people are trying to shelter-in-place at a time when they should not be forced to choose between their health and their rights.”

“It’s terrifying to see border wall construction intensify in the midst of this deadly pandemic,” said Laiken Jordahl, of the Center for Biological Diversity, who this week visited Arizona border-wall construction sites that are full speed ahead. “Trump is risking the lives of families, local business owners and construction workers for nothing but a twisted campaign promise.”

Vela, whose district includes Donna, said he worries that added construction workers in these rural South Texas areas could bring the virus to his community.

“Our local governments have rightfully implemented social distancing measures to leave no stone unturned in battling COVID-19,” Vela said. “The continued construction of the border wall simply creates more opportunities for community spread as construction crews congregate, potentially exposing those who live along the border. Building a border wall was never a good idea, it is even worse during these times.”

“The presence of large construction crews in small border towns threatens the health of those communities where they are already under-prepared to deal with the coming public health emergency. It’s time for the administration to stop putting lives at risks, end the waste of government funds for this vanity project, and shut down border wall construction once and for all,” Grijalva said in a statement.

Said Thompson: “There is no reason for construction of President Trump’s wasteful wall to continue during this pandemic. There is nothing essential about it. The billions wasted on the wall would be put to much better use constructing hospitals or other needed facilities. Continuing construction only puts the health of the workers – and the surrounding communities – in danger.”

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