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Homeland Security chief tours border in Az; Enviros again sue to block wall spending

Grijalva blasts Trump administration 'hellbent' on building 'useless vanity wall'

As Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf toured the borderlands of Arizona on Tuesday, visiting a port in Nogales and viewing the border wall from a helicopter, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity launched a new lawsuit arguing that the Trump administration unlawfully transferred an additional $7.2 billion from defense funding to the border barrier. 

Wolf's visit to Southern Arizona comes as the agency continues to spend vast amounts of money on the southwestern border wall, tearing through land along the state's border with Mexico, including protected land in three separate wildlife refuges. The agency continues to enforce an order from the CDC that has allowed U.S. Customs and Border Protection to rapidly expel migrants from the United States, often in as little as two hours, Wolf told reporters Tuesday. 

Beginning March 21, CBP began the rapid deportation process, sending more than 21,000 people back to Mexico, including more than 15,000 in April. The agency said that expelling migrants back to Mexico was required "in the interest of public health," and allows the agency to avoid having to hold people in Border Patrol stations.

People "subject to the order will not be held in congregate areas for processing and instead will immediately be expelled to their country of last transit," CBP said. 

About 80 percent of people were expelled within two hours, Wolf said, saying that this was "critically important." 

"These are individuals that come to us with little to no medical history, little to no travel history, and oftentimes with no identity documents," Wolf said. "So it's very difficult to do any medical checks on them, understand where they've been and what they perhaps have been exposed to. So, we want to make sure that we're not exposing the front-line workforce to that." 

Traffic along the border has been dropping since last summer, when the agency took more than 144,000 people into custody in May, but that decline has increased as the border between the U.S. and Mexico has largely shut down. Compared to last April, the number of people picked up during the same time in 2020 has declined nearly 85 percent. 

Wolf credited the travel restrictions with a 60 to 70 percent decline in border traffic, later adding that when he toured the Border Patrol's Tucson station, which includes the Tucson Coordination Center, the sector's headquarters and intelligence hub, there were only four migrants inside. 

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As Wolf began his press conference on Tuesday, he began by removing a mask, saying "we're six feet away, so I can take the mask off so it will be easier rather than having the mask on." 

Later, when he was asked about masks and personal protective equipment for agents, Wolf pointed to the agents in the room, saying, "they all have masks on, everyone I saw today has a mask on." Agent continue to have "ample supplies" of PPE, like N95 masks. However, agents and officers have the "option to wear those PPE," he said. "As we see this unfold we'll continue to make different calls and different judgements." Wolf said that TSA screeners are required to wear masks, but Border Patrol are "highly encouraged" to do the same. 

"Everyone I saw, even folks that really weren't coming into contact with me, were all wearing PPE, so I really don't think that's an issue at all," he said. 

DHS does not release the total number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, however, individuals agencies have reported their own numbers. 

Around 341 CBP employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and three people in the agency have died from the disease.  And, TSA has said that 551 people tested positive for COVID-19, and six have died. 

Meanwhile, ICE has reported that 142 employees have come down with the disease. 

Wolf also visited the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, and toured the border. Wolf praised the Office of Field Operations, which runs the ports as part of CBP, in Nogales saying that the agency was continuing to encourage trade and travel even as Mexican officials have responded to the coronavirus by shutting down some ports in the Nogales and Yuma areas. "While we are reducing non-essential travel, which has really decreased across the border—anywhere from 65 to 70 percent—

As his Twitter account noted: "Good vantage point to see the various challenges facing USBP along the SWB. I am committed to ensuring they have the resources - including new Border Wall System - they need to protect the Homeland," along with photos of Wolf and Tucson Sector Chief Roy Villareal in a Blackhawk helicopter.

Lawsuit filed

While Wolf visited the border wall, his agency faces a new lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, which with the Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, argues that the Trump administration is yet again pulling money from funds earmarked for the Defense Department and using that money on the border wall. 

Earlier this year, the Pentagon announced that it would siphon $3.8 billion from defense programs, including two in Arizona worth nearly $1.4 billion. This includes $2.2 billion in direct funding, as well as another $1.63 billion in overseas contingency funding. This would require cutbacks to several major programs, including the purchase of the F-35 fighters, C-130J cargo planes, as well as the nation's armed drone program and the Navy's P-8 maritime surveillance planes. 

"Despite the numerous court decisions uniformly finding that the transfers of $6.7 billion in FY 2019 DoD appropriated funds for border wall are unlawful, the Trump administration is transferring even more FY 2020 DoD appropriated funds—$7.2 billion—using essentially the same statutory mechanisms relied upon for the FY 2019 transfers," the group wrote. 

Like in 2019, the funds were "unlawfully transferred" from defense and "will again be extensively used to construct border walls on protected federal lands providing essential habitat for threatened and endangered species." 

Last year, the groups filed a lawsuit over the 2019 funding shifts, and while lower-level courts have ruled against the move, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the spending to continue pending the government's appeals, allowing DHS to continue spending the money, even when it's possible that the ruling could potentially find the expenditures were illegal. 

This includes several projects using 2020 funds that will be built on "remote and mountainous terrain within the Coronado National Forest, located in southeastern Arizona." 

"This area provides some of the most vital cross-border wildlife corridors along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. If constructed, these border wall projects will likely result in the extirpation of endangered jaguars in the United States," the group said. 

"In total, the Trump administration has now allocated more than $18.4 billion to the President’s border wall. The administration estimates that this $18.4 billion will fund approximately 900 miles of construction. Well less than a third of this money—$5.1 billion—has been appropriated by Congress." 

In documents filed as part of the lawsuits, CBP said that sections of the wall near Yuma, including routes through the Quechan and Cocopah Native American reservations would cost over $105 million for 1 to 1.5 miles. This includes the cost for the 30-foot high barrier, as well as fiber-optic sensors, lights, and road construction. 

“About 181 miles constructed so far–new border wall system—and we’re on track to meet 200 miles in early June, and 300 or 400 miles later this year," Wolf said. "So we’re really excited about the prospect of that." 

In the Tucson Sector, Wolf said that about 63 miles were under construction and about 69 additional miles were in pre-construction. "We’re moving out pretty smartly on that," he said. 

Wolf demurred on answering questions about President Trump's push to paint the wall black. As the Washington Post reported, DHS officials have tried to talk him out of the plan, and documents show painting the wall would cost at least $500 million. 

Wolf said that the agency would "continue to assess what kind of design features the wall has. It's not a one-size fits all situation," he said, adding that officials were considering whether painting the wall would increase the wall's life span beyond an estimated 30 years. In portions of Nogales, agents have painted the wall white to create contrast and make it easier to see people on the wall at night. Wolf said agents were "looking at all options." 

He also dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the agency meets with "a number of groups," but "at the end of the day, border security is national security, is homeland security." 

"We’re going to continue, if Congress isn’t willing to fund it, we’ll use those authorities, those legal authorities," he said. 

Dozens of leadership positions vacant, or filled by acting personnel

Wolf is the fifth person to ostensibly lead the agency during the Trump administration, and the fourth person to lead the agency without confirmation by Congress, owing to the president's penchant for heaving acting secretaries every eight months on average. Kirstjen Nielsen had the longest tenure, lasting about 16 months on the job before she was replaced by Kevin McAleenan last April. Wolf has held the job since November. 

Among the dozens of leadership positions at DHS, nearly one-third are either filled by someone in an acting position, or the position is considered vacant, and several people, including Wolf are serving in multiple positions. Wolf is also the undersecretary of Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, and Ken Cuccinelli is serving as the Deputy Secretary for DHS and the "Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director" at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

This includes both leadership positions at the department of Science and Technology, an agency that DHS highlighted Monday as part of the agency's response to COVID-19. As the agency put it, "Arming the Nation with Scientific Research," the agency dubbed "S&T" published a report that recommended methods to disinfect and reuse personal protective equipment. "Conservation and reuse of respirators, medical masks, and similar PPE is critical for COVID-19 efforts due to the global shortage of this equipment," the agency noted. 

'Dog-and-pony show' 

While Wolf toured the borderlands in a Blackhawk helicopter, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity criticized the visit, and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva called it a "publicity stunt" undertaken while the novel coronavirus continues to kill people throughout the United States. 

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"This guy should be ashamed to show his face in Arizona or anywhere else along the border,” said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.

For months, Jordahl has led the center's public campaign against the border wall, specifically in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

"Wolf is responsible for ramming border walls into our communities, bulldozing our state’s beloved saguaro cactuses and demolishing indigenous sacred sites," Jordahl said. "Now he’s wasting time with a dog-and-pony show while people are suffering and dying of COVID-19 in his detention facilities." 

"Instead of focusing on the public health emergency raging across the country, the Trump administration remains hellbent on constructing the president’s useless vanity wall," said Grijalva. "This shameful publicity stunt it nothing more than a pathetic attempt to deflect from Trump’s failure to adequately address the COVID-19 pandemic and keep Americans safe." 

"With Arizona testing capabilities lagging behind the rest of the nation and the number of cases increasing; Arizona is in need of more funding for hospitals, testing, and contact tracing capabilities. This is particularly concerning in small border communities where construction crews continue work on the wall with little regard to social distancing guidance. While Trump and Republicans resist calls for more money to address the pandemic, there seems to be endless amounts of money to construct the border wall—including a $569 million contract to a Trump donor," he said. 

The border wall is a "a monument to Trump’s failed leadership, nonexistent morals, and his own ego," Grijalva said. 

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DHS

Acting DHS Sec. Chad Wolf tours the U.S.-Mexico border in a CBP helicopter on Tuesday.

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