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Biden administration to close gaps in border wall near Yuma

The Biden administration said Thursday it will close four gaps in the border wall near Yuma, where thousands of migrants have entered the U.S. to request asylum.

The four gaps — left when the administration halted the Trump-era border construction project — are near the the Morelos Dam, which straddles the Colorado River and feeds the Canal Alimentador Central. In recent months, the gaps have made the Yuma Sector one of the busiest corridor in Arizona, where people cross the U.S.-Mexico border and immediately turn themselves over to Border Patrol agents to request asylum.

The work near Yuma will protect migrants attempting to cross into the U.S., who can slip or drown walking through the Colorado River, said Department of Homeland Security officials.

"Due to the proximity to the Morelos Dam and the swift-moving Colorado River, this area presents safety and life hazard risks for migrants attempting to cross into the United States where there is a risk of drownings and injuries from falls," said DHS. "This area also poses a life and safety risk to first responders and agents responding to incidents in this area."

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he authorized completion of the project near the dam to reflect the administration’s “priority to deploy modern, effective border measures and also improving safety and security along the Southwest border."

While the Trump administration project was funded by money shifted from the Defense Department, the project will now be paid out of Homeland Security’s budget, Mayorkas said.

"Closing these gaps will help deter migrants from crossing in this dangerous area which this fiscal year has accounted for 45,761 apprehensions and 45 water rescues," said Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz on Twitter.

In June, agents in the Yuma Sector encountered people 22,303 times. Of those, over 8,000 encounters were people traveling as families with children, as well as more than 500 children traveling without parents or guardians. Nearly all the people encountered were immediately processed under Title 8, which includes both people who were able to surpass the first hurdle to seek legally seek asylum in the U.S., as well as people who may be deported or prosecuted under federal law. 

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Moreover, only 13 percent of encounters included someone from Mexico or Central America in the Yuma Sector. Instead, agents near Morelos Dam are encountering people from Venezuela, Cuba, and a host of other countries.

Chris Clem, the chief of the Yuma Sector—which straddles the Colorado River and runs to the Yuma County line—said from July 17 to July 23, his agents encountered more than 5,000 migrants from 46 different countries. During that week, the agency received 14 calls for help from 911 and rescued three people, Clem wrote. Agents also recovered the remains of two people, he said.

During his campaign, Biden pledged to halt future border wall construction, and in Jan. 2021, he terminated Trump's emergency declaration on the southern border, pausing work on construction projects and reviewing the legality of the funding and contracting methods.

"Like every nation, the United States has a right and a duty to secure its borders and protect its people against threats," Biden said. "But building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution. It is a waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security. My administration is committed to ensuring that the United States has a comprehensive and humane immigration system that operates consistently with our nation's values."

However, while Biden paused construction, he created some exceptions, allowing for "urgent measures needed to avert immediate physical dangers," or "where an exception is required to ensure that funds appropriated by the Congress fulfill their intended purpose."

Since then, DHS has moved to update, repair, or in some cases, build new sections of the border wall to address "life, safety, environmental, and operational considerations."

Decision came after months of 'coordination & planning'

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly praised the decision to close the gaps near the Morelos Dam.

Kelly's office released a statement, saying after months of "coordination and planning with the White House and DHS, they were "able to secure a commitment from the administration to get this done."

"For too long, the Morelos Dam area has been an operational challenge for Border Patrol agents to properly secure the border and keep our communities safe," Kelly said in the news release, adding he glad DHS officials "listened to Arizona" and will move to close the gaps. "This is a step forward and I’ll keep working to ensure that Arizona has the tools needed for a secure and orderly process at the border including fencing and barriers where they make sense," Kelly said.

Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls thanked Kelly for working with community leaders in Yuma "forcing action to close the gaps."

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"Border Patrol agents fight every single day to secure our southern border, but the gaps near the Morelos Dam continued to put that work at risk," said Nicholls. "This is an important first step to getting this border crisis under control, supporting our law enforcement, and keeping border communities safe."

Similarly, Yuma County Supervisor Jonathan Lines said he was "grateful" to Kelly for "holding the Biden administration accountable to this commitment and finally getting this done."

"Our border communities want and deserve a safe and orderly border response," he said.

DOD funds shifted, DHS still has funds to spend

Last summer, DHS officials announced a new plan for border wall construction, and including a series of efforts to "address life, safety, environmental, and operational" considerations along the border."

DHS said the Trump administration planned to spend over $15 billion on wall construction, included over $10 billion in funds redirected from military projects and other sources.

CBP had planned to spend $3.6 billion in funds allocated from military construction projects to build 175 miles of border wall, including both "primary" and "secondary barriers," including projects near Yuma, El Centro, El Paso, and Laredo.  By January 4, 2021, around 87 miles had been built, according to CBP.

Another 291 miles were allocated using $6.3 billion in counter-narcotics funds, and just 126 miles had been built.

Under the Biden administration, the Defense Department terminated border wall projects using the diverted funds, and returned the "remaining, unobligated funds to their original sources," DHS said last June.

However, the agency noted that Congress has allocated some funds for border barrier projects, which DHS is "legally required to use consistent with their appropriated purpose."

In December 2021, Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas announced several new projects in Arizona include the closure of "small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities," as well as the construction of "incomplete" gates in the Tucson Sector, which runs from the Yuma County line to the New Mexico border.

The project near the Morelos Dam was originally part of the Yuma 6 project area, a border barrier project that was funded by money from the Defense Department under the Section 2808 program.

When Congress refused to fund the Trump administration's efforts in 2017, the administration ignored Congress and raided billions from the Defense Department's counter-narcotics operations, and another $3.6 billion in military construction funding that was shifted under Section 2808 of federal law, which allows the president to use the National Emergency Act to authorize military construction projects which aid the U.S. military.

By January 2021, CBP completed 452 miles of border wall, largely 30-foot high steel bollards filled with concrete.

However, much of this effort merely replaced "dilapidated or outdated" designs. The agency added just 47 miles of new "primary" wall and 33 miles of "secondary wall" across the southwest. Around 351 miles of outdated barriers were replaced with the higher wall, along with 21 miles of "secondary" wall.

Much of this work was completed along federally-protected lands in the agency's Tucson Sector, ranging across Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties, affecting the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area—the site of one of the nation's last "free-flowing" rivers.

And, this effort came despite multiple lawsuits, launched by Congress, environmental and human rights groups, and protests by members of the Tohono O'odham Nation and other advocates at a half-dozen sites. 

Additional projects outlined

On May 27, DHS outlined a series of new construction projects along the border, including the replacement of a "dilapidated train gate" in El Centro, the construction of retractable gates underneath a bridge spanning the New River in Imperial County, Calif., and replacement of "deteriorated" barriers near Friendship Circle in Imperial Beach, Cali. which were not "properly treated to withstand corrosion from the Pacific Ocean. DHS also announced the completion of 17 gates and site clean-up work in the Rio Grande Valley.

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"In doing so, DHS will prioritize the remaining border barrier funds to address and remediate urgent life, safety, and environmental issues resulting from the previous administration’s border wall construction," DHS officials said. 

In May, DHS officials pushed Congress to "cancel remaining appropriations for barrier system construction and instead specifically fund smart border security measures, like border technology at and between ports of entry, that are proven to be more effective at improving safety and security at the border."

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