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Pentagon shifts $3.6B to border barriers, delaying $30M Ft. Huachuca project

McSally blasted by Kelly over 'assurances' by Trump administration

The Trump administration will siphon $3.6 billion slated for dozens of military construction projects and spend it on 11 border wall projects along with southwestern border — including about $1.3 billion for projects in Southern Arizona that will add miles of new barriers along Barry M. Goldwater bombing range and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

Among the military projects being put off is a $30 million project at Ft. Huachuca in Arizona.

While the Pentagon will sideline 127 military construction projects, only the one project in Arizona will be deferred, and that's because of "unforeseen environmental issues at the construction site," said U.S. Sen. Martha McSally in a news release.

The funding shifts – announced in a letter to lawmakers Tuesday and calls Wednesday to those who lost projects in their districts – sparked outrage from Democrats, many of whom accuse the president of robbing the military to feed his ego.

McSally said in a news release that she was informed that the only deferred project in the state will be the Ft. Huachuca Ground Transport Equipment Building, a $30-million project that is a "small fraction" of the $3.6 billion the Defense Department was shifting. 

McSally's office originally wrote that the project was expected to cost just $30,000, but later sent out a correction.

The U.S. Army base in Sierra Vista is a major intelligence and military communications center. U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, whose district includes the fort, said that the funding for the project is "long overdue."

The equipment building "desperately needed this funding for restoration and repairs," she said in a news release. The structure "is designed to house military trucks, vans, trailers and vital electronic equipment; much of that equipment is currently stored outside," her office said.

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Following a months-long political battle over funding for border barriers, the Trump administration has forged ahead with border wall construction, building walls even as environmental groups have launched lawsuits, and federal judges — including the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — have questioned the legality of using money slated for Defense Department projects for border wall construction. 

In July, the Supreme Court's conservative justices refused to block the Trump administration from using Pentagon funding, removing a lower court's order that the administration withhold spending the money until a lawsuit moved forward. 

This includes a construction project along the southern border of the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a protected wilderness that has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, as well as the southern edge of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge west to the Yuma County line.

Border work already underway in Az refuge

On Aug. 21, a contractor began work by removing older pedestrian fencing, with plans to install a two-mile section of 30-foot high bollards. 

With the new funding, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the planning and construction along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, may begin building five projects in Southern Arizona. 

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told the House Armed Services Committee that he wanted to move up to $3.6 billion in "unobligated military construction funding" for 11 different projects along the U.S.-Mexico border, including four in Arizona. 

This includes a project called Yuma 10/27 that will build nearly 31 miles of new pedestrian fencing, at a cost of $527 million, along the southern edge of the Barry M. Goldwater Range, which covers nearly 1.9 million acres of desert, and its eastern edge is about 80 miles northwest of Tucson. 

Another project, Yuma Project 3, will replace vehicle barriers with 31 miles of "secondary pedestrian" fencing along both the bombing range and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, at a cost of $630 million. 

Esper also outlined a two-mile project on the range that will cost $40 million, called Yuma Project 2, as well as $65 million for three miles of "pedestrian fencing" and new secondary fencing along the Colorado River, as part of a project called Yuma Project 6. 

Esper wrote that “based on analysis and advice” from staff, he had determined the projects are "necessary to support the use of armed forces in connection with the national emergency." 

The projects would "deter illegal entry, increasing the vanishing time of those illegally crossing the border, and channel migrants to ports of entry," Esper wrote, arguing that the new walls "will reduce the demand" for Defense Department personnel sent to the border, and "allow the redeployment" of "personnel and assets to other high-traffic areas on the border without barriers." 

Esper wrote that he had authorized the Pentagon to undertake the projects "expeditiously, and, as authorized by Section 2808, to do so without regard to any provisions of law that may impede the expeditious construction of such projects in response to the national  emergency."

ACLU: 'Unlawful power grab'

However, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that because the government "sat" on emergency funding for months, this "further confirms that this is nothing but an unlawful power grab." 

"The fact that the government sat on these so-called ‘emergency funds’ for seven months further confirms that this is nothing but an unlawful power grab," wrote Dror Ladin, a staff attorney with the ACLU. "We’ll be back in court very soon to block Trump’s latest effort to raid military funds for his xenophobic wall." 

Many of the projects in Arizona are located in areas where an increasing number of families, many of them Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States, surrendered to Border Patrol officials. Over several months, hundreds of people crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in areas around the Lukeville Port of Entry, which is surrounded by the Organ Pipe Cactus monument, or crossed beneath barriers near Yuma. 

However, even as the administration is seeking to spend millions on new barriers, the movement of people seeking asylum appears to be moving east along the border to an area near Sasabe, Arizona. 

Last week, agents in the Tucson Sector said they "encountered" three separate groups of people near the port of entry, about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, most made up of "Central American" families. One group included 98 people, while another included 66, and the last group included 78 people. 

"Tucson Sector Border Patrol has seen large groups of family units shift from the Lukeville area to Sasabe over the course of the summer," said a Border Patrol spokesman. "During the months of April and May, multiple groups of several hundred people surrendered to Border Patrol agents near Quitobaquito Springs west of Lukeville. The last such group in the region was on May 28." 

However, since the beginning of May, nine groups with over 50 people surrendered to agents in the "more rugged and mountainous terrain east of Sasabe and south of Arivaca." 

In a letter to Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mark Esper wrote that he would move up to $3.6 billion in unobligated military construction funding to border wall construction for 11 different projects in California, Arizona, and Texas.  Four of these projects will be in the Yuma Sector.

McSally: Ft. Huachuca site needs environmental cleanup

McSally's office said Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy spoke with the Senator and assured her that the project will be completed in "a timely manner." The funding for the project was was authorized and appropriated for the 2019 fiscal year, McSally said, but the Army found it needed to complete a "major environmental cleanup before the actual construction project could be awarded." The environmental cleanup is expected to continue until August 2020, she said. 

While McSally has been supportive of the Trump administration's maneuver to use military construction funding, she has been unwilling to have Arizona bear the burden of that shift in funding. In March, as Pentagon officials announced that the project at Ft. Huachuca—as well as a $15-million facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base—were potentially on the chopping block, McSally sought "assurances" that the projects would move forward. 

McSally also voted against a resolution to block Trump's declaration. U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, voted in favor of it and was joined by a dozen GOP senators in the attempt to halt Trump's assumption of emergency powers to redirect military spending.

"We need to secure our border and protect our military; we can and should do both," McSally said. "As soon as the emergency was declared, I went to the mat to fight for Arizona projects and succeeded by receiving assurances from the highest levels of the Department of Defense," McSally said. 

However, the project at Ft. Huachuca was "already delayed because of ongoing environmental cleanup that is taking longer than expected," she said. "The fact of the matter is that had the Army completed this sooner, the project would not have been delayed and would not have even been up for discussion. I spoke to Acting Army Secretary McCarthy to convey my frustration with the delay and he assured me that this project will be completed in a timely manner once the cleanup is complete."

Kelly blasts McSally over 'assurances' by Trump

Mark Kelly, a Democrat running against McSally in 2020, blasted the appointed Republican senator over the shifting of funds.

"Ft. Huachuca and our national security are suffering the consequences of her political maneuvering," Kelly said in a campaign news release. "Sen. McSally told Arizonans she had protected funding for Arizona military bases, and the fact is that she didn't keep her word."

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The fort "is an essential part of our national security and performs a critical military intelligence mission that must be protected. When funding is taken away from Fort Huachuca we are at risk and Southern Arizona's economy is hurt," he said.

Southern Arizona's members of Congress — both Democrats — also criticized Trump and McSally over the move.

Kirkpatrick said that "this decision harms important planned projects intended to support our military in Southern Arizona, across the United States, and overseas. Congress is usually involved in approving the reallocation of military funds, but not this time, all because the president cried wolf in the name of 'national emergency.'"

"Not only does this action defy Congress' role of appropriating funds; I believe it is disrespectful to our armed forces and American taxpayers. This wall is nothing but an ego-vanity project for the president, it's a political chant for his base, it is not a national emergency barrier," she said in a news release.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, whose district includes the five new border wall projects, lambasted the Trump administration's move. 

"With this authoritarian power grab and plunder of military accounts, Trump continues with his quest to build his monument to his racist policies along the southern border," Grijalva said. "The only national emergency is Trump’s narcissism." 

Grijalva said that in April, he "urged" House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey to "include language in the FY2020 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill to prohibit the transfer of funds from other military projects to fund border wall construction." 

Grijalva has been vehemently opposed to border wall construction in Arizona, and in 2017, he joined with the Tucson-based environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, to sue the Trump administration over the issue. 

"Trump’s border wall will be a stain on the beautiful landscapes and vibrant cultures that make up the borderlands of Southern Arizona," said Grijalva. "I will continue working in Congress to vehemently oppose any efforts by Trump to construct his divisive wall that will divide families, recklessly endanger precious desert ecosystems, and militarize border communities."

“They are illegally stealing money from our troops for a useless border wall that Congress resoundingly denied,” said U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix.

Republican members of the state’s House delegation did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

But in his letter Tuesday to the committee, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the money would be directed toward border projects that would allow for more efficient use of active and reserve troops – which were ordered to the border by Trump. He called the border projects “force multipliers” for the troops on the border.

Esper identified 11 projects that would build or replace a total of 175 miles of pedestrian fencing or vehicle barriers along the southern border. Four of those projects would be in or around Yuma: Just under $1.2 billion for more than 60 miles of barriers in the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and another $65 million for construction of about three miles of pedestrian fencing around the Andrade Port of Entry.

"When it comes to Trump getting his wall and attacking migrants, nothing— no funds, no resources, no check nor balance— is off limits," said Rob Vessels, a spokesman for the Sierra Club's Military Outdoors project "Trump’s move to steal this egregious amount of funding from our actual security budget makes clear that his hatred of migrants overpowers his concern for Americans." 

"The border wall and militarization of border towns are a direct affront to the democratic principles, values, and protection of human rights that the US military is entrusted to uphold," Vessels wrote. "As veterans, we continue to side with the people, public lands and values we committed to serve. We will keep fighting this wall and these unlawful moves every step of the way."

The Pentagon in March had identified as many as $12.9 billion in projects that might be tapped for border construction funds, before releasing the final $3.6 billion list this week. Esper said military housing was specifically excluded from projects targeted for funds and that half of the military projects, which would be tapped first, were overseas.

That did little to calm critics.

“Rather than address critical defense needs like readiness, modernization, and disaster recovery, the Trump administration is stealing funds from the military to fulfill a partisan campaign promise,” said a statement from Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the House Armed Services Committee chairman.

The fund diversion was made possible under a section of the federal code that allows the Defense secretary to carry out construction projects, without explicit congressional approval, during a period of national emergency that requires the use of troops.

Trump declared that emergency in February, after a 35-day government shutdown that began when he refused to sign a budget Congress passed that did not include funding he wanted for border security.

At the White House on Wednesday, Trump insisted that the border wall that was a key element of his 2016 election campaign “is going up rapidly,” and predicted that hundreds of miles would be completed “sometime right after the election” next year.

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A Border Patrol vehicle driving along the border barrier west of Lukeville, Arizona.

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