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DHS will close 'gaps' in border wall, begin clean-up work in Southern Arizona

The Department of Homeland Security said Monday it will close some gaps along the border wall, and work to clean up now-abandoned construction projects in Southern Arizona using millions in defense funding earmarked to counter drug-smuggling organizations.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said U.S. Customs and Border Protection can move forward with "activities necessary to address life, safety, environmental, and remediation requirements for border barrier projects" that were part of the Trump administration's drive to build a wall along most of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Much of this work will occur in the Tucson Sector, which covers most of Southern Arizona from the Yuma County line to the New Mexico border, Mayorkas said. 

As one of his first moves in January, President Joe Biden announced that he was ending the construction of the border wall. 

"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." 

By April, DHS announced that it would take steps to "protect border communities from physical dangers resulting from the previous administration’s approach to border wall construction," and began remediation efforts in the Rio Grande Valley and in San Diego as part of a plan to "address the damage resulting from the prior administration’s border wall construction." 

The new announcement extends those remediation efforts to Arizona, including a slash of earth carved into Shadow Mountain— a rich area of biodiversity in Cochise County, near Guadalupe Canyon just miles from New Mexico.

Congressional leaders praise effort, ask for 'refocus' on enviro damage

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly praised the announcement, writing that he is "glad" that DHS has "heard our needs from Arizona and will take action to address some of the challenges at the Arizona-Mexico border."

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"I look forward to reviewing the details of the plan as closing some of the gaps and installing gates will be positive steps to secure sections of the border," Kelly said. "Repairing land damaged in Cochise County, like Guadalupe Canyon, will help protect homes and ranch-land from flooding and other hazards while restoring natural barriers in the landscape that support security goals."

Kelly called the announcement a "good step forward," but added that "we still need smart border security that meets Arizona’s unique needs while ensuring a secure, orderly, and humane response to this border crisis. I will continue to hold the Biden administration accountable to that." 

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva said that DHS should "refocus" their efforts on mitigating environmental damage. 

"Continued construction at the border must focus on mitigating damages caused by the border wall of the previous administration. The Biden administration must use funds to remove divisive barriers that have damaged the environment and pursue humane border policies," Grijalva said. "I continue to urge the Biden administration to meaningfully engage with local stakeholders on mitigating and repairing the environmental harm caused by construction, cancel all remaining contracts, remove troops and military equipment from the border, and rescind the harmful REAL ID Act waiver of 2005 that has facilitated this destruction." 

While federal construction projects have to follow a series of federal laws regarding the environment and cultural artifacts, the Secretary of Homeland Security can waive these rules under the 2005 act, this includes the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Following the law's passage, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff used the authority at least five times from 2005 to 2009 to "waive in their entirety" more than 37 federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, to build more than 550 miles of border wall and roads along the southern border.

Chertoff, and his successor under the Obama administration Jeh Johnson, waived the environmental impacts of new construction and border enforcement throughout the southwest, including protected federal lands like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Big Bend National Park.

However, the Trump administration's round-robin of Homeland Security secretaries used waivers at least 29 times, and as late as April 2020, DHS was issuing new waivers for construction for around 15 miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley.

DHS will install new gates in some sections

Mayorkas said that the projects would include the closure of "small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities," as well as the construction of "incomplete" gates. 

"Work will be completed within the Tucson, El Paso, and Yuma Sectors to address safety concerns by closing construction access gaps that were left open at the time of the border barrier construction pause, and will also include adding missing gates, addressing incomplete foundations, and connecting power to gates that are already hung but are currently inoperable," Mayorkas said. "Rescue gates provide access for Border Patrol agents and first responders to access irrigation canals in emergency situations where the water is fast moving and extremely dangerous.  These emergency rescue gates are currently inoperable due to missing hardware or being welded shut," he said.

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Mayorkas' announcement comes as CBP continues to encounter thousands along the U.S.-Mexico border, including large number of people attempting to cross into the United States through the Yuma Sector, especially along the Colorado River near the Morelos Dam. Last week, the chief of the Yuma Sector Chris Clem wrote on Twitter that agents encountered more than 2,600 people on Dec. 10, hailing from more than 30 countries.

CBP will also work to install or complete drainage to prevent flooding, install erosion control, and clean-up left over construction material as well as remediate "laydown" yards where federal contractors abandoned hundreds of steel beams and panels, Mayorkas said. 

The effort will also complete the construction of patrol roads used by Border Patrol, including adding guardrails, signage, and "integrating" existing roads to "address safety concerns." 

CBP received $6.3 billion in counter-drug funding

During the Trump administration, CBP received about $6.3 billion in funding from the Defense Department's Counter-Narcotic funding to build 291 miles of new border barriers. The first project, started in 2019, led to the construction of 129 miles of new primary border wall, replacing what the agency called "dilapidated or outdated barriers," across the border, including the Yuma and Tucson Sectors. A second project, began in 2020 and built another 126 miles of new wall across the border, including projects in San Diego and El Cento, as well as projects along Southern Arizona.

Since January 2017, CBP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have constructed, or planned to construct, around 738 miles of primary and secondary fencing across the U.S.-Mexico border at a cost of $14.97 billion. This included new walls, as well as barriers that replaced what the agency called "dilapidated and/or outdated designs." 

When Congress refused to fund the Trump administration's efforts in 2017, the administration went forward, raiding 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 that aid the U.S. military.

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. 

The agency has also torn across the landscape of the Peloncillo Mountains and Guadalupe Canyon in Cochise County, dynamiting a sharp scar across Shadow Mountain, prompting a ranch in Cochise County to file suit in late 2020. 

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. 

Environmental groups sharply criticized the construction, blasting CBP, USACE and its contractors for intentionally destroying saguaro cacti, tearing through watersheds, using wells to draw water from the historic and sacred Quitobaquito Spring, and severing the migration pathways for endangered species. 

Several of these lawsuits remain in federal court heading toward settlement talks as the Biden administration attempts to wind down construction. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

From a 'laydown' yard containing dozens of steel panels and beams slated for the border wall, the construction road goes into the distant mountains east of Douglas, Ariz.

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