(AP) SAN RAFAEL VALLEY, Ariz. Work crews have steadily erected hundreds of double-stacked shipping containers topped by razor wire along Arizona’s remote eastern border with Mexico as Republican Gov. Doug Ducey prepares to leave office.
Despite the objections of the US government, environmentalists, and an incoming governor who has called it a waste of resources, Ducey pressed ahead until protesters slowed, then halted, the work in recent days.
Democratic Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs said last week that she is “looking at all options” and has not decided what to do with the containers after her Jan. 5 inauguration. She previously proposed repurposing the containers as affordable housing, which is becoming an increasingly popular option for the homeless and low-income people.
“I don’t know how much it will cost to remove the containers or what the cost will be,” Hobbs said in an interview with Phoenix PBS station KAET on Wednesday.
Federal agencies have told Arizona that the construction on US land is illegal and that it must be stopped. Ducey responded on October 21 by suing federal officials over their objections, escalating the conflict to the courts.
According to environmental groups, the containers could endanger natural water systems and endangered species.
“A lot of damage could be done here between now and early January,” said Russ McSpadden, a Center for Biological Diversity Southwest conservation advocate who has been visiting the site on a regular basis since late October.
Ducey maintains that Arizona has sole or shared jurisdiction over the 60-foot (18.2 metre) strip on which the containers rest, and that the state has a constitutional right to protect residents from the “imminent danger of criminal and humanitarian crises.”
“Arizona will do what Joe Biden refuses to do: secure the border in any way we can.” Ducey stated when Arizona sued the United States government. “We’re not going back.”
The federal agencies are requesting that Ducey’s complaint be dismissed.
Border security was a major focus of Donald Trump’s presidency and is still a hot topic among Republican politicians. Kari Lake, Hobbs’ Republican opponent, campaigned on a promise to send the National Guard to the border on her first day in office. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who was recently re-elected to a third term, has pushed to continue construction of Trump’s signature wall on mostly private land along his state’s border with Mexico, and has raised funds to help pay for it. He has also received attention for transporting migrants to Democratic-led cities far from the southern border, such as New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
Ducey’s decision comes amid a record influx of migrants at the border. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, border agents stopped 2.38 million migrants, a 37% increase over the previous year. In August, the annual total surpassed 2 million for the first time, more than doubling the highest level during Trump’s presidency, in 2019.
Ducey’s container wall project began in late summer in Yuma, Arizona, a popular crossing point with thousands of asylum seekers arriving daily and frequently finding ways to avoid the new barriers. The containers filled gaps left by Trump’s 450-mile (724-kilometer) border wall construction. However, the remote San Rafael Valley — the most recent construction site — is not commonly used by migrants and was not included in Trump’s wall construction plan. McSpadden reported seeing no migrants or Border Patrol agents, only hikers and backpacking cyclists.
The development extends from oak forests in the Huachuca foothills southeast of Tucson to the valley’s grasslands. By the middle of last week, cranes had transported over 900 blue or rust-colored metal containers down a freshly scraped dirt road, then double-stacked them up to 17 feet (5.2 metres) high alongside waist-high crisscrossed steel vehicle barriers. Workers welded sheet metal over gaps and bolted the containers together.
Still, yawning gaps remain in the new container wall, including a few hundred yards (metres) of open space on terrain far too steep to place the containers. There are gaps nearly three feet (1 metre) wide in some low lying wash areas.
Environmental activists who have been protesting at the Cochise County site for the past week have largely halted construction in recent days by standing in front of construction vehicles. A dozen demonstrators sat atop stacked containers or in camp chairs near tents and vehicles where they sleep on a recent day.
Yuma’s work cost around $6 million and was completed in 11 days, with 130 containers covering approximately 3,800 feet (about 1,160 meters). The Bureau of Reclamation informed Arizona that building on federal land violated US law. The Cocopah Indian Tribe also complained that the state did not obtain permission to construct on its nearby reservation.
The newer project is far more expensive, costing $95 million and requiring up to 3,000 containers to cover 10 miles (16 kilometres) in Arizona’s southeastern Cochise County. The US Forest Service has also ordered Arizona to stop work in the Coronado National Forest and has recently warned visitors about potential hazards posed by construction equipment used in the state’s “unauthorised activities.”
The Center for Biological Diversity has agreed with the federal government that the construction is illegal under US law.
While Ducey’s lawsuit does not address environmental concerns, environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity say the work in the Coronado National Forest endangers endangered or threatened species such as the western yellow-billed cuckoo and the Mexican spotted owl, as well as big cats such as the occasional ocelot.
Southeastern Arizona’s biologically diverse region is known for its “sky islands,” or isolated mountain ranges rising over 6,000 feet (1,828 metres) above “seas” of desert and grasslands. Black bears, bobcats, ringtails, spotted skunks, white-nosed coatis, and pig-like javelina are all regularly photographed by wildlife cameras in the area.
McSpadden claims that the work has caused oak and juniper trees to fall and that he has discovered spools of razor wire and other construction debris on national forest land.
Environmentalists warn of the dangers of placing the containers atop a San Pedro River watershed that floods each summer during the monsoon season. A protected area called Rancho Los Fresnos, just south of the border, is home to the beaver, a threatened species in Mexico.
According to Wildlands Network biologist Myles Traphagen, who spoke at a border issues briefing last month, much of the damage caused by the Trump administration’s border wall construction was never repaired. He mapped the Arizona and New Mexico sections of the border wall last year to highlight damaged areas. This year’s report highlights areas that the group considers to be reconstruction priorities.
The remote Guadalupe Canyon in Arizona’s southeast corner has been forever reshaped by dynamite blasts. Towering steel bollards blocked wildlife corridors, preventing animals from Mexico such as tiny elf owls, pronghorns, and big cats from crossing into the United States to hunt and mate.