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Homeland Security chief marks completion of 100 miles of 'new border wall' with plaque

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 1/11/2020 Rafael Carranza, Arizona Republic

YUMA — The country's Homeland Security chief marked a milestone on Friday in the progress toward the construction of President Donald Trump's wall along the U.S.-Mexico border: the "completion of 100 miles of new border wall system," commemorated with a special plaque that was mounted on newly erected barriers.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf toured the Yuma area on Friday morning, flanked by U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., the Border Patrol's Yuma Sector Chief Anthony Porvaznik, and Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls.

Wolf concluded his visit with a press conference where he placed the metal plaque on a wooden slab. Two workers then welded it to the 30-foot bollards that are replacing old vehicle barriers along the Colorado River, west of Yuma.

a man standing on top of a wooden fence: Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf places a plaque marking the completion of 100 miles of "new border wall system" on the newly installed bollards on Jan. 10, 2020. © Rafael Carranza/The Republic Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf places a plaque marking the completion of 100 miles of "new border wall system" on the newly installed bollards on Jan. 10, 2020.

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During his remarks, with the new bollards as a backdrop, Wolf insisted that the Trump administration was on track to finish a total of 450 miles of new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of 2020.

To date, most of the new 30-foot fencing has replaced existing border barriers. But Wolf said that the completion of the first 100 miles is in fact a new border wall because it was a significant upgrade from the aging landing mat fencing or vehicle barriers they replaced.

"Every inch of the 100 miles that we have constructed is new border wall system. It's not so-called replacement wall as some of our critics claimed. It is new wall," he said.

"When someone builds a new, modern, smart, five-bedroom house, in place of a dilapidated rundown shack, you do not call it a replacement house. You call it a new house. The same logic applies here," Wolf added. 

The acting secretary's first visit to the Arizona border came after a legal victory that the federal courts handed the Trump administration this week.

The decision allows the administration to use military funds to continue building barriers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Yuma has been a priority area for the construction of newer border fencing.

Construction crews are actively working or planning to replace about 90 miles of outdated fencing with 30-foot bollards in five separate projects.

Wolf defended the Trump administration's focus on building border barriers, saying it is what border agents have said they want. The barriers are effective in reducing human and drug smuggling, he said.

"The wall system you see behind me is an undeniable impediment to smugglers, traffickers, and other criminals who have exploited our lack of effective border infrastructure to smuggle drugs, illicit goods and engage in human trafficking," he said.

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The press conference on Friday took place on the banks of the Colorado River, where construction crews are halfway done replacing 5 miles of vehicle barriers with the 30-foot bollards.

For much of last year, this area had been the busiest point in the Yuma Sector for migrants crossing into the United States to turn themselves in to border agents.

Such activity is essentially gone as apprehensions in the area have dropped significantly in the past six months. Still, the Yuma Sector's chief patrol agent said construction of the barriers along the Colorado River was worth commemorating.

"Walls work and we are here today to recognize the hard work and dedication of so many who have championed our cause and have advocated our needs at the highest levels of government," he said.

One of the biggest of those advocates, and a close collaborator with the Trump administration, is McSally, who faces a tough reelection battle this year against expected Democratic challenger Mark Kelly.

Since her first campaign for Senate in 2018, McSally has been a vocal supporter of the construction of new and upgraded barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"The cartels are nimble and they respond and they change their tactics," McSally said on Friday. "And so us being able to close those gaps and have a border wall system tailored to section by section, community to community, what our agents need, is what's going to help us secure our border."

Wolf's visit to Yuma also attracted criticism. 

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who represents the Yuma area in Congress, said he wasn't invited or even notified of Wolf's visit, though he said he understood why. 

As chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Grijalva has balked at the Trump administration for waiving environmental and cultural regulations to speed up construction along the Arizona border.

He slammed Friday's event.

"I think it's a political show in support of McSally, in this instance, and the president as well, talking about the completion of wall that, A, wasn't necessary and, B, is going to have not only short-term but also long-term detrimental damage both to resources and to people themselves along the borderlands."

a person posing for the camera: Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary Chad Wolf speaks during a visit to the El Paso area on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. © Aaron Montes/El Paso Times Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary Chad Wolf speaks during a visit to the El Paso area on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.

Construction crews have already finished replacing a 22-mile stretch of fencing along the binational urban areas of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, and San Luis, Arizona. Work will now focus in the desert outside the twin border cities, although the Border Patrol said there is no timeline for construction yet.

The $228.6 million to replace 22 miles of fencing in San Luis came from funds that Congress appropriated in the 2018 budget. Another $121 million to replace the 5 miles at the Colorado River that Wolf visited on Friday came from Pentagon funds that allow the military to build barriers in high trafficking areas.

The fate of the remaining three projects with a combined estimated value of $530 million is still uncertain. That money would cover the construction of 64 miles of 30-foot bollards along the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Yuma County. 

The funds used to pay for those three contracts come from canceled military projects. In December, a federal judge in El Paso issued an injunction blocking the Trump administration from using $3.6 billion in the canceled military funds for border wall construction.

But, on Wednesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction, giving Trump and the Pentagon the green light to move forward with construction, at least for now. The case could be appealed to the Supreme Court. 

Trump reacted swiftly on Twitter on Thursday morning, praising the court's decision.

"The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals just reversed a lower court decision & gave us the go ahead to build one of the largest sections of the desperately needed Southern Border Wall, Four Billion Dollars. Entire Wall is under construction or getting ready to start!" he tweeted.

The American Civil Liberties Union announced Friday that its lawyers filed an emergency motion with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seeking an injunction to block the Trump administration from using the $3.6 billion in military funds for a border wall.

Should the San Francisco-based circuit rule in the ACLU's favor, it could create a split at the appellate level that makes it even more likely that the Supreme Court will eventually decide the issue. 

Wolf's visit to Yuma comes a day after his trip to Honduras on Thursday to meet with President Juan Orlando Hernandez to discuss an asylum cooperation agreement with that country.

The Homeland Security Department also has signed agreements with El Salvador and Guatemala.

Those three Central American countries account for the vast majority of asylum seekers reaching the U.S. border fleeing poverty and violence.

The planned agreements, which Wolf said results in the U.S. "sharing the burden" with its neighbors, would allow the Trump administration to send asylum seekers from other countries to those three countries, despite criticism that those countries are not safe enough to take in asylum seekers.

This week, reports surfaced that the U.S. began sending Mexican asylum seekers to Guatemala under that agreement. But the program stopped suddenly.

On Friday, Wolf said they are still talking to Guatemalan officials about taking in other nationalities.

"It is an ongoing process, but we believe it is an effective program that continues to work, has worked over the last 60 days, and we continue to build out," he said.

Wolf added that the agreements would be just another tool in the Trump administration's strategy to tackle illegal immigration into the United States, although critics have also dubbed them as attacks on asylum protections. 

Other tools he mentioned included the construction of border barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the Migrant Protection Protocols.

Under the controversial program, colloquially known as "Remain in Mexico," the Trump administration has sent back about 55,000 migrants to await their asylum proceedings in Mexico. 

Have any news tips or story ideas about the U.S.-Mexico border? Reach the reporter at rafael.carranza@arizonarepublic.com, or follow him on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Homeland Security chief marks completion of 100 miles of 'new border wall' with plaque

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