Ongoing Border Wall Construction Puts All of Us at Risk
by Kevin Bixby and Daryl T. Smith, MPH
While New Mexicans are being asked to take extraordinary precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump Administration and its contractors continue to build the border wall, wasting federal resources and putting the lives of New Mexicans at risk.
At dozens of job sites along the border from California to Texas, workers from around the country still converge every day to work together in close quarters building the wall. They stay at local hotels and patronize local businesses, potentially infecting local residents and putting a strain on border communities whose focus now is on survival.
In New Mexico, "man camps" have sprung up in recent days in the middle of the tiny border town of Columbus.
Temporary housing for border wall workers in Columbus, NM. Photo Ray Trejo.
The fact that border wall construction hasn’t slowed in the face of an unprecedented national health crisis might seem irresponsible, but it’s not surprising. There is a lot of money at stake for a handful of well-connected companies racing to complete lucrative contracts that might be cancelled if a Democrat becomes president.
For example, Houston-based SLSCO is currently building 46 miles of new border wall in New Mexico’s Luna and Dona Ana counties under a $789 million contract, part of more than $1.5 billion total it has received in border wall contracts to date, according to the Washington Post. Barnard Co. and its affiliate BFBC, both out of Bozeman (MT), have landed contracts worth more than $1 billion to build new walls in Arizona and New Mexico.
But it is Albuquerque’s own Southwest Valley Constructors—a Kiewit Company subsidiary that didn’t exist before 2017—that has won the biggest prize so far, raking in nearly $1.8 billion to build the border wall in its short but profitable existence. Last month its workers were filmed dynamiting Native American burial sites to build the border wall in Arizona. At the moment they are engaged in erecting new walls on private land in Texas seized by eminent domain, as well as installing new walls in southeast Arizona that will close off some of the last remaining trans-border corridors for jaguars and Mexican wolves, slicing through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.
Behind all of this frenzy of wall building is President Trump’s obsession to finish 500 miles of new border wall by 2021. To date, his administration has amassed more than $18 billion to build the wall, most of it diverted from the military. If all goes as planned, when the last dollar is spent and the last contract completed, the entirety of California and New Mexico, most of Arizona and a good chunk of Texas will be sealed off with new 30’ steel bollard walls.
It’s bad enough that the Trump Administration continues to recklessly spend obscene amounts of money to fulfill the President’s campaign promise that could be used instead to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The money currently being spent on building the border wall in New Mexico, for example, would have paid for more than 15,000 advanced ventilators at $50,000 each.
But it’s worse when you consider that every mile of border wall installed under the Trump Administration has been accomplished using an obscure legal authority that has allowed the President to ignore the Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and dozens of other laws to expedite construction of the wall, causing irreparable harm to border wildlife, the environment and communities.
In normal times, the border wall is a costly undertaking, and—as most Americans believe, according to polls—unnecessary. But these are far from normal times. The danger posed by Covid-19 to our communities, our families and our lives cannot be ignored. It’s time to pull the plug on building the border wall.
[Kevin Bixby is executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces. Daryl T. Smith is a retired public health professional in Albuquerque.]