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Border wall work camp sparks coronavirus anxiety in New Mexico town

Border wall in Columbus, New Mexico (Credit: KFOX14)
Border wall in Columbus, New Mexico (Credit: KFOX14)
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One year ago, President Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border, a controversial move that gave him access to money for his long-promised border wall.

One month ago, Trump declared a national emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Those two declarations intersect in a small town in Southern New Mexico, where opponents of the president's border wall are celebrating a small victory: They were able to shut down a temporary worker camp, but they haven't been able to stop the wall.

In Columbus, New Mexico, a cluster of trailers was being dismantled and relocated. The trailers were meant to serve as temporary housing for construction workers who are building the border wall in the remote desert not far from this community.

But critics argued that bringing dozens of out-of-state workers into the middle of this small community during a public health emergency was irresponsible and dangerous.

"This little community doesn't even have a hospital in it but yet we're going to be shipping in workers from out of state. We're not sure where they come from, we're not sure what kind of precautions they're taking," said Angel Pena, the president of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a Las Cruces-based organization that supports border communities. "It's not fair to anybody. And just the fact that our communities are so poor down here, it makes no sense to be taking such risks."

Nuestra Tierra joined with officials in Columbus and other state leaders in calling for the trailers to be removed from the middle of town.

And they prevailed.

Over the weekend, stairwells were dismantled and the trailers were relocated, less than two weeks after their arrival in this town of 1,600.

"For those people who are coming in, we have nothing against them. It's a job, right? And they have families to feed and we get that. We're out here hustling on the frontera as well," said Pena. "But why now? Let's push pause on this and let's think about all the impacts that we're taking on."

It's not clear where the trailers or the workers ended up. Some trailers can be seen parked on federal land near the Columbus Port of Entry. But the trailers notwithstanding, construction on the border wall continues. The project is exempt from New Mexico's stay-at-home orders.

A statement issued this week from Customs and Border Protection reads in part: "Bollard wall system work is continuing in NM and elsewhere along the border."

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Texas-based SLS Company is currently building 46 miles of 30-foot bollard style barrier at a cost of $789 million dollars.

The stretch near the Columbus Port of Entry is in the El Paso Border Patrol sector.

"There are two priorities that I have on my mind from the onset: the integrity of this border and the lives and safety of my agents," said El Paso Border Patrol Sector Chief Gloria Chavez during an interview in December of last year.

Chavez has maintained that these barriers are of critical importance. A position she's held since her days in California's El Centro sector.

"With each new mile of border wall along side other investments in technology and manpower, the Border Patrol continues to enhance operational control of the border," Chavez said in a CBP video released in March of 2019.

But critics have long argued that the border wall - especially in remote parts of the desert - is a waste of money and resources. A debate that's going to continue, with or without national health emergency.

"These barriers have proved to be a critical component in gaining operational control of the border," Chavez said.

But Pena disagrees.

"Okay, regardless of the politics, regardless of what it's going to do to our economy and our public land system, right now, let's push pause and put our families first, let's think of our youth, let's think of New Mexicans," said Pena.

The border wall is exempt from stay-at-home restrictions because it is considered an infrastructure operation.

As for the workers on the wall, KFOX14 never heard back from SLS but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says contractors are following federal guidelines when it comes to the protection of public health.

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