People work on a portion of border wall in Yuma, Ariz., in January. Construction on the wall has not stopped despite the pandemic.

People work on a portion of border wall in Yuma, Ariz., in January. Construction on the wall has not stopped despite the pandemic. Elliot Spagat / AP

Border Wall Construction Continues During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Lawmakers and advocates call on the Trump administration to stop construction to protect public health and save taxpayer dollars.  

The Trump administration has not ceased construction on the United States-Mexico border wall despite calls from lawmakers and environmental advocates to save taxpayer funds and protect the public’s health during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Over the last month, non-essential services have been suspended across much of the country and the federal government has mobilized to respond to the pandemic. However, construction on the administration’s signature Southwest border project to prevent illegal immigration continues. President Trump tweeted in March that the border wall is “going up fast” and “we need the wall more than ever,” despite Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying he was not aware that a physical barrier would prevent the spread of the virus.  

“It is deeply concerning to learn that government officials, contractors and construction workers in border communities will defy public health orders and continue border wall construction unabated, perhaps even accelerating construction in our border communities,” wrote Reps. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.; Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.; Filemon Vela, D-Texas; and Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., to the Homeland Security, Defense, and Justice departments on April 8. Additionally, “As the virus continues to spread and our healthcare system grows even more strained, all federal resources being spent on the wall are desperately needed to fight the pandemic,” the lawmakers said. 

The New York Times reported on April 1 that towns and states along the U.S.-Mexico border are experiencing a “huge influx of workers.” While other states around the country have cut back on construction, “the intensification of construction during the pandemic is raising fears among residents of Ajo, Ariz., and other nearby border communities...that the growing influx of workers increases their risk of exposure,” the paper reported. These rural border towns have limited access to medical care and other resources. 

Additionally, the lawmakers cited how earlier this year the Homeland Security Department invoked a 2005 law to waive procurement regulations to speed up wall construction. “This includes waiving laws that protect our basic public health and safety rights, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Solid Waste Disposal Act,” they wrote. “Using this waiver authority is highly controversial and dangerous at any time, but using it now in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is reckless, irresponsible and unacceptable.” 

The House Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Thompson, wrote to the president on March 19 asking him to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to suspend construction, so it can “dedicate its resources to the building of temporary hospitals and infrastructure needed to respond to the coronavirus.”

Public health and environmental groups and experts have raised similar concerns. 

“To place workers from across the country who have not been tested and who cannot practice social distancing in vulnerable communities is unconscionable,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, former associate administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice, told Government Executive. “To add insult to injury we are utilizing billions of taxpayer dollars to build a wall, when they could be used to defeat the Coronavirus pandemic.” Ali is also a member of the Environmental Protection Network, an organization composed of former EPA career staff and confirmation-level appointees that advocates for bipartisan clean air, water and land, and climate protections. 

Also, 109 state and national civil rights, immigration, religious and environmental organizations expressed their concerns to Justice, Defense and DHS in a letter on March 26.

“Shortly after President Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency, his administration also announced plans to continue construction in every border state, with 150 miles slated for California, New Mexico and Arizona, and 15 active sites in Texas,” they wrote. “Your actions risk government agents and contractors spreading the coronavirus in Southern border communities, place undue strain on border communities whose main focus is survival, and strip away precious resources from the federal government that should be used to respond to the crisis and ensure that communities are prepared to stop the spread of the virus.” 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the contractors working on the border wall, “follows federal guidelines, but declined to share specifics on how it’s protecting public health during construction,” The Associated Press reported on April 2.

During his State of the Union address on February 4, Trump said, “We have now completed over 100 miles and will have over 500 miles fully completed by early next year.” On Monday, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott tweeted that 158 miles are completed, 192 miles are under construction and 403 miles are in pre-construction for what is considered the most costly wall in the world, as NPR reported

The administration has continued to issue border wall contracts during the pandemic, according to a report in Construction Drive, but the $2.2 trillion CARES Act for coronavirus relief does not allow funds to be transferred for the border wall, as the administration has done with other funding

The Homeland Security and Justice departments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to Government Executive for comment. A Defense spokesperson said: “As you know, DoD is the supporting agency with respect to border wall construction. The lead agency is the Department of Homeland Security, and as such, we would defer to them regarding any potential changes in the construction timeline.”