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Officials urge halt to border wall construction during pandemic

Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation and state officials are calling for the Trump administration to halt construction on the wall at the border with Mexico because of concerns workers may spread the coronavirus.

They also feel resources are needed elsewhere.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., is among lawmakers who wrote a letter last week to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, urging them to stop the project during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our state is in dire need of support from the Trump administration,” Heinrich said in a statement to the Journal. “Small businesses are suffering, we need more ventilators, and the list goes on. The last thing we need is to put workers and the surrounding communities at risk when they already lack the health care infrastructure to handle this public health crisis.”

His colleague, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, said in a statement that the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should respect the state’s shelter-in-place directives and “halt construction of the border wall in New Mexico during the coronavirus pandemic emergency.”

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office would prefer construction be halted until at least July, when the pandemic is projected to be past its peak in the state.

“The real national emergency is the health crisis caused by the coronavirus,” Morales told the Journal. “Our hospitals need ventilators. They need PPE (personal protective equipment).”

But Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Dennis Smith said there were no plans to halt construction.

“Wall construction continues unaffected,” he told the Journal.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Raini Brunson, whose agency is overseeing the construction, said workers were taking precautions.

SLSCO Ltd., a Texas company, is working on the project. It was awarded a $789 million contract by the Army Corps in Albuquerque. More than 30 miles of border wall had been completed in New Mexico as of late February, with another 65 miles scheduled for completion in coming months.

“The safety of our employees, including that of our contractors, and the people in the communities in which we work is our top priority,” Brunson said.

Contractors are required to submit safety plans to the Army Corps, and those plans must be amended to include COVID-19 measures, according to a statement Brunson sent to the Journal. They must be coordinated with federal, state and local guidelines.

But the measures may not include a requirement for out-of-state workers to self-isolate for 14 days, as they would be notified was necessary if they traveled through an airport, according to Corps officials.

Brunson said workers are vetted but said the contractor, not the Corps, kept track of how many workers were from out of state. Efforts to reach the contractor were unsuccessful.

Columbus Mayor Esequiel Salas, whose town is near current construction, said it was his understanding that many of the workers were from the Las Cruces-El Paso area and other communities in southern New Mexico, including Columbus.

Salas said he has talked with the company doing the work and feels assured it is taking precautions.

“They wouldn’t want their workers taking the virus back home to their families,” he told the Journal.

A camp had been under construction in the center of Columbus to house about 40 workers, Salas said. But an agreement was reached between the village and the contractor to move the camp out of the village, and the trailers were removed before workers moved in.

As of April 3, 151 miles of new primary or secondary border wall had been constructed nationally since January 2017. Of that, only two miles of primary wall and three miles of secondary wall have been built in places where a barrier previously existed.

CBP and the Army Corps of Engineers anticipate approximately 450 miles of new border wall to be complete or under construction by the end of 2020, Smith said.

Scott Turner: sturner@abqjournal.com

 

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