Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA TERESA – The construction site along the Mexican border, between El Paso and Santa Teresa, is all but abandoned.
Giant earthmovers sit dormant beside twisted heaps of rust-colored metal. Water leaks from a massive tank nearby, forming a puddle before it disappears into the parched earth below.
Now and then, a Border Patrol truck speeds by, dragging tires – smoothing the dirt to better see any footprints later – before the area falls silent again.
In one direction, the imposing spires of a newly constructed wall shoot up a mountainside where they collide with the past in the form of the thick mesh and squat stature of the old wall.
Two weeks ago, this stretch was bustling with the incessant beep of machinery, the scrape of metal against coarse soil and upturned dust devils as dozens of workers laid the foundation for another section of former President Donald Trump’s border wall.
That all screeched to a halt with an executive order, on Jan. 20, from President Joe Biden that called the wall – promoted as a way to crack down on illegal immigration during Trump’s 2016 election campaign – a “waste of money” and ordered construction stopped by last Wednesday.
Immigration advocates applaud the stoppage. Those involved in industrial expansion in New Mexico border towns see no negative effects at all, because much of the work was contracted out of state – although some local leaders have welcomed the slight economic boom from out-of-state workers spending money in restaurants and hotels. And some of those involved in the project decry the loss of work and the layoffs caused by the stoppage.
In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it has suspended construction on the wall “except for activities that are safety related” while “assessments are conducted and plans are established in compliance with the President’s Proclamation.”
Of the 118 miles of wall that had been designated for replacement along New Mexico’s border with Mexico, CBP said it had only 18 miles left, including six miles in pre-construction.
Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman Steve Pearce released a statement Jan. 20 saying Biden’s executive order will “present serious problems” for New Mexico.
“Cutting off border wall funding will have a harmful impact on immigration policy and will make our American border less secure,” Pearce said.
Pablo, a worker with one of the contracted companies – El Paso-based Concrete Unlimited – said he was caught off guard by the order.
“I never planned for this, but it’s happening,” he said, in Spanish. “They’re just gathering the metal and returning it.”
Pablo, who didn’t give his last name, said he was part of a crew building the wall from Sunland Park to Antelope Wells. The crew had 10 miles left, he said.
Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said Biden’s move to stop the wall is “very symbolic” for his supporters.
“If you’re going to say: What is Trump known for? It seems to me that one of those things is building a wall, so if you take that down, that’s sort of a takedown of Trump,” she said, adding that it’s just as “substantive” a statement for Trump’s supporters as it is for Biden’s.
In a 2020 Journal poll, 52% of likely New Mexico voters surveyed said they would prefer to stop the building of the wall, while 38% voiced support for it.
‘A sense of hope’
An immigrant advocate says he sees hope in Biden’s actions.
Adriel Orozco, executive director at New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, said the first few days of the Biden administration have brought “cautious optimism.”
“Things were really hard under the Trump administration – that wall was one small aspect of so many things that had been thrown our way,” he said. “… Seeing these actions and these swift actions by President Biden have really created a sense of hope and a lot of relief.”
Orozco said the wall stoppage signals a potential shift toward a more “humane approach” to immigration, “one that centers more on the reasons why people are coming (and) how is it that we’re addressing those issues.”
“There are more than 60,000 folks who are still on the other side of the border living in shelters, on the streets, waiting to get their fair shot at trying to request asylum,” he said.
Despite the change in administration, Orozco said he remains cautious about the possibility of a high rate of deportations, like those during Obama’s presidency.
He said he hopes Biden does “stand by his commitment” for “comprehensive” immigration reform and devotes more resources toward the border to help speed up the processing of asylum-seekers.
Little economic impact
On the business side of things, Jerry Pacheco, president of the Border Industrial Association, said stopping construction of the wall has no effect on New Mexico’s workers and little economic impact at the border.
“There’s not a concern down here, I can tell you that much,” he said.
Pacheco said the companies building the wall are from out of state, places like Montana and Texas, and use materials and workers from out of state.
“Unless it’s a political discussion, the wall’s not playing a big role in anybody’s life, at least on behalf of the industrial base here,” he said.
But a foreman with Concrete Unlimited, who wouldn’t give his name, spoke frankly about Biden’s order and the hundreds of people he had to lay off from sites in New Mexico.
“This (expletive) president shoots it in the (expletive) because everybody hates (expletive) Trump,” the foreman said. “Even though he couldn’t shut his mouth on (expletive) Twitter and he didn’t know when to clam up, he was still a good president to put people to work.”
The foreman said he laid off 40 people, including Pablo, from this stretch, and 160 near Columbus.
He said he initially had 500 people working between El Paso and Antelope Wells.
“They’re the ones that are going to suffer,” he said.