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Herrell, GOP congressmen call on Biden to finish border wall

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., amid steel stockpiled in Luna County on the U.S.-Mexico border, calls on President Joe Biden to finish the wall. (Algernon D’Ammassa/Las Cruces Sun-News)

LUNA COUNTY – The wind was mostly still Monday afternoon in a remote part of Luna County near the New Mexico Bootheel, alongside the steel bollard barrier marking the U.S.-Mexico border.

Between the slats one could view the desert heading into mountains south of the border in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Not a person could be seen at the site, where contractors had stockpiled steel and rock, old vehicle barriers, and construction equipment after President Joe Biden paused work on the border wall on his first day in office, Jan. 20. Trailers sat empty near a collection of portable toilets.

After several minutes of silence, a line of pickups and SUVs passed over a hill to the east on the access road trailing the wall, kicking up dust as they circled and parked at the barrier.

Several Republican members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform paid a visit to El Paso and southern New Mexico on Monday to speak with U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel, local farmers and ranchers, and select invitees, culminating in an inspection of the border wall and this site, located two miles down a dirt road from Highway 9, a few miles east of Hachita.

Leading the delegation was U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a first-term Republican and member of the committee. Herrell represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses all of southern New Mexico, including the length of its border with Mexico.

Walking through aisles between piles of steel, Herrell remarked, “If we don’t finish the gaps in the barrier, the American public will be paying to destroy all this material or store it.

“It will actually cost the American population more money to stop construction on the wall than to spend the dollars that have been adjudicated and passed by Congress.”

Biden’s proclamation halted all segments of the wall under construction, whether they were funded by direct appropriations or funds that were diverted from other appropriations under former President Donald Trump’s February 2019 declaration of a national emergency at the border.

Trump invoked the National Emergency Act to appropriate $8 billion, including $3.6 billion in military construction funding, to pay for 234 miles of border wall construction after Congress did not authorize the $5.7 billion he had requested.

The White House has yet to announce whether it will resume construction on unfinished segments or what it will do with the materials paid for and – at this location, at least – baking in the sun.

Rancher Bill Hooper said unfinished segments abutting agricultural properties were exposing owners to hazards from human traffickers and their clients passing through their lands.

“It’s really putting us in a bind here on the border,” Hooper said.

Scott Chandler, another rancher at the gathering, said halting construction was “politicizing the border instead of doing what we need to do. No matter Republican or Democrat, you shouldn’t be for seeing the things that’s happening down here.”

In neighboring Lordsburg, U.S. Border Patrol agents reported a rescue last week of an 8-year-old girl the agency said had been instructed by smugglers to walk north across the border, and was found walking with another family of migrants in the desert miles away from the nearest residences or services.

Herrell said she and eight of her Republican colleagues started their day visiting a Border Patrol facility in El Paso and the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in Doña Ana County, followed by a “roundtable” in the village of Columbus with local elected officials, law enforcement officers, and ranchers and farmers. After that, the Republican representatives moved west into the desert to view the wall.

Herrell said the delegation heard accounts of property damage and safety hazards spawned by criminal activity near the border, as opposed to immigrants who come seeking asylum in the United States.

“This isn’t about the people that are coming into the nation willing to surrender, these are the people that want to stay under the radar,” she said.

Arguing that property owners and agricultural workers were not being adequately protected, Herrell added, “This should be about Americans first, and the priority has obviously been shifted to where we’re making this about – and exploiting, I think – the unaccompanied minors that are coming here illegally instead of protecting men and women that own these ranches and farms here on the border.”

The Border Patrol reported 71,808 land border encounters in the El Paso Sector – which includes New Mexico – so far in the 2021 fiscal year, compared to 26,593 this time last year.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., left, speaks with New Mexico ranchers Bill Hooper and Scott Chandler on Monday at a site where wall construction materials are stockpiled in Luna County near the U.S.-Mexico border. (Algernon D’Ammassa/Las Cruces Sun-News)

As he spoke with ranchers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., called the Biden administration’s pause on wall construction “an open invitation to other countries to take advantage of us. There’s no spine, there’s no rationale and there’s no patriotism for protecting the country.”

He also remarked, “I’m surprised we can’t get a Democrat here.”

One local elected Democrat, Columbus village trustee Bill Johnson, said he was not invited, although the delegation met with officials and stakeholders in Columbus.

“My whole belief from the start is that with all the technology we have in this country, a wall that limits animal migration has always been a bad idea,” Johnson told the Las Cruces Sun-News. “I am also tired of some folks that say (Democrats) are for open borders.”

Elected in 2020, Herrell is the lone Republican in New Mexico’s congressional delegation. The rest, all Democrats, oppose the border wall.

Lauren Villagran of the El Paso Times contributed to this report.

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