EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The federal government has built 109 miles of new or replacement border wall in the El Paso Sector the past couple of years and more is coming.
Dozens of miles of 30-foot steel bollard barrier are rising on empty expanse between Santa Teresa and Columbus, New Mexico and construction is picking up in El Paso’s Lower Valley.
“We’re hoping that by the end of January we’re done with seven projects. That’ll give us 150 miles of solid, 30-foot steel bollard wall to replace old mesh. Now, that’s a barrier because we still have places in Deming (New Mexico) with chain-link, sticks with barbed wire and some vehicle (obstacle),” said Border Patrol Sector Chief Gloria I. Chavez.
The work is part of the Trump administration’s goal of building or replacing 450 miles of border wall by the end of the year. The construction has taken on added urgency – and controversy – as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage along the border and the Nov. 3 presidential election draws near.
As he did in Tucson, Arizona last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark A. Morgan came to El Paso on Wednesday to pitch the importance of better walls and a firm immigration policy in the era of COVID-19.
In an exclusive interview with Border Report, Morgan said it would be a mistake for any future administration to give up on wall construction or try to reverse Trump administration programs like the Migrant Protection Protocols that stopped the migrant surge from Central America last year and have discouraged further mass migration.
“By February of this year, we had reduced illegal immigration by 75%. We went from releasing 230,000 individuals in the U.S. — which we never heard from again — in Fiscal Year 2019 to (a few thousands) by 2020. We all but ended catch and release. Things changed because of the tools this president has provided us,” Morgan said.
He added that “if those things stop,” the 140,000 unauthorized migrants who were caught or surrendered themselves at the border in May 2019 would be nothing compared to the number of people who will come.
“What’s going to come next is going to make that look like child’s play. You can take that to the bank,” Morgan said.
Fernando Garcia, executive director of El Paso’s Border Network for Human Rights, said Morgan’s comments this close to the election show the Trump administration is still trying to score political points with conservative voters through immigration fearmongering.
“Trump thinks he can continue to use migrants to overcome his political troubles,” Garcia said. “A new administration has to reverse those racist and erroneous policies. Migration has many root causes and is part of the history of this country. Immigration should be treated as humane and necessary, not as a criminal act. That generates terror for political purposes.”
The COVID-19 threat and stash houses
Morgan also talked about the growing number of stash houses along the border where smugglers pack migrants into crowded, unsanitary quarters with no regard for the spread of the coronavirus. In El Paso, at least seven such houses have been raided recently.
“Even before, stash houses were unsanitary (and) crowded, but now you throw in the pandemic, no social distancing, no (personal protective equipment) no hand sanitizer and that’s an active Petri dish,” he said.
The acting CBP commissioner railed against transnational criminal organizations that for decades have made money on the backs of people looking for jobs or a better life in the United States. But he also chastised the migrants who’re risking catching or spreading COVID-19 making the trip now.
“I used to go hard after the cartels, those disgusting, despicable organizations […] I’m still going after them, but the immigrants themselves who are trying to enter in the middle of a global pandemic, they have a responsibility, too,” he said. “They are knowingly and willingly allowing themselves into stash houses and tractor-trailers […] They have a responsibility to listen to the medical experts across the world and not try to illegally enter this country.”
Morgan toured the border wall along a stretch in El Paso that shows the weathered 18-foot mesh barrier and towering new 30-foot steel bollard.
The first can still be climbed over or cut by migrants or their “guides,” while the latter poses a formidable barrier.
“This makes it impossible for the average young adult male to shimmy up like they used to. Unfortunately, we’re still having people that are trying and falling and injuring themselves,” he said. “We’re trying to get the message across to […] first of all, you shouldn’t come to this country illegally and you sure as heck shouldn’t try to climb over a 30-foot steel wall with an anti-climb plate. You’re going to get seriously injured.”
Mexican drug cartels, a high-tech wall and protesters
Standing a few yards from the Rio Grande, Morgan reflected on the extreme drug violence going on across the border. Juarez, Mexico this year has seen some 1,400 homicides. Most of them are drug related, according to authorities there, and many of the victims have been tortured, mutilated, beheaded or burned.
“It’s something that should resonate with the American people. Why do you think there’s so much violence on the Mexican side? Why are the cartels fighting each other? They’re fighting over the drug smuggling and human trafficking corridors” leading into the United States, he said.
That violence rarely spills into American border cities like El Paso, Laredo and Brownsville, Texas. Law enforcement and drug experts say that’s because of U.S. vigilance and Mexican criminals’ fear of an American justice system that cannot be coerced.
Morgan said the border wall is adding a layer of protection against criminals just across the river.
“It’s not just a wall, it’s a wall system. It’s got integrated lighting, technology and access roads. Everything that the experts, the Border Patrol agents out in the front lines, those who risk their lives every day, need,” Morgan said.
El Paso has had border walls, fences or barriers for decades, and no demonstrators have been spotted around construction areas.
But in Arizona, the debate over wall construction on sacred Indigenous grounds and wildlife environs has led to confrontation and arrests.
On Wednesday, Morgan said he wasn’t worried about the protests.
“We’ve had different types of barriers for decades. We’re just building them better and faster,” he said. “If somebody wants to protest, knock yourself out. I totally support their First Amendment right to protest, you just have to do it legally. If you’re going to go throw yourself in the middle of the wall to stop construction, that’s not legal. We’re going to arrest you and take you away, and construction is going to keep going on.”