PHOENIX — President Donald Trump is set to mark 200 miles of wall along the southwest border in Arizona on Tuesday, in an area where crews have built dozens of miles of new fencing amid a coronavirus breakout and protests from opponents who say construction is destroying important habitats.
Trump will be accompanied by Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, who was in Yuma in January to celebrate the competition of 100 miles. Wolf called the wall system an "undeniable impediment to smugglers, traffickers and other criminals who have exploited our lack of effective border infrastructure to smuggle drugs, illicit goods and engage in human trafficking."
It's unclear where exactly within the Yuma Sector, which is near the California-Arizona border, Trump will visit, and the Border Patrol declined to give specifics on Monday. But Yuma has been an important place in Trump's promise to build a wall along the southern border. The president tweeted on Monday afternoon that he will celebrate the “212th plus mile of completion," offering a different number than DHS officials gave in a news release earlier.
The agency says it's completed 61 miles of border wall and plans on building another 109 miles in that rugged area of mostly desert. Most of the new fencing that's gone up is 30 feet high.
The Trump administration has promised to build 450 miles of border wall by the end of the year, aided by relaxed procurement laws that allow the government to award contracts to construction companies without much vetting. The government has awarded over $6.1 billion in construction contracts since April 2019, according to a tally by The Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan and independent watchdog.
Construction has continued despite a coronavirus outbreak that's hit the Yuma area hard, and amid opposition from environmentalists and Native American tribes.
"Trump's racist border wall has scarred our public lands, destroyed cultural sites for Indigenous people, and pushed wildlife closer to extinction," said Brett Hartl, chief political strategist at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. "With the country's economy wrecked and coronavirus cases spiking in Arizona, his visit is a cheap political campaign stunt that only reveals how out of touch he is."
Earlier this year, Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris told a congressional committee about the pain members of his tribe feel about U.S. officials blasting through land they consider sacred to build part of the border wall.
“No one reveres our military veterans more than the O’odham, however, dynamiting these sacred sites and burial grounds is the same as bulldozing Arlington National Cemetery or any other cemetery,” Norris told lawmakers in February.
The administration said archaeological monitors working with Customs and Border Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers found no sign of burial or other sacred sites in the area.
The pandemic isn't stopping plans for more border barriers anywhere.
In South Texas, where most border land is privately owned, the Justice Department has sued dozens of landowners to survey or seize their property for wall construction, including an orphanage operated by nuns in Laredo.
Crews have built several small sections but not yet come close to completing the wall through Laredo or the Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost point of Texas. Almost all of the U.S. land next to the Rio Grande, the river that separates Texas and Mexico, does not yet have a wall.
Even without a wall, border crossings have fallen drastically in the Rio Grande Valley since late last year due to a series of policy changes enacted by the Trump administration.
On the southern side of the Rio Grande, thousands of asylum-seekers live in shelters, churches, and a sprawling refugee camp waiting for their immigration court cases. Others have been expelled to their countries of origin without due process under an emergency border closure enacted in the coronavirus pandemic.
Following his border wall tour on Tuesday, Trump will head to Phoenix to speak at a Students for Trump convention at Dream City Church.
Trump's last appearance in Yuma was in 2017 when he visited with U.S. Marines and Customs and Border Protection agents.