This story was updated on May 1 with statements from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
While much of the country has been on lockdown because of the coronavirus, construction of President Trump's border wall has continued.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for a full-stop on construction. But the administration has accelerated some efforts to build the wall, and Trump is using the pandemic to justify his push for it.
Since the pandemic began in the U.S., federal officials have moved to speed up construction of 200 miles of border wall by waiving federal regulations. And they are still filing lawsuits in south Texas to seize private land for the wall.
In Starr County, three generations of the Alvarez family live on about eight acres of land that has been in the family for decades. Their property borders the Rio Grande.
On a weekday afternoon, Nayda Alvarez was at home when her dad went out to get the mail.
That’s when he said he saw a caravan of company trucks driving through an old highway where they live.
“So, he comes back home and says, go check it out because they might be jumping the fences again,” Alvarez said.
Nayda has been fighting border wall construction that is expected to cut through her property for more than a year now.
When her dad told her about the people he saw, she had a hunch they might be government workers.
Alvarez stepped out onto her porch to check it out for herself.
She said she saw a group of about eight people near her grandfather's property.
“They were in there with several big trucks, some sort of machinery. I felt insecure that there were people next to us,” said Alvarez. “You know, we are supposed to be in quarantine and we have stay-at-home orders here in the county of Starr. I don’t know who these people are, where they’ve been or what they have.”
She said she was struck by how close they were standing and noticed they didn’t have facemasks or gloves.
Alvarez took a photo and sent it to her attorneys.
Turns out, she was right, they were government surveyors who were collecting data for upcoming border wall construction that will go near her property.
BREAKING: Border wall construction continues despite nationwide demands to halt immediately.
— Texas Civil Rights Project (@TXCivilRights) April 13, 2020
Nayda Alvarez is one of about a dozen landowners the Texas Civil Rights Project is representing, according to staff attorney Ricky Garza.
“While we had seen six cases filed some months — most months, three or four — we saw 13 new cases filed in March, which was a record... the most we had ever seen,” said Garza.
Garza said the coronavirus pandemic has made it hard to effectively meet with clients, and he thinks that’s why the government is doing this now.
“We think they’re taking advantage of the pandemic to go after people’s homes when they should be sheltering in place,” said Garza. “I was pretty shocked when I first saw the curve of cases, it looks like the coronavirus infection chart.”
Since the 1st case of #COVID19 was confirmed in the US, the feds have sharply increased their attempts at taking the homes of border residents to build Trump's useless wall. See it for yourself
— Texas Civil Rights Project (@TXCivilRights) April 21, 2020
Laiken Jordahl is a borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.
He travels along the southern border documenting the construction of the border wall and talks to communities affected by it.
“It’s infuriating to see wall construction ramp up, actually be accelerated when the people who are fighting wall construction are now required to do that from the confines of their living rooms,” said Jordahl. “It seems and feels so unfair.”
The usual protests and rallies organized are out of the question right now due to the pandemic.
Jordahl said border residents he’s spoken to have also seen the ramping up of border wall construction.
He said since the pandemic started, the federal government has announced about 200 miles of border wall will be expeditiously built and it is waiving of dozens of laws to build it.
“And across the border in Arizona, in California we’ve seen this massive influx of construction workers into our border communities,” said Jordahl. “These workers are coming from all over the country. They’re crowding into hotels and grocery stores, exposing residents to increase risk of infection.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said the process has not changed or escalated due to COVID-19.
"Any increase in land acquisition actions is solely due to the progression of project planning actions," said agency officials in a statement.
They added, "while day-to-day operations have been adjusted in response to COVID-19, it remains important to simultaneously continue these long-term efforts as safely as possible."
Vicki B. Gaubeca is the director of Southern Border Communities Coalition. She said the influx of workers, especially those who don’t follow social distancing or wear proper personal protection equipment (PPE), endanger people, like those living in Ajo and Yuma, Arizona and Columbus, New Mexico.
“Border rural communities typically don’t have access to specialized healthcare services, or even testing sites. Which means the lives of those workers, the residents, are placed at risk, as they would have to travel a long distance to access a healthcare facility,” said Gaubeca on a recent press call.
Back in Starr County, Nayda Alvarez said she’s not surprised the government is continuing with its project even during this difficult time.
She said her experience so far fighting the construction hasn’t been good. Like last year, when her mom was dying of breast cancer.
She said the Army Corps of Engineers kept calling everyday.
“Until finally I told the lady I was talking to, I said, ‘What is it that you don’t get? You know, we’re busy,’” said Alvarez. “I told her, ‘Why don’t you call me next Monday? You know my mother is going to die any minute now.’”
Alvarez told them they’d be done with the burial by the end of the week.
“And guess what, that Monday morning the first call we got was from the Army Corps of Engineers people, again, trying to get their signature that they want for the access to the property,” said Alvarez. “That shows you that the government has no value for human life, or what we’re going through.”
Nayda said she’d like to see the money that’s going to border wall construction instead be used to battle COVID-19.
“We have over 40,000 people that have died with this virus and yet they are stubborn that they want to build the wall,” said Alvarez.
The Army Corps of Engineers said in a statement that its contractors are instructed to comply with CDC, state and local guidelines.
CBP officials said the pandemic shows that it’s important to “have full awareness of who and what is coming across our borders.”
The agency said it remains confident that it will build 450 miles of border wall by the end of the year.
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