Border wall construction brings crowds, and COVID-19 anxiety, into Arizona towns

Hundreds of workers are passing through the rural border communities, where medical services are already strained.

 

Border wall construction has sliced through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, south of Ajo, Arizona, putting the fragile ecosystem at risk. Now, during the pandemic, construction crews are bringing new fears to border towns.

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is republished here with permission.

Unlike the rest of the U.S., the sleepy border community of Ajo, Arizona, is busier than ever these days, as hundreds of border wall construction workers pass through each day.

“The rest of us are staying at home just the way the governor has ordered,” said Susan Guinn-Lahm, an Ajo resident in her 60s. “We’re taking this seriously. They are not.”

Donald Trump is continuing to push for border wall construction amid the pandemic, and in mid-March, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced plans to build another 150 miles. Yet officials are alarmed by the impact on the workers and the rural border towns they are interacting with and, at times, living in.

Numerous residents in Ajo complained to the Guardian of construction workers having parties and coming into stores in groups as large as 20.

“As the rest of the country shuts down to stop the spread of COVID-19, construction crews continue building Trump’s vanity wall with billions of dollars in stolen funds,” said the Arizona congressman Raúl Grijalva. “The presence of large construction crews in small border towns threatens the health of those communities where they are already underprepared to deal with the coming public health emergency.”

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Trump has rationalized border wall construction as a way to contain the spread of the disease.

“The Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and wellbeing of all Americans,” he said at a rally in South Carolina. “Now, you see it with the coronavirus.”

Public health experts say these claims have little basis, because the virus is not spreading into the U.S. from Mexico – it is already spreading within U.S. communities.

“It’s just bringing an irrational level of danger to these communities.”

In Columbus, New Mexico, a so-called “man camp” was erected last week in the middle of town to house wall construction workers.

“Of course I am concerned,” the Columbus mayor, Esequiel Salas, told the Guardian by phone. Last week, the mayor sent a letter to SLSCO, the wall-construction company operating the camp, “to request that they could hold off their move into the man camp until 16 April at the least”, he said.

This issue is particularly acute in rural border towns where access to healthcare is sparse. “This move is honestly infuriating,” said Johana Bencomo, executive director of the faith-based border community organization NM Cafe. “To put at risk communities like Columbus, places that lack infrastructure and healthcare facilities, is so offensive,” she said.

In Ajo, many workers live in town, occupying the RV parks, hotels and rental houses.

“They are bringing people as far away as places like Nebraska and Montana,” said Gail Emrick, executive director of the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center in Nogales. “It’s just bringing an irrational level of danger to these communities.”

Many of the workers travel home on weekends to their families and communities.

According to Emily Siegel, the owner of the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center in Ajo, the presence of the workers in town is “uncomfortable.”

“Our entire reason for being here is to convene people,” said Siegel, who, along with her husband, decided to close in the center in mid-March, “the busiest time of the year,” to protect their staff, guests and the town. “We made the decision early. We realized we had a responsibility not to convene.”

In late March, a resident of Ajo who declined to give their name said they were delivering supplies to a friend when they passed by a house rented to the construction workers. “The backyard was lit up, music was blaring, and they were throwing horseshoes,” said the person, describing the get-together of “10 or more people.”

The army corps of engineers, the agency responsible for overseeing contractors on the border, has said that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing are being followed on the border.

A border wall construction worker named Steve Allen said in the community Facebook forum “Ajo Speaks” that employees were not tested for COVID-19 but their temperatures were checked daily.

He also said, however, that some workers lived three people to a house, carpooled to the construction site, and had on at least one occasion gathered at one another’s homes.

“Three guys invite a friend and you have six people pretty easy,” he noted.

Samuel Gilbert is a freelance journalist based in the Southwest. 
Email 
High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

This story is published with the Guardian as part of their series, This Land is Your Land, examining the threats facing America’s public lands, with support from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...