Yuma, Ariz. (AP) — Hours before Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared “a major step forward in securing our border” with the installation of 130 double stacked containers, hundreds of immigrants found their way around them, disproving his claim.
They walked through tribal lands to the edge of a towering wall built during Donald Trump’s presidency to surrender to border agents waiting outside the detention center, waiting to be released into the US to seek asylum.
Families, young parents carrying toddlers, the elderly and others waded through the knee-deep Colorado River before dawn Wednesday, many in sandals with shopping bags slung over their shoulders.
The wall is not the issue it was in 2018 when Congress denied Trump funding for one of his top priorities, triggering the largest government shutdown in US history. But last week’s events in Yuma are a reminder of the obstacles the border administration faces: difficulty building on tribal land, notably in the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, and opposition from landowners, especially in Texas, where, unlike but on the frontier, much of the property is privately owned.
Ducey’s critics have obtained images from the Univision network showing two shipping containers tipped over during 11 days of construction for unknown reasons. Gary Restaino, the top federal attorney in Arizona, used a bipartisan meeting in Mexico City to blast the governor on Friday, tweeting: “We don’t dump a bunch of shipping containers in the desert and call it a wall to get cheap press.” Ducey responded that “we’ve taken matters into our own hands” because the federal government hasn’t done enough.
Migrants still avoid obstacles by going around them — in this case, through a 5-mile (8-kilometer) gap at the Cocopah Indian Reservation near Yuma, a desert town of about 100,000 between San Diego and Phoenix that has become an important point for illegal crossings.
President Joe Biden halted wall construction on his first day in office, leaving billions of dollars worth of projects unfinished but still under contract. Trump worked feverishly in his final months to reach more than 720 kilometers, nearly a quarter of the entire border.
The Biden administration has made rare exceptions for small projects in areas deemed unsafe for people to cross, including four gaps in Yuma. He expects to award a contract for Yuma this fall and take up to 28 months to complete the work.
When U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced its plans for Yuma in July, Ducey said he couldn’t wait. Like fellow Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, he has clashed with the Democratic administration over immigration policies, often suing and recently offering free bus rides to the East Coast for asylum seekers released into the United States to pursue their cases.
“Arizona did the job that the federal government failed to do — and we showed them how quickly and effectively the border can be made more secure — if you want it to be,” Ducey said to celebrate the installation of the containers, which are 13 football fields in five locations together.
A row of 44 double-stacked shipping containers ends abruptly in an open desert. Further north, at the Morelos Dam, containers are closing several openings in an area that had become less traveled in recent months.
On the day Ducey said his work was done, the Border Patrol encountered a fairly typical number of about 850 illegal immigrants in the Yuma sector. Most disembarked by bus or rental vehicle on the Mexican side and walked to the reservation in the dark under a crescent moon.
The migrants used vehicle barriers, dirt roads and flashlights on their phones to guide them to Border Patrol agents outside the tribal lands to be taken into custody.
CBP has not commented on Ducey’s containers, but says its plan to fill gaps in the Trump-style barrier with steel poles topped with a metal plate up to 30 feet (9.1 meters) high will make a difference by diverting traffic to fewer areas.
“If Yuma has 10 gaps and people were going through all 10 gaps, it’s a lot harder for us to deal with that than if Yuma has one or two gaps and the majority of traffic goes through those gaps,” said John Modlin, chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson, Arizona Division.
Reached for comment, the Cocopah Indian Tribe referred to a May 2020 letter to CBP expressing strong opposition to a wall, saying it would cut off access to the river and tribal members in Mexico.
The tribe also released video showing Interim Police Chief Arlene Martinez describing other cooperative measures with the Border Patrol, such as surveillance cameras and ground sensors. “Cocopah supports border security efforts and always has,” he said.