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Washington takes legal action over Arizona-Mexico ‘junkyard border wall’

The Department of Justice is suing Republican Governor Doug Ducey’s legislature over the makeshift barrier, which occupies federal land and a nature reserve

US-Mexico border
The container wall on the border of Mexico and Arizona, which the Republican state government constructed to plug gaps in the permanent border wall initiated during the presidency of Donald Trump.Rebecca Noble (Bloomberg)

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Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, has caused tension with the federal authorities by deciding to see out his mandate by redoubling efforts on one of the flagship symbols of US conservatism: the border with Mexico. Ducey – who has been governor of the state since 2015 but will be replaced by Democrat Katie Hobbs in January after serving two terms – has reinforced a makeshift border wall near the city of Yuma with 3,000 shipping containers and barbed wire in an attempt to stop the flow of migrants into the region. Earlier this week, the federal government responded to the controversial maneuver that was started in August and which has been criticized by ecologists because it runs through a protected reserve. The US Department of Justice has announced it is suing the state of Arizona as the barrier is trespassing on federal land.

Ducey’s mandate comes to an end on January 5 when the Republican steps aside for Hobbs, who opposes the impromptu wall and has questioned its efficacy in containing migration. Hobbs, a political moderate, has said she will explore her options over the barrier when she assumes office. One of the incoming governor’s suggestions is to redeploy the containers as temporary housing in cities that have registered an increase in the number of homeless people, such as Phoenix.

Washington warned Arizona on December 12 that it would take legal action in federal district court because the barrier poses “serious risks to public security and environmental damage.” Ducey responded a day later, stating that the real crisis has been provoked by the failure of the Joe Biden administration to combat illegal immigration. “The number one public safety risk and environmental harm has come from inaction by the federal government to secure our border,” the Arizona governor wrote, adding that the White House had not made good on a 2021 pledge to fill the gaps in the permanent border wall on the US-Mexico frontier that was initiated during the presidency of Donald Trump.

“Arizona had no other choice but to address the crisis at its southern border and began erecting a temporary border barrier,” the governor’s statement said.

Despite Ducey’s claims, US Customs and Border Protection has indicated that in January it will commence work to fill gaps in the border fence with mesh and that Border Patrol vehicles will be sent to the area.

One of the disputed areas is a narrow strip of land known as the Roosevelt Reserve. President Theodore Roosevelt created it in 1907 for security reasons, in an attempt to tackle smuggling. The presidential decree issued at the time requires the strip to be kept free of obstructions. Ducey, however, claims that the proclamation is unconstitutional because it was not endorsed by Congress.

Arizona’s Republican administration has sent more than 2,000 migrants detained in the border area to the US capital by bus. This maneuver, which follows similar action taken by the conservative administrations of Texas and Florida, has cost $5 million since October, according to a public contract obtained by the Arizona Central newspaper.

Ducey’s controversial measure came in a year that has broken all previous records for immigration into the US. The Biden administration in October reported 2.38 million illegal entries over the course of the last fiscal year (between September 2021 and September 2022). This represents a 37% year-on-year increase driven by more arrivals from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua and doubles the peak arrival figures recorded during Trump’s presidency, which occurred in 2019.

Last November, a federal judge ordered Biden’s government to lift Title 42, a Trump-era piece of legislation enacted during the coronavirus pandemic that allows for the swift expulsion of migrants at the border on the grounds of public health. The measure is due to stop being enforced on December 21, following a Justice Department request for a five-week delay to prepare. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has appealed against the ruling.

Then-US president Donald Trump with Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott during a tour of a section of the US-Mexico border wall in San Luis, Arizona, June 23, 2020.
Then-US president Donald Trump with Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott during a tour of a section of the US-Mexico border wall in San Luis, Arizona, June 23, 2020. Carlos Barria (Reuters)

“Stacking shipping containers is not a productive solution”

Senior Democratics have backed Washington’s legal action against Arizona. “We need serious solutions at our border, with input from local leaders and communities. Stacking shipping containers is not a productive solution,” US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat who represents southern Arizona and chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, has been a vocal critic of the $95 million spent on the fence so far by Ducey’s administration, describing the temporary construction as an “illegal junkyard border wall.”

The container wall has also been condemned by environmental organizations, who argue that it is not just people who cross the border, which represents an imaginary boundary for dozens of protected species. Activists claim that the barrier cuts off a corridor that extends into the Huachuca Mountains, an area that both jaguars and ocelots use to move between the US and Mexico.

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