Late last month, Gov. Doug Ducey touted the completion of the Yuma Border Barrier Mission. The state initiative filled gaps in the state’s western border wall using industrial-sized shipping containers.
On Thursday morning, workers were transporting and stacking similar containers at the National Guard Armory on Western Avenue in Nogales.
CJ Karamargin, a spokesperson for Ducey’s office, acknowledged that the containers in Nogales could be used to plug gaps in the border wall.
But, he said, nothing has been determined yet.
“They could be used any place along the border if we determine that there are gaps that need to be filled,” Karamargin added.
The metallic crimson, yellow, green and blue containers closely resembled those near Yuma. And currently, gaps in the border fence exist both east and west of Nogales.
But Nogales’ hilly landscape strongly contrasts with Yuma’s flat topography, throwing into question whether shipping containers could even be transported to the border in this area.
“You got me curious,” Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway said when reached by the NI on Thursday.
Hathaway said neither he, nor Commander Gerardo Castillo, had received any information regarding a gap-filling project. Neither had County Supervisor Manny Ruiz.
“Nobody reached out to us,” Ruiz said.
“It would be nice if they would call us,” he added. “‘Hey, we need to set up a meeting … what are your ideas?’”
Both Hathaway and Ruiz described a lack of communication from state or federal officials in regard to border policy. Hathaway, who rejected an offer from Ducey to bring National Guard troops to the border last year, suggested the governor’s silence might be a backlash.
And while Ducey’s office has regarded the Yuma Border Barrier Mission as a success story, Hathaway had a different outlook.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Hathaway said of Ducey’s initiative.
Ruiz was also skeptical of the material’s integrity, noting that some shipping containers in Yuma had already fallen over.
“If you’re going to finish the fence, finish the fence,” he said. “Don’t put a temporary Band-Aid on there.”
On Aug. 12, Ducey issued an executive order, directing the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs to fill border wall gaps in the Yuma sector. In a statement at the time, Ducey lambasted President Joe Biden’s immigration policy and described the Yuma project as a necessary step for security.
“For the last two years, Arizona has made every attempt to work with Washington to address the crisis on our border,” he said. “Time and time again we’ve stepped in to clean up their mess.”
For his part, though, Biden had already approved a plan to fill gaps in the Yuma sector. On July 18, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would begin constructing barriers in the area, though DHS did not provide a timeline.
Ducey, in his August announcement, said his project would roll out “immediately.”
“We can’t wait any longer,” he added.
Ducey’s project, Karamargin said, was completed in 11 days. Workers filled five gaps, totaling 3,820 linear feet – about 0.72 miles.
“It can be done. And it can be done quickly,” Karamargin said. “Unfortunately the federal government has yet to realize that.”
But Ducey’s state-led project has garnered skepticism among some. In mid-August, journalist Claudia Ramos tweeted a photograph of two shipping containers placed along the Yuma border: the structures had fallen to the ground.
Speaking Thursday, Ruiz, the Santa Cruz County supervisor, described the shipping containers as a public safety concern – not only for migrants, but for Border Patrol agents in the area.
“God forbid, somebody dies because of it,” he added.
And, Ruiz wondered aloud: “Is it going to deter anything? I don’t know.”
Recent federal data shows that crossings are continuing in the Yuma area, even with the added presence of the shipping containers. Between Aug. 21 and 27, Border Patrol agents encountered more than 5,800 migrants within the Yuma Sector, according to Chief Patrol Agent Chris Clem.
While Hathaway said he hasn’t been keeping close track of the Yuma project, he added: “It’s not a good precedent for the future.”
Immigration enforcement is historically considered a federal issue, Hathaway pointed out. With a project like Ducey’s, he added, “it’s just kind of the state fighting the feds.”
A dormant border wall
A contractor hired by the Trump administration to build 23 miles of border wall west of Nogales managed to complete about 17 miles of barrier before Biden took office in January 2021 and put the work on pause.
At that point, several gaps remained in the new stretch of fencing in Santa Cruz County.
Then in December 2021, the Department of Homeland Security announced that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had been authorized to take over the unfinished projects and close any remaining gaps.
As of Thursday morning, there was no sign of construction or prep work underway immediately west of Nogales. As the new border wall stretched from the Mariposa Port of Entry to a mountainside area, several gaps remained open.
The open areas along that stretch of barrier coincide mostly with water-crossing points. The largest gap stretches more than 100 feet wide and stands upon an active floodplain. Crews had been preparing to install floodgates when Biden pulled the plug on the wall-building project.
Another notable gap in the wall sits several miles east of Nogales. There, the north-flowing Santa Cruz River crosses the border from Mexico.
Those gaps could be impractical spots for the shipping containers, due to their proximity to waterways.
Rushing water has wreaked havoc on the border wall in the past, even when the barrier was constructed with steel bollards spaced four inches apart. In July 2014, runoff from a monsoon downpour toppled a section of fence west of the Mariposa Port of Entry after debris built up on the south side. At the time, the Border Patrol had neglected to open ground-level flood gates.
Still, the gaps at the water-crossings do offer easy passage for migrants, as evidenced by the large number of plastic bottles scattered around a spot a few yards south of the opening two miles west of town on Thursday.
For now, there are no firm plans for the shipping containers arriving in Nogales, though Karamargin described the Yuma project as “the first step.”
“And it was a successful one,” he added. “We are currently evaluating the entire southern border (to) identify the best next steps in this mission.”
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Clark.)