Lined up in neat rows, cement mixers, backhoes, bulldozers and dump trucks sat idle Wednesday at a construction staging area carved out of a mountainside, about eight miles west of Nogales and five miles south of Peña Blanca Lake.
Dozens of panels of steel bollards, meant to be cemented upright into the earth as part of an uninterrupted border barrier across the western half of Santa Cruz County, lay stacked on the ground.
A pair of unoccupied mesh reclining chairs sat outside the worksite’s darkened trailer office, where a knock on the door went unanswered.
A stiff breeze whipped up dust and propelled a few rocks across the flat terrain, but the only signs of life were a few cows grazing in the distance and some discarded drink bottles on the ground.
The abandoned staging area in the Pajarito Mountains is one of several border-wall construction sites in the county that have been on a long pause since President Joe Biden took office three months ago.
After campaigning on a promise that “not another foot” of wall would be built under his administration, Biden swiftly ordered a two-month pause and called for officials to draw up plans to end or repurpose border wall contracts within 60 days.
More than three months later, local border-wall construction sites still look mostly deserted, and there’s been no word yet on any plans for redirecting the money and the heavy machinery that was helping install bollard fencing at a frantic pace in the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“Nothing has changed,” a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman responded this week when asked for an update on the status of construction in the local area. A spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is managing the project, did not respond to an email asking about plans going forward.
To the east of Nogales, at a worksite just west of the Patagonia Mountains, crews dug a trench several feet deep in preparation for bollard panels that still haven’t been installed. On Tuesday, the trench hadn’t been filled in, but waist-high vehicle barriers had been placed over the gap, providing a limited safeguard against people stepping or driving into it.
A pair of men at the worksite were doing maintenance work on one of several trucks parked on the top of a hill. One said most of the employees on the project had been laid off already, but a few remained – mostly to provide security – and he had heard that they might get back to wall-building soon.
In a valley a couple of miles to the west of that worksite, where the Santa Cruz River crosses into the United States from Mexico, some of the old railroad-tie vehicle barriers that had lined the border had been removed. In their place, bollard-fence panels were left lying in stacks at the points on either side of the river where existing bollard fencing stops.
At the construction site near the large staging area in the Pajarito Mountains, crews had also evidently left in the middle of work. Much of the new stretch of wall had been painted black, as Trump wanted, but the paint job didn’t make it all the way to the end of the new stretch of bollard fencing.
The work in Santa Cruz County is part of the larger Tucson 10/28 project, also known as Tucson Package 3 – a $1.28-billion contract awarded to North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel to build about 43 miles of new border wall in Pima and Santa Cruz counties.
Work began west of Nogales last June and it’s not clear exactly how much new fencing was installed before the January pause. However, it appears that barriers were installed along approximately 14 miles of a planned 23-mile stretch from west of the Mariposa Port of Entry to the Pima County line. None of the four miles of new border wall planned east of Nogales has gone up, though crews widened and graded an access road and performed some prep work – such as the previously mentioned trench-digging.
Now, nearly 100 days into his administration, there are some indications that Biden, who campaigned on promises of pulling back the hardline immigration policies implemented under Trump, is hesitant to completely reverse course as the growing numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border have put political pressure on the White House and renewed talk of a “crisis” at the border.
The White House last week said it wasn’t raising the maximum number of refugees that the country will admit – something Biden had previously promised. And earlier this month, The Washington Times reported that administration officials were considering going ahead with at least a little more wall construction in order to close the gaps left when work stopped earlier this year.
In the local area, the abrupt halt to construction has left gaps of varying sizes: one just a few feet wide near the staging area in the Pajarito Mountians; several roughly 10 feet wide at points beginning about two miles west of the Mariposa Port of Entry; and a more than 100-foot-wide gap at a currently dry water crossing two miles west of the Mariposa port, where it appears crews were waiting to install fence segments fitted with floodgates.
Immediately west of the Mariposa port, the new wall appears mostly finished, though without the light towers that were advertised as part of the “border wall system.” Here, and continuing to a point approximately two-and-a-half miles west of the port, the 30-foot-tall new bollard fence runs 10-20 feet north of an existing 10-foot-high barrier topped with concertina wire, creating a two-layer barrier in most spots.
Once the pre-existing barrier ends and gives way to a barbed wired fence, the occasional gaps in the new wall provide nearly impediment-free access from one side of the border to the other. On Wednesday morning, a group of three skittish dogs passed through one of the gaps from Mexico and trotted along the U.S. side of the barrier.
A hillside on the south side of the border was dotted with plastic bottles and trash – possible evidence of a layup area for border-crossers. Two men in camouflage sat under a tree, partially hidden by the branches. One lay flat on his back, seemingly looking at a phone; the other faced ahead, towards the new fence.
There was no physical Border Patrol presence in this area mid-morning on Wednesday, though camera towers dotted the surrounding hillsides. But Border Patrol vehicles and National Guard troops positioned in lookout sites equipped with port-o-potty tents were regularly visible in the two-mile stretch from the water crossing back east back to Nogales.
One such site commanded a clear view of the water crossing and the wide-open gap in the new border wall. Three months into the Biden administration, it’s still not clear if the empty space will stay that way.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Clark.)