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Homeland Security head: Painting US-Mexico border wall might make it last longer

Aerial view from the town of Sonoyta, Mexico, of border wall construction west of Lukeville, Ariz., on February 20, 2020. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Federal officials are considering painting the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the head of the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday in Tucson.

During a visit to a Border Patrol station in Tucson on Tuesday, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf told reporters the goal of painting the wall would be to protect it from rust and the elements, if such a project were undertaken.

“We’re taking a look at perhaps does painting the wall provide a prolonged life of the wall,” Wolf said in response to a question from a reporter, noting the wall has a “useful life” of about 30 years.

Officials are considering “all options” for ways to make the wall more effective, he said.

“If that means that we can paint it and it prolongs the life, then we’ll do just that,” Wolf said.

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President Trump reportedly told advisers last month he wanted the wall painted black so it would appear more foreboding and become too hot to climb during the summer, a request he has made periodically in the past few years, the Washington Post reported last week.

The cost of painting the wall would range from $500 million to $3 billion, according to estimates produced by federal contracting officials and obtained by the Washington Post.

Wolf did not address the color or cost of potentially painting the wall during his visit to Tucson.

Prior to going to Tucson, Wolf toured the commercial port of entry and Border Patrol station in Nogales. He said the main goal of the trip was to show support for DHS employees working the “frontline mission every day” because their duties do not allow them to work from home.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Border Patrol agents are quickly expelling to Mexico the migrants they encounter crossing the border illegally. The goal of the practice, officials say, is to avoid spreading the virus to agents, Border Patrol stations, and detention centers. Wolf said 80% of the expulsions take about two hours.

Those measures helped drop the number of people in Border Patrol custody and lessen the risk of infection, Wolf said. At this time last year, Border Patrol agents in Tucson dealt with hundreds of migrants each day.

“Today, we have four here,” he said. “It’s really night and day.”

Commercial traffic at ports of entry has continued during the pandemic, but restrictions led to non-essential cross-border traffic dropping by as much as 70% along the border, Wolf said.

Wolf also flew by helicopter over the new wall being built in Southern Arizona, where 63 miles of 30-foot wall are under construction. He said DHS expected to complete “300 and 400 [miles] later this year” along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

In response to questions about local residents’ concerns that some agents are not wearing masks when they interact with the public, Wolf said during his tour on Tuesday “everyone I saw today had a mask on.”

Agents are “highly encouraged” to wear personal protective equipment and “everyone was wearing PPE, so I don’t think that’s an issue at all,” Wolf said.

With regard to coronavirus fears among immigrant detainees, Wolf said many Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities are “down to about 70 to 75% capacity.”

The number of cases of coronavirus at ICE detention facilities in Arizona has grown from one on April 1 to 66 on Tuesday, along with two ICE employees, according to ICE statistics.

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© 2020 The Arizona Daily Star