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AZ’s $335M border wall likely to be ‘virtual’ – here’s what that means

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)

The Arizona Legislature has budgeted $335 million for border barrier construction. But what will actually be built might be a combination of a virtual wall and barriers around critical infrastructure not directly on the border, the Governor’s Office says.

A “virtual wall” could include motion sensors, infrared cameras, mobile towers and aerial drones, which is the type of surveillance technology already being used by the Border Patrol and other law enforcement, said Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s spokesman C.J. Karamargin.

The state could also use the border wall funding to protect “critical infrastructure,” Karamargin said, which could include things like canals, wastewater treatment plants and defense installations, such as the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range and Fort Huachuca, which have both had reports of undocumented migrant crossings.

“All of these things are being analyzed right now, where barriers, both actual and virtual, could be the most effective,” Karamargin said Friday. “There’s infrastructure and private property that is on or adjacent to that line that is also being looked at as a place where additional barriers, actual and virtual, could be deployed to reduce the flow of illegal traffic into the United States.”

Officials have not provided any details on whether the state can build anywhere on the actual U.S.-Mexico border line, but it’s unlikely.

The state budget bill approved late Wednesday by the Republican-led Legislature included the millions for a border barrier as well as another $209 million for a “border security fund” for things like aid to local sheriffs and prosecutors. Of that fund, $15 million is to transport those who entered Arizona seeking asylum to other states, although the federal government is already paying for that.

State’s jurisdiction unclear

During the Trump administration, there were 226 miles of wall construction planned for the Arizona-Mexico border, most of which were built. Less than 20 miles were incomplete when President Joe Biden took office and stopped construction, such as in Guadalupe Canyon, about 30 miles east of Douglas, where construction crews blasted into mountainsides but didn’t complete construction.

No government agency or state official that the Arizona Daily Star contacted provided details on where the state would have jurisdiction to build a border barrier, including the Governor’s Office, nine state lawmakers, the Army Corps of Engineers, Customs and Border Protection, the state Land Department or the Bureau of Land Management.

Data provided by the Army Corps show the Arizona projects that went unfinished are generally near Sasabe and Nogales in Pima County, Naco in Cochise County, and areas in Yuma County.

But regardless of where state officials would like to build a border wall, it appears there is practically nowhere on the actual border where the state can build because of a 60-foot-wide federal easement that runs contiguous and adjacent to the entire Arizona-Mexico border, except over the Colorado River.

The state could build on land it owns that is north of the 60-foot easement, although a majority of public land adjacent to the easement is federally owned.

And the state could build 60 feet north of the border on private land with permission, but privately owned parcels by acreage along the border account for just 3.7%, according to Regrid, a provider of nationwide land parcel data, and some of these properties already have a border wall.

President Theodore Roosevelt created the federal easement, called the Roosevelt Reservation, in 1907 in order to keep all public lands along the border in California, Arizona and New Mexico “free from obstruction.” Texas was excluded because the state retained all public lands upon its annexation and admittance as a state, much of which has been sold over the years to private parties.

In talks with property owners

Arizona is in talks with private property owners about building some type of barrier on their land, Karamargin said.

“We’re going to put up barriers based on the input from local officials and private property owners where we think they would have the most impact. That could include virtual barriers,” he said.

If Arizona did want to build a physical wall 60 feet from the border, that would leave gaps where it could not connect with the existing border barrier.

It also would come up against environmental regulations. The federal government was able to accomplish as much wall construction as it did by waiving all such regulations through the Real ID Act, which allowed it to waive laws that interfered with construction of physical barriers at the border. This law does not apply to states.

The state would also likely be responsible for maintenance of the wall, which could be a costly ongoing expense for taxpayers.

Gaps in federal wall

The largest swath of land without wall on the Arizona border is the 62 miles on the Tohono O’odham Nation where neither the federal nor state governments have permission to build a wall, as tribal officials have been vocal in their opposition.

Despite the wall covering much of the Southern Arizona border, there are many gaps where migrants often pass into the country. One such place that’s received a lot of attention is a gap in Yuma. Border Patrol apprehensions in Yuma increased dramatically over the last 18 months, from 990 apprehensions in November 2020 to more than 33,000 this May.

This gap is also on federal land on the U.S. side and so not somewhere the state could build a wall.

In May, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it would be closing a “small gap” in the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, without specifying exactly where. The federal government also announced in December it would be closing gaps in the wall as part of remediation work that was originally scheduled for this summer but was later pushed to the fall.

No specifics on physical barrier plans

The Star emailed or called nine lawmakers in the Arizona House and Senate who either hold leadership positions or have been vocal on the state building its own wall. One responded.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said they arrived at the $335 million figure from information they got from the state Land Department and the Governor’s Office, “in terms of balancing what areas need and what is a reasonable amount that can be constructed within a year based on the availability of materials and construction personnel.”

He said he didn’t know how many miles of wall the state could build or where those miles are.

“It really varies by terrain,” he said. “It also is determined by whether we can get existing materials that the federal government’s not using so it’s really impossible to do any kind of reasonable judgment that wouldn’t potentially be way off.”

Legislators who didn’t respond last week to the Star’s questions of how they came up with the $335 million amount and where the state could build a wall include: Sen. Tyler Pace, Sen. Wendy Roger, Senate Majority Leader Ben Toma Jr., Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, Senate President Karen Fann, House Speaker Rusty Bowers, House Majority Leader Rick Gray and House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding. It was a busy final week of the legislative session for lawmakers.

Bolding did put out a statement the day before the budget passed saying, among other things, that the budget “spends more new money on a border fence than on our universities or our affordable housing crisis.” The budget that eventually passed did contain at least $77 million more for universities.

Like Kavanagh, the Governor’s Office talked about a need to fill gaps in the wall and specifically the larger gap in Yuma County.

Karamargin said state officials are assessing now where increased barriers would be appropriate, and that they will be done with that soon.

When asked how the state arrived at the $335 million allocated to build some kind of border barrier and what information they gave legislators, he said they based their assessment on talking with local stakeholders in Yuma and Cochise counties on where fencing could be appropriate and would have the most impact.

“I can tell you that the needs that we’ve outlined are based on our regular contact with local and federal partners about the best way resources could be used to increase security,” Karamargin said.

When asked if the state would be able to build on any federal land, he said that is among the questions that need to be answered.

“I think there’s a great sense of urgency on the part of some border communities and businesses to move quickly, so that is our goal,” he said.


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