President Biden’s decision to stop border wall construction forced crews to put down tools and walk away in the middle of work — and left the border less secure than ever in some places, according to an Arizona sheriff whose county covers 83 miles of the boundary.
There are locations where contractors had built the high-speed roads that are part of the border wall system, and which Border Patrol agents are able to use to patrol the new barrier.
But when the stop-work order came down, they had not built the actual wall yet.
The result: a smugglers’ roadway, where the cartels who control the human traffic across the border are able to use those roads to get people deeper into the U.S., said Sheriff Mark Dannels, in Cochise County, Arizona.
“We just built roads for the cartels,” he said.
The wall stoppage is just one of a number of early moves the Biden team has made that are creating new headaches for sheriffs along the border, who are now preparing for a massive surge of new migrants amid the coronavirus pandemic.
CBP did not answer questions The Times submitted regarding coordination with local authorities on wall decisions, but said it’s working “with the specified federal agencies” on “a plan to resume, modify or terminate projects, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law as directed by the president’s proclamation.”
Questions about how much mileage might be affected were referred to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps, speaking only for portions of the wall system funded by Defense Department money, said it knew of 4.7 miles of border with new roads but no wall installed.
Several current and former Border Patrol agents said it might not be a serious breach.
Some of the roads dead-end into rough terrain that’s impassable with a vehicle, so anyone driving it would have to turn around and head back. And besides, even where the terrain is more passable, agents can monitor the spots to try to catch those using the road.
Mr. Biden had pledged to halt wall construction during the 2020 campaign, and took steps early in his tenure to make good on that promise.
He revoked President Trump’s national emergency declaration, cutting off some Pentagon money, and even froze money Congress had specifically allocated toward the wall, saying he was doing a review to see if he could redirect it elsewhere.
New Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has suggested using that money to pay for handling the new migrant surge the administration is facing.
Within days of Mr. Biden’s order, all wall work had stopped, with the exception of a few instances where construction had left dangerous situations and materials needed to be tied down and dangerous holes covered.
Sheriff Dannels said that’s created security gaps.
“One area that’s wide open right now, we’re getting five to six groups a day,” he said. “It’s almost worse than it was before. We just built them infrastructure.”
Mr. Biden, who as a senator voted for hundreds of miles of border fencing and as vice president in the Obama administration oversaw construction of fencing, now says it doesn’t work.
That debate has raged in Washington, but Sheriff Dannels said the most important feedback he gets on the wall is from county residents, “with the majority saying it works — it really works.”
Trump officials said about 460 miles was built before the halt, and they’d had about 300 more miles in the pipeline, with much of that mileage already under contract.
President Trump this weekend complained to the Conservative Political Action Conference about the halt.
“Joe Biden defunded the border wall and stopped all future construction, even on small open sections that just needed to be finished up, routine little work. It’s already been bought,” Mr. Trump said.
He said the new administration, if it maintains the halt, will end up having to pay contractors not to finish the work already under contract.
“That’s going to be nice. Wait until you see those bills pouring in,” the former president said.
The wall was Mr. Trump’s most concrete campaign promise, and one on which he was able to show significant progress, though he had to muscle Congress for money and, when lawmakers came up short, he siphoned money from Pentagon accounts.
Arizona saw the most construction, followed by California and New Mexico.
Texas lagged far behind because most of the land there is private property and is difficult to access for construction, The Rio Grande already creates some barrier, and the path of the river makes locating the wall complicated.
Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez in Val Verde County, just east of the Big Bend, said they have two miles of wall in downtown Del Rio, the county’s large border city, separating it from Ciudad Acuña on the Mexican side. Sheriff Martinez said that’s helped shape the flow of things, cutting down on crime.
But extending the fence up the Rio Grande would be a logistical headache because of the geography. Some people on the U.S. side would literally end up “on the wrong side of the fence.”
Going south, Sheriff Martinez said another mile or two could help push the flow of people further out from Del Rio. Right now, the 14-foot fence ends abruptly and a stretch of fencing consisting of several strands of barbed wire begins.
Sheriff Martinez said walls won’t make a lot of sense for much of the rest of the county.
“A lot of our terrain is rough rugged terrain where construction of a fence would be impossible,” he said.
But the sheriff said there are other options that can be successful, such as a comprehensive camera system and enough manpower to be able to deploy against every intrusion.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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