Arizona starts building barriers with shipping containers to fill 3,000 feet of gaps in border wall

GADSDEN — Two 50,000 pound construction excavators, pinching a school-bus sized shipping container between their long yellow hydraulic arms, slowly lifted one hollow metal box in place.

Stacked two high, the corrugated metal boxes in red, yellow and orange were jostled and arranged like Legos on Friday as part of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's latest effort to curb illegal immigration at the state's 372-mile southern border with Mexico.

Citing inaction by the Biden administration, Ducey's office announced hours earlier that he had issued an executive order authorizing the state to build border barriers where there weren't any on federal land. When complete, the shipping containers will fill a 1,000 foot stretch of the border here, and then the state will turn its sights to two other locations farther north, where another 2,000 feet of border has no wall.

The growl and beeps of construction engines filled the desert and surrounding farmland southwest of Yuma as the effort got underway.

Plans call for stacking two shipping containers that are welded shut and topping them with razor wire, creating a 22-foot tall barrier, along the length of the gap in fencing, according to Ducey's Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Ratlief.

In a briefing, Ducey's general counsel Anni Foster acknowledged that the construction on federal land could prompt action from the Biden administration, such as an injunction to stop the work.

"We are closing that gap and we'll figure out the consequences as we move forward," she said. "Bottom line is that the federal government has a duty to protect the states, that's part of the contract. That's part of the Constitution. They failed to do that. We have made every effort to work with them and try to resolve this problem, but the governor can no longer wait for the federal government to take action."

Foster said the state had not formally notified U.S. Customs and Border Protection of the plan to fill the gaps, which a CBP spokesman in Tucson confirmed.

”CBP has just received this information and is not prepared to comment at this time," spokesman John Mennell said in an email.

Plans to fill gaps totaling 3,000 feet

Arizona is not the first state to use shipping containers to create a barrier at the border.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the only other Republican governor on the southwest border and with whom Ducey often pairs to put pressure on the Biden administration, launched a similar effort to create a "steel wall" in November. Abbott's barrier, however, wasn't contiguous and Arizona's will be, officials said. 

The state plans to fill roughly 3,000 total feet of gap in the border barrier in Gadsden, where work began Friday, and roughly 11 miles north near the Morelos Dam site in Yuma in the coming days and weeks.

It was not clear if the state will place its barrier on the same sections the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced in late July it had approved for wall construction, and that U.S. Sen Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., toured earlier this week. Kelly worked with the Biden administration to fill four gaps near Yuma, acknowledging it was a partial solution and urging comprehensive immigration reform.

At least the initial site for shipping containers, near Gadsden, would not overlap federal work, according to Kelly's office.

That site, however, ends at the Cocopah Reservation, a portion of the border that is only divided by vehicle barriers. A spokesman for the tribe said it would not permit shipping containers on its land.

Kelly and CBP officials acknowledged during their visit earlier in the week that asylum seekers and migrants may instead cross at the reservation if nearby gaps are filled. 

Ducey's advisers expressed distrust that gaps would get filled while Biden is in the White House, citing previous commitments to fill them and noting the federal government is just beginning the process to find contractors to finish the structure.

Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said Arizona can using an existing contract and shipping containers to fill the gaps much faster.

"We've been waiting a very long time for the federal government to act on this measure, they said they were going to, and we haven't seen any tangible evidence that they're following through," he said. "So we'll be doing it ourselves."

Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls applauded the state's decision to begin work, saying the shipping containers offered a faster response to the large numbers of migrants who present themselves at the border near Yuma.

“I think it’s a good thing because it’s an immediate, today kind of solution,” said Nicholls. “This will help deter some of that activity and help keep the situation in check as much as it can.”

How to respond to the flow of migrants crossing the state's southern border is a particularly thorny issue that invokes humanitarian, public safety and environmental concerns.

Ducey speaks of border security in terms of public safety — a duty to stop the flow of fentanyl and other drugs are trafficked across the international boundary — and alleviate the burdens on nonprofit organizations that provide shelter and other services to asylum seekers.

He's loudly criticized the Biden administration for seeking to end a pandemic policy that turned back thousands of asylum seekers, known as Title 42, and the governor's latest effort comes days after the federal government announced it would phase out a policy that required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico to await determination of their status.

'It's going to make the agents' jobs easier': Sen. Mark Kelly touts efforts to close border wall gaps

Photo attached to a tweet from Gov. Doug Ducey that reads "We issued an Executive Order directing the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs to immediately fill the gaps in the Yuma border wall."

Border barriers were part of budget

Ducey, who is in his final year of office, pledged in his January State of the State address — a speech that lays out his policy goals — to add physical barriers where possible, among several other border security efforts.

Lawmakers sent Ducey, and he signed into law, a nearly $18 billion state budget this year that included a $335 million fund to build border fence and another roughly $200 million for efforts like boosting law enforcement and prosecution efforts in border communities. The $6 million cost of the shipping containers draws from that $335 million fund.

By late afternoon Friday, about 15 containers were lined up end-to-end at the site near Gadsden. The excavators methodically hauled the battered containers off a flatbed truck nearby.

A crew of about 10 people worked to guide the massive machines as they continued the work, pushing the containers along a dirt road to extend the barrier north.

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.

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