What started as a small demonstration has turned into a two-week standoff as residents and environmentalists fight outgoing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s effort to wall off sections of the U.S.-Mexico border with shipping containers.
Twenty protesters withstood freezing temperatures over the weekend to defy the project, which started in August after Ducey issued an executive order directing the state Department of Emergency and Military Affairs to fill gaps in the existing border wall in Yuma County.
The project's $95 million expansion into Cochise County comprises about 3,000 steel containers, The Associated Press reported.
Ducey's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Until last week, when protesters blocked access to the site, work crews stacked hundreds of shipping containers topped with razor wire along Arizona's remote eastern boundary with Mexico.
Demonstrators say they will not leave until the containers are removed, even if it means camping in tents in below-freezing temperatures. Recently, a volunteer bought a Christmas tree for the protest site.
"We’re protectors of the borderlands," said Kate Scott, who helped organize the first protest on Nov. 29. "Until we can see some action, we’re staying put."
Ducey, a Republican, has two weeks left as governor before Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, takes office. Hobbs has said she opposes the border project, but despite objections from her and the federal government, Ducey has remained undaunted, and he forged ahead with the wall's construction.
“Arizona has had enough" with the Biden administration's "open border policy," Ducey said in a statement in August.
“We can’t wait any longer," he said at the time. "The Biden administration’s lack of urgency on border security is a dereliction of duty."
At the center of the controversy is a question of who owns the land where the shipping containers are being placed.
Ducey insists Arizona holds sole or shared jurisdiction, and he has said the state has a constitutional right to protect residents from “imminent danger of criminal and humanitarian crises.”
The federal government says the land is public, and it has called the project "unlawful."
In October, Ducey sued federal officials who head agencies overseeing public land, including the U.S. Forest Service and the Agriculture Department. The lawsuit accuses the Biden administration of inaction and failure to curb illegal border crossings.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for Arizona, “intends to resolve the state’s authority to protect its citizens granted to it by the U.S. Constitution,” the governor’s office said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
“Our border communities are overwhelmed by illegal activity as a result of the Biden administration’s failure to secure the southern border,” Ducey said in a statement in October. “Arizona is going to do the job that Joe Biden refuses to do — secure the border in any way we can. We’re not backing down.”
The U.S. government filed a motion last month to dismiss the lawsuit.
“While the issues at the international border with Mexico are difficult, trespassing on and damaging the United States’ land, violating federal law, and usurping and obstructing federal agency jurisdiction and mission, are not the solution,” the motion read. “The Governor’s case must be dismissed.”
The court has not ruled yet.
Hobbs, who will be sworn in next month, has publicly said she will pause work on the wall, but she has declined to say what she will do with the remaining shipping containers. She said last month that one option could be to use the leftover materials to create affordable housing, The Arizona Republic reported.
People who live near the border say construction has disrupted their lives as large trucks carrying shipping containers zoom down rural roads that residents use to access the remote region.
Andy Kayner, who lives 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, said at least two of his neighbors have been “run off” the road by speeding trucks too large to maneuver the narrow lane.
“It’s a political stunt, and it’s so costly in terms of view, wildlife migrations and brutal desecration of land,” he said Tuesday.
“This landscape is some of the prettiest country in all of Arizona, and the so-called migrant traffic is basically nonexistent,” he added, referring to Ducey’s rhetoric about a crisis unfolding at the border. “It’s just a battle cry for elections.”
Environmental advocates say not only that the wall is unsightly but also that it disturbs fragile ecosystems that are home to endangered species, including ocelots, jaguars and the Mexican spotted owl.
The greater border region is home to Sombra, the last known jaguar living in the U.S. The cat was most likely born in Mexico, and he has been spotted roaming the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona. His species once flourished across the U.S., but it was hunted into extinction first by European settlers and later by the U.S. government, said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
In 1963, the last known female jaguar in the U.S. was shot 159 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. On Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity sent a 107-page petition to the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce jaguars to the Southwest. It highlights the need for the large cats to have enough space to roam freely throughout the Southwest, including between Mexico and the U.S., to ensure genetic diversity.
“The jaguar plays an important role in his ecosystem even if we don’t fully understand it yet,” Robinson said. “The border wall blocks every animal except human beings.”
Image via Getty Images