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US to fill gaps in border wall in open area near Yuma, Arizona

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PHOENIX (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday authorized completion of the Trump-funded U.S.-Mexico border wall in an open area in southern Arizona near Yuma that has become one of the busiest corridors for illegal crossings.

Biden had pledged during his campaign to halt all future construction of walls, but the administration later agreed to some barriers, citing security. The Department of Homeland Security said Thursday that work to close four large gaps in the wall near Yuma will better protect migrants who may slip on a slope or drown while walking in a low section of the Colorado River.

The agency said in a statement that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had authorized the completion of the project near the Morelos dam, reflecting the administration’s “priority to deploy modern and effective border measures and also improve safety and security. security along the southwestern border”. It was originally to be funded by the Department of Defense, but will now be funded through the 2021 Homeland Security budget.

The Yuma Border Patrol Sector quickly became the third busiest of the nine sectors along the border, with much of the traffic passing through the Morelos Dam. The migrants arrive in the small town of Algodones and walk safely across a concrete ledge on the dam to US soil, where they wait for Border Patrol agents to arrest them.

Completing the wall was high on former President Donald Trump’s agenda, and border security remains a major issue for candidates from both parties in this year’s primary elections. President Joe Biden halted construction of new walls after taking office, but has since made closing the gaps just south of Yuma a priority.

Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, who is seeking his party’s nomination next week to defend the seat in November, has pressed the Biden administration to close the loopholes, calling them a challenge to officials trying to secure the border.

Officers arrested migrants more than 160,000 times from January to June in the Yuma sector, nearly four times as many as the same period last year. The only other areas with more traffic were Del Rio and Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.

The region has been particularly attractive to Colombians, Venezuelans and others who flew to Mexicali, Mexico, and took a short bus or taxi ride to Algodones to cross the border before being released. in the USA.

But Arizona ecologist Myles Traphagen, who mapped the ecological damage caused by the construction of the border wall under the Trump administration, said filling in the gaps would not be much of a deterrent.

Traphagen said the Yuma region has “become the new Ellis Island for Arizona, with people arriving there from countries as disparate as Ethiopia, Cuba, Russia, Ukraine, India, Colombia and Nicaragua.

“People have traveled half the world by plane, train and car,” he said, “so expecting four small gaps to make them turn around and book a flight home on Air Ethiopia is a pure mistake”.

A 5-year-old migrant girl crossing the water in a group drowned near the dam on June 6 when she was separated from her mother. The child’s body was later found in the river.

US officials have not released the girl’s identity or nationality. But Jamaican newspapers said she was from that country.

It was unclear when construction would begin. The statement said officials will act “as quickly as possible, while maintaining environmental stewardship” by consulting with affected parties.

San Diego defenders say the Border Patrol has told them of plans to erect two 30-foot (9.1-meter) high bollard-style barriers across the border’s iconic Friendship Park. Like the Yuma project, the additional construction was funded under the Trump administration but not completed until the end of his presidency.

The new barriers will replace shorter walls and severely impede cross-border views, including of the San Diego skyline from Tijuana, said Reverend John Fanestil of Friends of Friendship Park, a group that advocates for public access. at the bi-national park opened in 1971 by -then First Lady Pat Nixon.

Environmentalists like Traphagen, meanwhile, have called for the removal of other sections of the barrier that they say harm local wildlife like bobcats, cougars, javelins and mule deer.

The Tucson-based Wildlands Network released a new report this week on sites along the US-Mexico border that it considers to be in greatest need of environmental restoration.

Traphagen, the group’s Borderlands program coordinator, has traveled the international border through New Mexico, Arizona and California this year and last year to identify damaged wildlife corridors and other environmental damage.

The group is calling for native foliage to be replanted in areas that were stripped during the construction of the walls and for the spaces between the steel edging to be widened, now just 10cm (4 inches) apart , to allow more wild animals to pass.

It also calls for the removal of 180 miles (290 km) of barbed wire that was installed along pedestrian fences in all border states in 2019 and 2020, both as an eyesore and a danger to the public and wildlife. .

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Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report from San Diego.

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