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Amid U.S. Lockdowns, The Border Wall Construction Goes On

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

While much of the country has been on lockdown, construction of President Trump's border wall has continued. In fact, the administration has accelerated some efforts to build the wall. Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for a full stop because of the coronavirus outbreak. But Trump is using the pandemic to justify his push for the wall. Reynaldo Leanos Jr. from Texas Public Radio has this report.

REYNALDO LEANOS JR, BYLINE: One day last month, Nayda Alvarez (ph) and her family were hunkered down at home because of the coronavirus. When her dad saw a caravan of vehicles coming their way, Alvarez stepped out onto her porch.

NAYDA ALVAREZ: They were in there with several big trucks, some sort of machinery.

LEANOS: Alvarez suspected they were government workers, but she didn't want to get close enough to find out, so she took a photo and sent it to her attorneys.

ALVAREZ: I felt insecure knowing there were people next to us. You know, we are supposed to be in quarantine, and we have stay-at-home orders here in the county of Starr. I don't know who these people are, where they've been or what they have.

LEANOS: Turns out they were government surveyors collecting data for upcoming border wall construction. Since the pandemic began in the U.S., federal officials have moved to speed up construction of about 200 miles of border wall by waiving federal regulations. And they're still filing lawsuits in court to seize private land for the wall.

LAIKEN JORDAHL: And across the border in Arizona and California, we've seen this massive influx of construction workers into our border communities. These workers are coming from all over the country. They're crowding into hotels and grocery stores, exposing residents to increased risk of infection.

LEANOS: Laiken Jordahl is with the Center for Biological Diversity. He travels along the southern border documenting the wall's impact on communities. Jordahl doesn't think it's a coincidence that residents say they're seeing more border wall activity going on now, at a time when they can't stage protests.

JORDAHL: It's infuriating to see wall construction actually ramp up, actually be accelerated when the people who are fighting wall construction are now required to do that from the confines of their living rooms.

RICKY GARZA: We think they're taking advantage of the pandemic to go after people's homes when they should be sheltering in place.

LEANOS: Ricky Garza is with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents landowners in South Texas like Alvarez, who are fighting in court to stop the federal government from taking their land. Garza says the coronavirus pandemic has made it hard to meet with clients. And he thinks that's why the government has filed more cases lately.

GARZA: We saw 13 new cases filed in March, which is a record and which was the most we had ever seen. I was pretty shocked when I first saw that the curve of cases - it looks like the coronavirus infection chart.

LEANOS: Customs and Border Protection says the process has not changed because of COVID-19. If there is any increase in activity, they say that's only because project planning has progressed. As for the construction workers, the Army Corps of Engineers say they're told to comply with CDC, state and local guidelines. CBP also says the pandemic shows it's important to, quote, "have full awareness of who and what is coming across our borders" - a point echoed by President Trump at a coronavirus briefing last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nobody's coming through that. Nobody - not even close. And we're building it rapidly. We will have - early next year, we'll have close to 500 miles of wall, which is what our goal was.

LEANOS: Nayda Alvarez and our family have owned eight acres along the Rio Grande for generations. For the past year, she says, the Trump administration has been relentless in trying to build the wall through her backyard. And she's not surprised the wall is still being built now, even during a pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Reynaldo Leanos Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILL VAN HORN'S "ALBERTO BALSALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.