Smolens: Amid pandemic and protests, Trump builds his wall

The Trump administration has had varying, inconsistent responses to the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests, but one thing has remained constant throughout: the president's push to build his border wall.

Construction of the wall continues, though most of the new barrier so far is replacing old, sometimes dilapidated fencing that has stood between Mexico and the United States for years.

Trump still faces challenges to gain access to and acquire private property needed for crucial stretches of the project, particularly in Texas' Rio Grande Valley. The administration has filed dozens of lawsuits against landowners, including an orphanage.

But it seems that the dual crises facing the nation have done nothing to slow the momentum behind the project. The COVID-19 outbreak may have even facilitated it.

The New York Times reported that the administration is accelerating efforts to seize property for the project by surveying private land while its owners were largely confined indoors because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Nayda Alvarez, 49, told the Times she recently found construction markers on her property in Starr County, Texas, that has been in her family for five generations.

“Is that essential business?” she asked. “That didn't stop a single minute during the shelter in place or stay at home.”

The wall has been moving forward, albeit in fits and starts, ever since Trump abandoned efforts to get the funding through Congress. The administration found the money elsewhere.

The Customs and Border Protection agency has identified $15 billion for construction of more than 750 miles of border wall and related infrastructure through a combination of funds from the Pentagon, Homeland Security and the Treasury Forfeiture Fund, according to Fox News.

Two years ago, a trade-off was discussed between Trump and congressional Democrats: border wall funding in return for extended legal status for “dreamers,” young immigrants whose temporary legal status Trump has put in jeopardy by moving to strip them of work permits and deportation protection.

But the deal never came to pass.

That leaves an uncertain future for some 700,000 people in the country under DACA, the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program, which allows individuals brought to the U.S. as children to apply for a renewable two-year reprieve on deportation that allows them to work and attend school.

Trump has pledged to have 450 miles of border wall constructed by the end of the year, though the administration has backed off that exact number. As of Wednesday, 194 miles have been built, according to a Customs and Border Protection website that regularly updates statistics on construction progress.

Key stretches planned through Texas would be on private land and the going there has been slow.

So far, 10 of the more than 200 miles of private property needed for the wall in the Laredo and Rio Grande Valley Customs and Border Patrol sectors has been acquired. According to the New York Times, that's an increase of seven miles since December. That's where most of the Trump administration legal action against landowners has taken place.

Some of those landowners said social-distancing requirements because of the coronavirus have limited their ability to fight Trump's eminent domain efforts to take their land.

“They've taken advantage of people sheltering in place. People have not been able to seek out attorneys,” Ricky Garza, a staff lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project told the Times.

The administration has said it is acting within the law and adhering to coronavirus protocols.

COVID-19 has become another reason for the wall, according to Trump, in addition blocking illegal immigration and protecting national security. He has enacted other border restrictions in an effort to stem the spread of the virus from south of the border.

“Mexico is having a very, very hard time, as you know, with COVID, especially along the border,” Trump told reporters last week. “Fortunately,” he added, “we have a brand-new wall along there, and the wall is saving us.”

Health experts aren't sure whether Trump's border policies in general are helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus. San Diego's region along the border has experienced a spike in cases.

The wall maybe moving ahead, but its effectiveness continues to be questioned. Apparently, it's not as impenetrable as Trump has suggested.

Concerns about people climbing over or cutting through it are such that the Customs and Border Patrol has asked contractors to help the administration make that more difficult to do, according to the Washington Post.

The Post said records indicate there were 18 breaches in the San Diego area during a single one-month period last fall.

Meanwhile, the wall may be aimed at deterring illegal immigration coming through Mexico, but it's also causing significant problems for U.S. homeowners, businesses and farmers, some of whom would be cut off from some of their property by the wall.

The use of eminent domain to seize private property often is criticized by conservatives and property-rights advocates. But in this case, there has been no criticism of the practice by Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Some critics depict Trump as scattered and having a short attention span. But, to borrow a term from a previous president, he has been focused like a laser on getting the wall built.

So far, he has not been deterred by disease, civil unrest or congressional Democrats.

Now it seems the only things standing in his way to completing the wall are some Texas landowners and the November election.

Michael Smolens is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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