Groups Urge Feds To Stop Border Wall Build Amid COVID-19

Law360 (March 26, 2020, 8:21 PM EDT) -- More than 100 environmental, civil rights, immigration and religious groups are demanding the federal government immediately halt all southern border wall construction projects, saying the work is putting lives at risk amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This plea includes all aspects of border wall building, from legal filings to breaking ground, according to the letter addressed Thursday to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf.

Continued plans for construction projects in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas are diverting needed resources and will contribute to the spread of the virus by government workers entering border communities, the groups said. Resources for construction could instead be used for hospitals, clinics, masks and respirators, they said.

It’s “unconscionable” for these projects to continue during a pandemic, the organizations said.

“In the border communities we represent, your agencies’ actions are quite literally endangering the lives of border residents,” the groups said.

Some local governments along the border have issued emergency declarations banning gatherings of 10 or more people and Californians are currently under orders to “shelter in place” at home, the organizations said.

The letter comes after U.S. senators voted late Wednesday to pass a $2 trillion bipartisan bill. The House could vote on the legislation as early as Friday, aimed at boosting the economy that is hurting under the pandemic's grip. Included in the bill is $130 billion to help hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities weather the crisis, according to the summary.

Beyond the risk of government agents who survey homes and construction crews spreading COVID-19 within border communities, the groups say that wall construction is forcing some private landowners to deal with eminent domain proceedings during a crisis.

In recent days in southern Texas, the government filed for three additional motions for takings, the groups said.

“Residents, especially the elderly, indigenous tribes and relatively isolated border communities, should not be put in the untenable position of having to stay at home to protect their health while at the same time having to deal with the stress of negotiating land takings for border wall construction,” the groups said.

The letter is being circulated online along with a petition.

There are several ongoing legal challenges to border wall construction, including ones by organizations that signed on to the letter, claiming President Donald Trump’s use of a national emergency declaration last year and last month to free defense funds for the wall construction exceeds the executive branch's constitutional authority. District courts have issued decisions blocking the reallocation of funds, which the Trump administration is seeking to overturn. 

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused some courts to push back proceedings, including the House’s challenge to the Trump administration’s diversion of military funds for the wall in the D.C. Circuit. 

Representatives for the federal agencies did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

--Additional reporting by Dave Simpson, Dorothy Atkins and Nadia Dreid. Editing by Bruce Goldman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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