'It's going to make the agents' jobs easier': Sen. Mark Kelly touts efforts to close border wall gaps

·7 min read

YUMA  — As U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly discussed his efforts in helping to close gaps along the Arizona-Mexico border wall, he acknowledged that efforts at the border were far from done.

Kelly stood near the one of the gaps in the border wall near the Morelos Dam, an area that has become a frequent crossing point for migrants entering the U.S. from Mexico. Filling the gaps will help the U.S. Border Patrol and reduce safety risks for migrants, he said.

But the Cocopah Reservation is about six miles away from where Kelly spoke, a portion of the border that is only divided by vehicle barriers. Kelly and Yuma Sector Border Patrol Chief Chris Clem talked about the likely possibility that migrants and asylum seekers will adapt to the closure of the gaps and present themselves on or near the reservation where there is no border wall.

The fix is like border policy itself: incomplete. Kelly described the situation at the border as a “crisis” and said that comprehensive immigration reform is something that the U.S. “certainly” needs.

Kelly was in Yuma on Wednesday to meet with U.S. Border Patrol officials to discuss his efforts in helping close four gaps along the Arizona-Mexico border wall while also addressing concerns from humanitarian groups about the closures.

Kelly, D-Ariz., spoke with Clem about operational challenges facing the Border Patrol and the positive effects of increased staffing and technology resources on border security. Kelly also addressed environmental, humanitarian and logistical concerns that have arisen since the announcement to close the border wall gaps.

“After a long process of working with the administration, we were able to get these closed,” Kelly said. “This is an operational issue for Border Patrol and it's going to make the agents' jobs easier.”

On July 28, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas authorized U.S. Customs and Border Protection to close the four gaps in the incomplete border barrier project.

Kelly first pushed President Joe Biden to close the gaps in December and has since had numerous calls with the White House and Mayorkas to get their approval, according to a news release from Kelly’s office.

“There will be an adjustment for asylum seekers on the other side, and that's likely what will happen,” Kelly said. “There's cameras there. They're prepared to handle that, but orderly immigration where we're treating asylum seekers fair, that's really important.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly speaks to the media about the barrier gaps at Morelos Dam on Aug. 10, 2022, in Yuma.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly speaks to the media about the barrier gaps at Morelos Dam on Aug. 10, 2022, in Yuma.

The request for proposals for the construction to close the gaps was just released and the first contract potentially could be in place by the end of September, Kelly said. The cost of the closure depends on the proposals the government receives and is not yet known, he added.

The initiative, known as the Yuma Morelos Dam Project, is meant to address operational impacts as well as immediate life and safety risks, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security news release.

“Due to the proximity to the Morelos Dam and the swift-moving Colorado River, this area presents safety and life hazard risks for migrants attempting to cross into the United States where there is a risk of drowning and injuries from falls,” the statement said.

In June, a 5-year-old migrant drowned in the Colorado River after the child was separated from their mother while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border near Yuma.

The project is also meant to address the life and safety risks posed to first responders and agents responding to incidents in the area, DHS said. The Yuma Morelos Dam Project will be funded through DHS’ fiscal year 2021 appropriations, according to the news release.

Colorado River drowning: Child migrant drowns crossing the Colorado River near Yuma; investigation underway

The area near the Morelos Dam has become a frequent crossing spot because, in part, of its lower water levels. The decreased levels allow migrants to walk or wade across the Colorado River and present themselves to Border Patrol agents after crossing through the spacious gaps in the border wall.

Aid workers raise concerns: 'It's not something that should be done'

On a recent morning, more than 300 migrants waited to be processed by a handful of Border Patrol agents near the Morelos Dam along the Arizona-Mexico border. Migrants from Peru, Cuba, Colmbia and Russia all lined up in the early morning as the 30-foot border fence towered over them.

This is an everyday occurrence, advocates say.

Border Patrol agents have encountered more than 235,000 migrants in the Yuma sector, which covers southwestern Arizona and a small portion of California, so far this fiscal year.

Nathalie Hernandez Barahona, volunteer coordinator with the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition organization, arrived at the border wall near Yuma at 3 a.m. Wednesday. Hernandez Barahona works with the organization daily to provide migrants and asylum seekers waiting at the border wall with water, food and heat relief.

The closing of the border wall gaps will hurt the organization’s efforts to reach people who are in need of essential supplies, she said.

“It just doesn't work for us as a humanitarian group,” Hernandez Barahona said. “It's not something that should be done."

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly speaks to the media about the barrier gaps at Morelos Dam on Aug. 10, 2022, in Yuma.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly speaks to the media about the barrier gaps at Morelos Dam on Aug. 10, 2022, in Yuma.

Kelly, Sinema push for more funds for Border Patrol, aid programs

Wednesday’s event was Kelly’s seventh visit to the Arizona-Mexico border since taking office. In May, Kelly visited Yuma to meet with local leaders and law enforcement to discuss Title 42, a pandemic health rule implemented in March 2020. It has been used to turn away thousands of asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border for the past two years. A federal judge's injunction bars the Biden administration from winding down the policy.

Asked about Title 42 on Wednesday, Kelly emphasized the need for a safe and orderly process that treats migrants fairly but that’s also safe for law enforcement along the border.

“The best approach to seeking asylum is to go to a port of entry,” Kelly said. “That's where we're going to see the process work the best. Not walking through the desert — that's not safe for anybody.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly (left) speaks on Aug. 10, 2022, to Barbara Cook (right) who lives across the road from the Morelos Dam in Yuma. Cook has lived next to the border wall for nine years and frequently sees migrants, who cross between gaps in the wall, pass by her home. On one occasion, migrants knocked on her door asking for water due to the hot weather.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly (left) speaks on Aug. 10, 2022, to Barbara Cook (right) who lives across the road from the Morelos Dam in Yuma. Cook has lived next to the border wall for nine years and frequently sees migrants, who cross between gaps in the wall, pass by her home. On one occasion, migrants knocked on her door asking for water due to the hot weather.

Kelly has pushed for the federal government to do more to prepare before repealing Title 42. In May, Kelly, alongside U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and a bipartisan group of senators, introduced legislation that would require the Biden administration to have a comprehensive plan in place before rescinding Title 42.

Title 42: Judge's ruling blocks repeal of Title 42, divides Arizona politicians, communities

In March, Kelly, alongside Sinema, secured funding for improved border security technology, nongovernmental organizations and Border Patrol hiring and retention.

A gap in the border wall at the Morelos Dam on Aug. 10, 2022, in Yuma.
A gap in the border wall at the Morelos Dam on Aug. 10, 2022, in Yuma.

The funding includes $150 million for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program that helps nongovernmental organizations and communities mitigate the costs related to an influx of migrants, including food, shelter and transportation.

On Aug. 4, Kelly helped introduce bipartisan legislation to provide a pay raise to the Border Patrol and create a Border Patrol agent reserve force.

DHS announced the agency will move as quickly as possible to close the gaps while still maintaining “environmental stewardship.”

“Prior to construction, DHS will engage in standard environmental planning and conduct stakeholder outreach and consultation,” the agency wrote in the written release.

In the past, environmental advocates have raised concerns about closing gaps along the border wall, given that the closure could further affect the future of wildlife whose territory crosses the international boundary.

Environmental concerns: Feds OK work to close border wall 'gaps' in Arizona as environmentalists raise concerns

The environmental planning and outreach will begin after a contract is in place to finish the gaps, Kelly said Wednesday.

The gaps along the Arizona-Mexico border are located in the former Yuma 6 project area, a previous border barrier initiative that was funded by the Department of Defense’s military construction appropriation, according to DHS.

Contact the reporter at jcastaneda1@arizonarepublic.com or connect with him on Twitter @joseicastaneda.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Mark Kelly visits Arizona-Mexico border to discuss wall. What to know