Residents of a southern New Mexico village are raising concerns about an influx of workers into their community to build President Donald Trump’s US-Mexico border wall during the coronavirus outbreak.
They’ve asked the state’s top elected officials in a letter to step in after the federal contractor working on the project began erecting portable housing.
Opponents argue that this goes against the intention of public health orders issued by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham aimed at limiting groups of people and contact to keep the coronavirus pandemic from worsening.
“We respectfully ask that you do everything within your power to halt the influx of out-state-workers into our border communities to protect the safety and health of rural New Mexicans and border communities,” the letter reads. “The lives of New Mexicans are depending on it.”
Residents of the village of Columbus, about 80 miles west of El Paso, Texas, fear the influx of between 40 and 60 workers could add further stress to health services should they fall ill, and will increase unnecessary interactions when they buy food.
Lieutenant Governor Howie Morales has been in contact with Columbus mayor Esequiel Salas. “The national emergency right now is not building the border wall. The national emergency is the health crisis that we’re dealing with,” said Morales, stressing that the focus should be on building the capacity of the health care system.
Ray Trejo, coordinator with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, was in Columbus on Monday and saw the rows of portable housing. His group is among those that signed the letter with the ACLU of New Mexico, the New Mexico Centre on Law and Poverty and others.
“While we all do our best to stay at home and adhere to the governor’s guidance, these individuals pose an uncontrollable threat to our community as they work side-by-side in close quarters and travel in and out of our city and patronise local businesses. They should be gone tomorrow,” Mr Trejo said.
The US Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees contractors working on the border, told The Associated Press last week that the agency follows federal guidelines but declined to share specifics on how it’s protecting public health during construction.
The federal contractor employing the workers, Texas-based SLS, was awarded nearly $790 million last year to install steel bollards in southern New Mexico.
A similar situation is also happening across the country in northern Montana, where work began over the weekend on the Keystone XL pipeline. Democratic governor Steve Bullock said concerns about planned worker camps, that could house as many as 1,000 people each, need to be resolved before sponsor TC Energy finalises its construction plans.
Despite a clampdown on people’s movements across much of the US, the border wall and pipeline work are exempt from stay-at-home restrictions. Even in New Mexico, the public health orders carve out exemptions for infrastructure operations such as public works construction and the repair and construction of roads.
As of Tuesday, New Mexico has 686 cases of coronavirus and 12 recorded deaths.
With reporting by The Associated Press