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'It's Infuriating': Critics Say Border Wall Still Going Up When They Can't Protest

Nayda Alvarez and her family were hunkered down in their South Texas home a couple weeks ago when her dad saw a caravan of vehicles coming their way.

Alvarez suspected they were government workers but didn't want to get close enough to find out, so she took a photo and sent it to her attorneys. Turns out, they were government surveyors collecting data for upcoming border wall construction.

"They were in there with several big trucks, some sort of machinery," Alvarez said. "I felt insecure knowing that there were people next to us. I don't know who these people are, where they've been or what they have."

While much of the country has been on lockdown because of the coronavirus, construction of President Trump's border wall has continued.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for a full-stop on construction. But the administration has accelerated some efforts to build the wall, and Trump is using the pandemic to justify his push for it.

Since the pandemic began in the U.S., federal officials have moved to speed up construction of 200 miles of border wall by waiving federal regulations. And they are still filing lawsuits in south Texas to seize private land for the wall.

Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that the pandemic shows it's important to, "have full awareness of who and what is coming across our borders."

And the Army Corps of Engineers said construction workers are told to comply with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local authorities.

But Laiken Jordahl, with the Center for Biological Diversity, is documenting the wall's impact on border communities and says residents are worried about a "massive influx" of workers that have come from across the country.

"They're crowding into hotels and grocery stores, exposing residents to increase risk of infection," he said.

Jordahl doesn't think it's a coincidence that residents say they are seeing more border wall activity going on now — at a time when they can't stage protests.

"It's infuriating to see wall construction 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," Jordahl said.

Ricky Garza is with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents landowners, like Alvarez, who are fighting in court to stop the federal government from taking their land. The Alvarez family has owned eight acres along the Rio Grande for generations.

Garza said the coronavirus pandemic has made it hard to meet with clients and thinks that's why the government has filed more cases lately.

"We saw 13 new cases filed in March, which was a record and which was the most we had ever seen," said Garza, adding that eight more cases have been filed since then. "I was pretty shocked when I first saw the curve of cases, it looks like the coronavirus infection chart."

CBP said the process hasn't changed because of COVID-19. If there is any increase in activity, officials say, that's because project planning has progressed.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio