SAN LUIS — The first section of President Trump’s border wall in Arizona is rising near Yuma.
After years of crowds shouting “build the wall” at political rallies and countless condemnations of the wall as xenophobic or a “vanity project” for Trump, the wall has taken the shape of square, metal poles jutting 30 feet up from the ground in San Luis, a border town south of Yuma.
As early as this month, similar poles could rise along the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and across the San Pedro River.
Despite the wall being the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda, relatively few details about it were announced publicly. Instead, information has come in dribs and drabs from documents disclosed in a federal lawsuit and terse news releases.
Questions remain about whether a wall across the San Pedro River would have sluice gates to allow water to pass through, or whether the gaps between the poles would be big enough to let animals migrate on Cabeza Prieta and Organ Pipe.
The view from up close shows the wall in San Luis dwarfing the panel fencing it replaced, which stood 10 to 15 feet high.
A finger’s-length space between the poles allows Border Patrol agents to watch activity on the south side of the wall and lets air through, but little else. Metal plates on top of the poles are designed to thwart climbers. Tunnel diggers would have to go down about 6 feet, judging by the depth of an open trench dug for the foundation of the wall.
In contrast with the reddish coloring of shorter poles installed on the Arizona border over the last decade or so, the wall in San Luis is so dark it almost gives off a bluish hue.
So far, the wall stretches for about 10 miles along the border on the east side of San Luis.
When the 26-mile project is completed, it will extend farther east into the desert and farther west to the port of entry that connects San Luis with its Mexican counterpart, San Luis Rio Colorado.
On Wednesday morning, heavy machinery was flattening earth and removing panel fencing across the street from a neighborhood in San Luis Rio Colorado that fronts the border.
A guard wearing a cloth mask with a rifle slung by his side kept an eye on the construction from the U.S. side of the street a few miles east of the downtown port of entry.
Closer to the port of entry, drivers jockeyed for position in a seemingly endless line of vehicles as they waited to cross into San Luis, where they would be greeted by a hub of stores catering to Mexican shoppers and travelers. A woman sold hot dogs out of a gleaming metal cart and a few men sold trinkets to the waiting drivers. A handful of taxi drivers waited in the shade and called out to people walking into Mexico.
Schoolchildren were walking to and from the port of entry on Wednesday.
In a few months, Mexican workers will start walking through the port of entry on their way to the fields north of San Luis, where they will pick most of the lettuce and other leafy greens eaten during the winter months in the United States.
Just a few feet from the right-hand side of the vehicles waiting to enter the United States, but virtually invisible to the drivers, 10 rows of razor-sharp concertina wire were set on the ground on the north side of the fence.
This is the area where thousands of migrant families have climbed the border fence in the last year, and where the 30-foot wall eventually will be built.
The families generally surrender to agents and claim asylum after fleeing violence, corruption and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Due to a U.S. policy of allowing only a few people to claim asylum each day at a port of entry, nearly 1,000 people are on a wait list in San Luis Rio Colorado to get their turn to start the asylum process, The Associated Press reported in July.
In November, a group of 82 people, mostly families from Guatemala, climbed the panel fence. A few hours later, 83 people from Guatemala and El Salvador crossed in the same area after digging a hole under the fence, according to the Border Patrol.
Other cases involved hundreds of people at a time, including crossings along the nearby Colorado River.
More than 50,000 migrants traveling as families surrendered to Yuma Sector Border Patrol agents from October to July, according to Border Patrol statistics. That was more than four times the 10,700 apprehended from October 2017 to July 2018, which was a marked increase from the previous year.
“Coordinated smuggling of large numbers of Central Americans is taking place daily here in Yuma Sector,” Anthony Porvaznik, chief patrol agent in the Yuma Sector, said in an October news release. “They show flagrant disregard for the laws of our country and are exploiting our need for improved border wall infrastructure.”
The Border Patrol came under fire in recent months after reports from news outlets and government inspectors showed migrants were housed in overcrowded, filthy facilities in Texas.
In June, a tent-like structure was built outside the Border Patrol station in Yuma to house the families.
The “soft-sided facility” in Yuma, which cost $15 million and can house up to 500 people, will remain open for at least four months.
Porvaznik said plans are in the works to build a permanent structure at the Yuma station to house families.
During a visit by reporters and officials Thursday morning, the Yuma facility had considerable empty space, but that could change quickly if more migrant families come to the Yuma area.
Dozens of children and their parents whiled away the hours on gray sleeping mats. The rustle of thin, metallic blankets was almost as loud as the roar of air-conditioning units.
A few kids played hide-and-seek, but most of them were tucked in with their parents. They poked their heads up from blankets to watch the gaggle of reporters and officials. A few returned waves and smiles.
In a separate area of the structure, flyers listed languages for migrants to choose, a recognition that many migrants from Central America speak indigenous dialects, rather than Spanish.
Shelves lined the walls with bins containing baby food, baby bottles, diapers, wipes, sanitary pads, and other assorted items. A separate room had rows of showers.
Other shelves had instant noodles, animal crackers, goldfish crackers and snack mix, while more shelves held underwear, socks, T-shirts and assorted clothing.
Rows of computers were set up on tables to process the migrants.
A bin on one table was labeled “MPP complete,” a reference to the Migrant Protection Protocols used to make migrants wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed.
San Luis is slated to join several border towns in Texas and California where the program is already in place.
So far, public information on construction contracts for the border wall is a hodgepodge of vague locations and costs.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates each mile of 30-foot wall will cost about $20 million, but that likely will vary depending on terrain, road access and other factors.
Montana-based Barnard Construction Co. was awarded a $187 million contract to build 11 miles of wall in the Yuma area, the Army Corps of Engineers announced in April.
Southwest Valley Constructors, based in Albuquerque, was awarded a $646 million contract in May to build the wall in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which includes Cabeza Prieta, Organ Pipe and the San Pedro River.
Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan said Thursday in San Luis that Customs and Border Protection had developed a plan to build walls in areas “prioritized by agents on the ground, based on vulnerabilities on the border and the traffic that we’re seeing crossing the border.”
After an inquiry to CBP, a spokesman forwarded an Aug. 2 border wall status report that showed $6.2 billion has been appropriated by Congress or reprogrammed from the Defense and Treasury departments since January 2017 to build about 330 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
So far, about 55 miles of border fencing has been built.
The border had 319 miles of pedestrian fencing and 280 miles of vehicle barriers built before January 2017, according to the report.
The plan is to build 86 miles of primary wall, 24 miles of levee wall and 14 miles of secondary wall, as well as replace about 60 miles of dilapidated fencing and 144 miles of vehicle barriers.