PHOENIX – Former Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's border barrier of shipping containers has been largely dismantled in time for a new Democratic administration, costing tens of millions of dollars over just a few months as they were set up and taken down again.
Removal of the hulking red, gold and blue steel boxes is creating a stark visual shift in affected sections of Arizona's southern landscape as a new governor takes power and another $76 million in state funds is spent to remove the containers on top of the $95 million it cost to put them there.
Ducey had said the containers placed at an opening along the border near the western community of Yuma and across a grassland valley in eastern Arizona's Cochise County were intended as a temporary measure until the Biden administration undertook permanent construction to secure the border.
Gov. Katie Hobbs, who was sworn in this week, was among Democrats who called it a political stunt.
Border security was a key issue of Donald Trump’s presidency and remains a focus for many Republicans. Hobbs’ GOP rival, Kari Lake, campaigned on a promise to dispatch the National Guard to the border on her first day in office.
The issue wound up in federal court after Ducey sued, asking that Arizona be recognized as having the sole or shared jurisdiction for the strip of federal land the containers were placed on. He also argued Arizona had the right to protect its residents from illegal immigration he termed a humanitarian crisis.
An agreement between Ducey's administration and the federal agencies named in his lawsuit called for the containers to come down by Wednesday, the day before Hobbs's inauguration. But the court later stayed all deadlines in the case by 30 days to give Hobbs and new Attorney General Kris Mayes time to review the situation.
In Yuma, all 130 of the containers covering about 3,800 feet (about 1,160 meters) were removed by Tuesday.
Workers continue to dismantle the container wall in Cochise County, said Russ McSpadden, who has regularly visited the site in remote San Rafael Valley as a southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
About a third of some 3,000 containers were erected there, raising concerns about possible harm to local wildlife and natural water systems before protesters halted the work in early December. Environmentalists said the work in the Coronado National Forest imperiled endangered or threatened species like the western yellow-billed cuckoo and the Mexican spotted owl.
Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls said this week that although the U.S. government plans permanent construction to close the big gap around the Morelos Dam section that immigrants often wade through, he worries about gaps not scheduled for construction.
The U.S. Border Patrol announced Friday that construction to close the gap near the Morelos Dam will begin next week, noting that the swift-moving Colorado River poses potential hazards for drowning and other injuries for migrants and the agency's own personnel.
“The containers were never going to totally stop people from crossing, but it was a way to better control it,” said Nicholls, a Republican who is in regular contact with the White House and U.S. agencies about hundreds of asylum seekers arriving in his small city daily.
Nicholls said he is already in talks with the Hobbs administration about border security and wants the governor to visit the area.
“I’m hoping she makes her way here sooner rather than later,” he said. “We still feel like it’s an emergency.”
Under Ducey, Arizona was busing hundreds of migrants from the Yuma area to the U.S. capital.
Nicholls said the regular bus trips to Washington continue despite the change in governors, with the nonprofit Regional Center for Border Health assuming the contract.
He said that without any kind of migrant shelter, Yuma is ill-prepared to help newcomers who need a place to stay, and that offering bus rides to Washington allows many to travel free to the East Coast where they may have family.
Unlike busloads of migrants being sent to East Coast cities from Texas, nonprofit groups in Washington have said the buses from Arizona come with detailed manifests of passengers and their nationalities, coordination on arrival times and medical personnel aboard each trip. Ducey's administration had sent more than 2,500 migrants on some 70 trips to Washington beginning in May.
Ducey's administration earlier estimated each bus trip cost about $80,000 in state funds, which would put the total cost so far well over $5.6 million.
A spokesperson for the Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton, Arizona, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the contract is now being handled.
Nicholls said the center will be reimbursed for the cost of the trips by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.