YUMA, Ariz. — On a dirt road past rows of date trees, just feet from a dry section of Colorado River, a small construction crew is putting up a towering border wall that the government hopes will reduce — for good — the flow of immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Cicadas buzz and heavy equipment rumbles and beeps before it lowers 30-foot-tall sections of fence into the dirt. “Ah? est?!” — “There it is!” — a Spanish-speaking member of the crew says as the men straighten the sections into the ground.
Nearby, workers pull dates from palm trees, not far from the cotton fields that cars pass on the drive to the border.
South of Yuma, Ariz., the tall brown bollards rising against a cloudless desert sky will replace much shorter barriers that are meant to keep out cars, but not people.
This 5-mile section of fencing is where President Donald Trump’s most salient campaign promise — to build a wall along the entire southern border — is taking shape.
The president and his administration said last week that they plan on building between 450 and 500 miles of fencing along the nearly 2,000-mile border by the end of 2020, an ambitious undertaking funded by billions of defense dollars that had been earmarked for things like military base schools, target ranges and maintenance facilities.
Two other Pentagon-funded construction projects in New Mexico and Arizona are underway, but some are skeptical that so many miles of wall can be built in such a short amount of time. The government is up against last-minute construction hiccups, funding issues and legal challenges from environmentalists and property owners whose land sits on the border.
The Trump administration says the wall — along with more surveillance technology, agents and lighting — is key to keeping out people who cross illegally.
Critics say a wall is useless when most of those apprehended turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents in the hope they can be eventually released while their cases play out in immigration court.
In Yuma, the defense-funded section of tall fencing is replacing shorter barriers that U.S. officials say are less efficient.
It comes amid a steep increase since last year in the number of migrant families who cross the border illegally in the Yuma area, often turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents. Many are fleeing extreme poverty and violence, and some are seeking asylum.
So far this year, Border Patrol agents in the Yuma sector have apprehended over 51,000 family units. That’s compared with just over 14,500 the year before — about a 250 percent increase.
The Yuma sector is the third busiest along the southern border, with officials building a temporary, 500-person tent facility in the parking lot of the Border Patrol’s Yuma headquarters in June.
It spent just under $15 million for the setup and services for four months, including meals, laundry and security, but officials are evaluating whether to keep it running past next month as the number of arrivals in Yuma and across the southern border have fallen sharply in recent months.
The number of people apprehended along the southern border fell by 61 percent between this year’s high point in May and the end of August.