The governor of the US state of Arizona, which shares a border with Mexico, has agreed to remove shipping containers erected as a makeshift barrier on the border in defiance of the federal government.
According to court documents filed on Wednesday, Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey has entered into an agreement with the Biden administration to remove the containers from federal lands, including national forests.
In a lawsuit filed by the federal government last week, the Department of Justice described the barrier as “hundreds of double-stacked multi-ton shipping containers that damage federal lands, threaten public safety, and impede the ability of federal agencies and officials, including law enforcement personnel, to perform their official duties”.
Ducey has countered that the containers were a temporary measure meant to pressure the federal government to construct a permanent wall on the southern border.
Wednesday’s agreement to remove the containers comes as the United States contends with a record number of border crossings from undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.
For its 2022 fiscal year, US Customs and Border Protection documented 2.76 million “enforcement actions” taken to turn away migrants, up from approximately 1.96 million the previous year.
Ducey has decried what he calls “inaction” on the part of the Biden administration in handling the influx of migrants. An October news release from the governor’s office described the shipping-container wall, as well as similar measures, as an exercise of “the state’s right to defend itself”.
But the plan to spend $95m to place 3,000 shipping containers on the border met criticism from conservation and immigrant rights groups. They argue that the makeshift wall is not only ineffective but that it also damages sensitive ecosystems.
In December, the Center for Biological Diversity released a news statement saying that the containers were a “shameful political stunt” that would impede stream flow and threaten numerous species. The makeshift wall blocked critical wildlife corridors for endangered jaguars and ocelots, the centre argued.
Ducey is set to leave office in January, after serving the state maximum of two terms in the governor’s office. His successor, Democratic Governor-elect Katie Hobbs, has said that she opposed the construction.
The effort to build the makeshift wall was about one-third of the way done when Wednesday’s agreement with the Biden administration was reached. The deal called on Arizona to remove containers placed in the remote San Rafael Valley, in southeastern Cochise County, by January 4 with no damage to natural resources.
Despite campaign promises that border wall construction would cease during his tenure, the Biden administration had previously said that it would fill in existing gaps in the border wall in Arizona.
“For more than a year, the federal government has been touting their effort to resume construction of a permanent border barrier. Finally, after the situation on our border has turned into a full-blown crisis, they’ve decided to act,” said CJ Karamargin, Ducey’s spokesperson. “Better late than never.”
Ducey’s government has also sparred with the Biden administration over the future of Title 42, a controversial policy that has blocked many migrants from seeking asylum on the grounds of combatting COVID-19.
The Trump-era policy has been criticised by human rights groups for expelling millions of people seeking asylum without due process.
Title 42 was set to expire on December 21, but the US Supreme Court intervened on Monday to temporarily halt the expiration, in a response to an appeal from Republican-led states.
Ducey has previously called on the Biden administration to extend Title 42, saying that it provided “critical protections”.
The policy stems from a rarely-invoked 1944 law that allows the government to turn away asylum seekers to protect public health. It was first invoked by the Trump administration in March 2020, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, although experts have cast doubt on its utility as a public health measure.
Efforts by the Biden administration to end the policy have met fierce pushback from Republican lawmakers who say that rolling it back could lead to an increase in people seeking asylum at the US border with Mexico.