Protect our health care workers — halt border wall construction

As a public health professional working to prevent illness in our U.S.-Mexico border communities, I am shocked that the non-essential construction of Trump’s border wall continues despite national, state and local emergency declarations.

My organization, the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center, (SEAHEC) is tasked with helping develop a prepared rural health workforce. We work diligently to help hospitals and community health centers recruit and train future doctors, nurses and other health professionals needed to promote health and prevent and treat illness in our border counties.

Continuing construction of Trump’s border wall is unethical and irresponsible. It increases risk to our communities by ignoring emergency safety precautions — closure of non-essential businesses and social distancing — adding stress to our already overburdened local health care resources.

For three months, COVID-19 has spread rampantly and now dominates the news. While federal, state and local health officials warn the public to stay at home and not congregate in groups, here in our border region work on Trump’s border wall continues unabated. In rural areas, where health care services are inadequate to meet normal demands, this could become a disaster.

As of March 29, my area of focus — Southeast Arizona — has 158 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but we have no way of knowing the extent of the spread or how quickly it’s infecting our community. But, like most places in the country, our health care system will be overwhelmed. Out of a population of more than 7 million, the state has tabulated fewer than 10,500 test results, less than one-tenth of one percent.

Meanwhile, wall construction continues near Ajo and Douglas, Ariz., small towns whose health services are already overburdened. Emergency guidelines are being ignored. Work crews come from other states and are gathering in large numbers, along with people from food service, transportation and other services that support the construction.

This problem persists in other active border wall construction zones in California, New Mexico and Texas, according to local observers.

The Trump administration has a staggering $18.4 billion border wall budget, most of it diverted from other federal agencies’ programs that are intended to protect national security. Wall construction money should instead be used to save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19.

At the same time, the administration has undermined our capacity to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak through staff and budget cuts. In 2018, the administration disbanded the National Security Council's pandemic unit, and have also disastrously diminished the Center for Disease Control staffing.

My work is challenging but I will continue fighting for our communities through this unprecedented crisis. Our border community health care providers are on the front lines. They face close contact with infected patients, while protective gear is in short supply.

In Southeast Arizona, our health care workers themselves are in short supply. If they fall sick, our rural counties will lose what little leverage we have to slow the spread.

I worry about the health of our communities and of our health care providers. I ask that border wall construction contractors prioritize the health of their workers and our border community members before their profits.

Now, more than ever, the border wall construction should stop.


Gail Emrick, a lifelong Southern Arizona is the executive director of the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center in Nogales, Arizona, and serves on the Binational Health Council of Ambos Nogales. She is a 2016 Public Voices Fellow and was awarded 2014 Border Health Employee of the Year by the Secretary of Health, Sonora.