What’s happening with the wall?
President Joe Biden said he would stop building at the border, but that’s easier said than done
On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden promised that under his watch, “there will not be another foot of wall constructed” on the U.S. Southern border.
Biden promised something else, too: that he would cease land confiscations for the wall, something presidents of both parties had utilized in the past. But on April 13, a judge in McAllen, Texas, awarded the federal government the right to possess about six miles of the Cavazos family’s property in Mission, Texas.
“Why say ‘no more walls’ if he doesn’t mean it?” 71-year-old Jose “Fred” Cavazos, a member of the family, told ABC News.
While construction on the border wall has stopped under Biden, at least 140 ongoing disputes between property owners and the government remain unresolved. The Cavazos case illustrates how immigration policies and court fights from one White House administration bleed over into the next. A question mark hangs over the fate of the wall, leaving families like the Cavazoses in limbo.
On Inauguration Day, Biden issued a proclamation that froze work on the wall “to the extent permitted by law.”
“The administration paused construction but didn’t give clarity to what would happen with other pieces” like eminent domain cases, said David Donatti, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “I think that’s partially because the administration has not decided what they are going to do. … They want to keep their options open until they have that decision.” He said his organization has asked the administration for updates “but haven’t gotten a whole lot of transparency.”
While Donald Trump was president, Congress allocated about $1.3 billion annually to the border wall, including for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. In addition, Trump declared a state of emergency that allowed him to redirect funding from military projects, giving him $15 billion total for the wall.
Biden’s Jan. 20 proclamation terminated that emergency declaration. It also directed executive departments to produce a plan “for redirecting funding and repurposing contracts” that the Trump administration had brokered for wall construction by March 21. The administration has now missed that deadline by more than a month.
The White House might not be able to redirect or cancel those contracts, many of which were signed in the last days of Trump’s presidency. Some of the contracts have completion dates projected in 2022, according to the website Border Report. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the government could save more than $2.6 billion by halting construction. But canceling contracts could still require settlements that will end up costing taxpayer money.
Last month, a group of 40 Republican senators requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigate whether the freeze on border wall construction violates the law. The group argues that halting work on the wall goes against the Impoundment Control Act, which says Congress holds the power of the purse and the executive branch cannot withhold appropriated money over policy disagreements. Democrats accused Trump of violating the act when he withheld already appropriated aid to Ukraine. The GAO found Trump’s actions violated the law. The office has accepted the senators’ request to investigate the matter but has yet to issue a report.
Groups like the ACLU have argued Biden could redirect the funds by securing the border in other ways that would still meet Congress’ policy intention.
“Operationally effective border security includes surveillance, ground sensors,” Donatti said. “Our view is that there is a lot of flexibility.”
The administration’s request for discretionary money for fiscal year 2022 asked that Congress null previous funding set aside for the wall. It includes a proposal for $1.2 billion for border security measures such as modernizing ports of entry and adding technology. The request does not specify what kinds of technology it wants to invest in, but currently deployed options include ground sensors, infrared cameras for detecting activity, flood lights, drones, towers, and all-weather roads so Border Patrol agents can navigate the terrain more efficiently. The White House has not yet released its full budget request.
The 1,954-mile dividing line between the United States and Mexico is interrupted by rivers, private property, and border communities. Former President Bill Clinton launched the effort to construct a physical barrier, but the majority of it was built during the Bush and Obama administrations.
Prior to the Trump administration, more than 654 miles of fencing was in place. Trump oversaw about 80 miles of new construction and the replacement or upgrade of 400 miles of barriers. Some hip-high barriers to deter vehicles became 30-foot tall steel bollard fences to prevent people from crossing.
Well-funded drug and human trafficking cartels adapted their methods: Border Patrol agents have discovered tunnels that evade walls and sensors and have also apprehended drones used to fly drugs over barriers.
“The billionaires that control the drug trade obviously find paths around the wall,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The wall has become much more prominent symbolically around the politics of immigration. … As you put up walls in the more heavily trafficked areas for migration, the immigration is still going to come, people are just going to go through much more remote, desert lands.”
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