President Joe Biden’s decision this week to move forward with border wall construction that Democrats have long denounced shocked allies and immigration advocates.
Biden pledged “not another foot” of border wall would be constructed, calling it a breach of faith for dozens of private Texas landowners along the U.S.-Mexico border.
A US District Court judge in 2021 ruled the federal government had the right to condemn through eminent domain about 6½ acres of land in South Texas, tucked along the winding Rio Grande and passed down since before that river became an international boundary over which the Cavazos family had battled the federal government for years.
“We took him at his word,” said one family member, Reynaldo Anzaldua Cavazos. “He is not keeping that word.”
The White House has now decided to betray a legion of environmentalists, civil rights activists and others as Biden struggles with declining approval ratings.
As recently as Thursday, Biden said that he doesn’t believe border walls work, but his administration announced it will waive 26 laws to build additional barriers in the Rio Grande Valley amid heightened political pressure over migration.
The stunning reversal came just days after administration officials participated in an immigration roundtable at the Capitol featuring Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) members and immigration advocates.
The administration’s participation in the roundtable drew praise from CHC members; but Biden and other officials did not mention plans to restart border wall construction.
CHC leaders called the decision “disappointing” Thursday.
“While this border wall funding was signed into law by President Trump under Republican leadership, this decision is not in line with the current Administration’s commitments to end border wall construction. Republicans remain committed to building border walls that are ineffective, a poor use of taxpayer funds, and a strain on the local environment, endangering families and children who are fleeing from dangerous conditions and that seek legal asylum in the United States,” CHC Chairwoman Nanette Díaz Barragán (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
A notice posted on the Federal Register on Wednesday waived a series of environmental and historical protection laws to allow for wall construction in Starr County, Texas, using funds appropriated in 2019 for that purpose.
Construction of the wall will be paid for using already appropriated funds earmarked for physical border barriers the administration was under a deadline to use them or lose them.
Biden told reporters Thursday that his administration moved forward with the waivers and construction to comply with a legal obligation to use the appropriated funds.
“One question on the border wall: The border wall, money was appropriated for the border wall. I tried to get them to reappropriate, to redirect that money. They didn’t. They wouldn’t,” said Biden. “And in the meantime, there’s nothing in the law — they have to use the money for what it was appropriated. I can’t stop that.”
But the move comes at a time when a new surge of migrants is straining federal and local resources and placing heavy political pressure on the Biden administration to address a sprawling crisis, and the notice cited “high illegal entry.”
Asked whether he believes the border wall works, Biden sighed, “no.”
His explanation came more than 12 hours after The Associated Press first reported the story, based on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) quiet announcement in the Federal Registry.
The administration had forewarned some allies such as Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) that it would obligate the funds to avoid violating the 1974 Impoundment Control Act, but it omitted a key detail.
“[Biden] tried to divert money; he tried to do everything that he could from my understanding. He tried to transfer and reprogram authorities. So he did a whole bunch of stuff, but it’s only limited to 5 percent of what they could transfer,” said Cuellar, an appropriator and a fierce opponent of wall construction.
Cuellar said Biden is “stuck with the Impoundment Control Act,” but raised doubts about the environmental waivers.
“But on a different point — and I’ve been trying to get answers from the administration because we just found out yesterday — why did they waive the environmental laws? That’s something else. And we’ve been trying to get an answer, and they can’t give me an answer,” Cuellar said.
An administration official said new construction will use “Jersey barriers” rather than digging to bury foundations for the planned expansion in an effort to mitigate environmental damage, but otherwise pointed to precedent for the administration’s waiver announcement.
“I’ll just point out that new border barrier construction has never been completed without utilizing the waiver — waiver process. That’s why the waiver process was passed into law, and it’s an essential part in the barrier construction process,” said the official.
“Despite that, we complete thorough environmental surveys and make every effort to comply with the intent of the environmental laws to safeguard the border environment.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas pushed back against criticism that the announcement represented either a policy shift or a contradiction for the administration.
“There is no new Administration policy with respect to border walls. From day one, this Administration has made clear that a border wall is not the answer. That remains our position and our position has never wavered. The language in the Federal Register notice is being taken out of context and it does not signify any change in policy whatsoever,” Mayorkas said in a statement published on X, formerly known as Twitter.
But immigration and environmental advocates are livid.
“It’s disheartening to see President Biden stoop to this level, casting aside our nation’s bedrock environmental laws to build ineffective wildlife-killing border walls,” said Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Starr County is home to some of the most spectacular and biologically important habitat left in Texas, and now bulldozers are preparing to rip right through it. This is a horrific step backwards for the borderlands.”
The move also fueled criticism and mockery from Republicans and immigration restrictionists who have long denounced Biden’s border policies.
Rep. Ro Khanna blasted the Homeland Security Secretary sayidn, “Mayorkas made a huge blunder by granting waivers for environmental review to fast-track a border wall. It contradicts President Biden’s central promise not to continue the construction of the wall.”
Khanna said he is calling on DHS “to reverse this decision by the end of the week.”
And advocates are frustrated the administration’s project is unlikely to actually upgrade border security.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said constructing a new border wall is a “regression” that won’t resolve the immigration problem. During his daily press conference, he criticized “right-wing Republicans” for pressing the immigration and drug trafficking problem for political purposes.
“So, they are acting very irresponsibly, and they are putting very hard pressure on the president, who will always count on our support,” Lopez Obrador said. “But that authorization for the construction of the wall is a setback. Because that doesn’t solve the problem, that doesn’t solve the problem. The causes must be addressed.”
“Anyplace sparsely populated and rural enough to have ocelots is a place where a wall that slows someone down for a couple minutes isn’t going to make much difference,” said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
The chaotic aftermath of the announcement underscores growing political concerns in the administration over immigration and a multitude of forces pulling in different directions.
Many Democrats are wary that perceived contradictions in the administration’s direction and attitudes toward immigrants will rob the party of a strong public platform on the issue.
“We desperately need a positive, aspirational, optimistic narrative around immigration, and Democrats are the ones that should be doing it,” said Kristian Ramos, a Democratic strategist.
“We are the party that is for legal orderly immigration, MAGA Republicans just want to stop everyone from coming in. That’s an important distinction here,” added Ramos.
The abrupt changes are also raising questions about the administration’s internal deliberations.
“The best way I can explain it is that these are internal forces inside the Biden White House that are reacting to [high immigration numbers] and not taking into consideration the ugly, visceral negative reaction that Biden supporters in the Latino community are going to have against this action,” said former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who is leading a push for Biden to take a more aggressive posture in favor of immigration reform.
“It’s not going to be received with applause and happiness. Quite the opposite. There’s going to be a great degree of sadness, and then anger that they took the steps.”