WASHINGTON – A federal judge in Texas Friday blocked an administration plan to use $3.6 billion in Pentagon funds for border wall construction, calling President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to secure the funds “unlawful.”
U.S. District Judge David Briones said Trump cannot use the declaration to get around the budget Congress approved in February that “restricts the amount and location of funding for border barrier construction.”
The lawsuit, one of many filed to stop the diversion of Defense Department money to the border wall, was brought by El Paso County, Texas, and the Border Network for Human Rights based there. They argued that Trump’s rhetoric has harmed the area’s reputation, costing the community important tourist revenues, and would divert $20 million from projects at nearby Fort Bliss.
“‘Fort Bliss is the lifeblood of the El Paso economy,’ contributing billions of dollars and creating thousands of jobs,” Briones wrote.
In Arizona, the administration’s proposal would have redirected $30 million from a base construction project planned for Fort Huachuca. The Defense Department announced last month that almost $1.3 billion of the total funding tapped by Trump would be used for border wall projects around Yuma.
The Justice Department did not respond Friday to a request for comment on the ruling, and members of the state’s congressional delegation were unavailable.
But Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier lamented the partisan fighting that has held up construction of the border wall in his “backyard,” a project he said both sides have historically supported.
“We need to secure our southern border for pragmatic, rational and unimpeachable reasons,” he said.
Friday’s ruling was the latest in a series of political and legal challenges, one of which has already reached the Supreme Court.
The most recent feud began late last year when Congress rebuffed Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for border wall construction, sparking a 35-day partial government shutdown after the president refused to sign the budget.
The shutdown – the longest in American history – ended when Congress passed a budget with $1.375 billion for “construction on primary pedestrian fencing” in the Rio Grande sector of the border. The bill also specified that the money could not be used for construction of barriers anywhere else on the border.
Trump signed that budget Feb. 15 – then immediately turned around and declared a national emergency that he claimed allowed him to shift Pentagon money toward the wall.
Briones’ ruling is not the first on this issue. A federal judge in California blocked the wall in June, saying the president had exceeded his authority with the emergency declaration. That injunction was lifted in July by a divided Supreme Court, which said the project should continue while the case worked its way through the courts.
Congress has also weighed in, voting in March to overturn the emergency declaration. That measure was vetoed by Trump, and lawmakers were not able to muster the votes to override.
Congress tried again last month. The House voted 236-174 to reverse the declaration, with 11 Republicans and one independent joining 224 Democrats to pass the bill. The Senate had earlier voted 54-41 for the measure, with 11 GOP lawmakers crossing the aisle in support.
But that is not veto-proof majority. Trump has not yet acted on the latest version.