WASHINGTON – Advocates called on President Joe Biden to “tear down this wall” Tuesday and fulfill his campaign promise of stopping the border wall construction that he put on hold in January.
The meeting of border-state lawmakers, advocates and tribal members came 70 days after Biden, in one of his first acts as president, halted construction and gave the secretaries of Defense, Treasury and Homeland Security 60 days to study next steps on the wall.
That deadline has come and gone with no plan, and the White House did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. But the advocates said it’s past time for the administration to act.
“We need to stop that wall from being built anymore,” said Verlon Jose, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation who joined the news conference.
Then-President Donald Trump declared a national emergency at the border that allowed construction to proceed with less oversight of environmental and archeological concerns. The wall not only divided the Tohono O’odham reservation, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, but critics say it also destroyed ancient graveyards and sacred sites.
“When it cut through the land, it was like a knife crossed through my heart,” Jose said. “That’s what happened to America when they put up the wall and blew up the sacred sites and burial grounds and so forth.”
The halt on border wall construction is just one of several Trump-era policies that were halted or reversed by Biden during his first days in office. Those included renewed support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an end to the ban on travel from come Muslim-majority countries, and an end to the Migrant Protection Protocols – the so-called “remain in Mexico” policy that forced asylum seekers to wait on the other side of the border while their appeals were processed.
Republicans have seized on a surge in immigrant apprehensions at the southwest border for what they are calling Biden’s “border crisis.”
Close to 400,000 people had been apprehended at the border in the first five months of fiscal 2021, compared to 458,000 for all of the previous year. And an increasing number of them have been unaccompanied minors, who have overflowed detention facilities forcing the administration to scramble for alternatives.
Critics blame Biden’s immigration moves, which they claim have acted as an incentive for immigrants to come north.
But border advocates on Tuesday pushed back – hard. They noted that the current increase in immigration began last April, long before Trump left office, and that surges in migration typically move in cycles.
Former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke said the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the border wall ultimately led to the hate that drove the 2019 shooting in an El Paso Walmart that targeted Hispanics, killing 23.
“When we look at the border as a security problem, as a military threat, not only do we get $15 billion in wasteful spending that is the border wall, we harm those in our communities who are most vulnerable to racist attacks inspired by this kind of militarized thinking about our border,” O’Rourke said.
The White House has repeatedly tried to send a message to potential migrants, particularly those from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, that the border is closed and that they should not try to come to the U.S.
The administration has also pledged to invest in Northern Triangle countries to improve conditions there in hopes of reducing violence and economic problems that can drive people north.
Tricia Cortez, founder of the #NoBorderWall coalition, said simply that there “ain’t no crisis here,” citing DHS data that showed migrant apprehensions are “nowhere near historic highs.”
“We’re tired of being used and having our day-to-day reality distorted,” Cortez said. “We are thriving and dynamic communities that contribute so much to this country, and we want to be treated, portrayed and respected as such.”