WASHINGTON – The Biden administration reversed course Thursday and said it would resume border wall construction, citing an “acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers” at the southern border to handle record-breaking numbers of immigrants.
The announcement by the Department of Homeland Security said it would waive 26 environmental and other regulations and use previously allocated funds to construct roads and “border barriers” along the Texas border, in the Rio Grande sector.
It is an abrupt change in direction for President Joe Biden, who halted wall construction on his first day in office, saying it was “not a serious policy solution” and a “waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security.”
But Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas insisted Thursday that 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,” Mayorkas said in a prepared statement.
“This Administration believes that effective border security requires a smarter and more comprehensive approach, including state-of the-art border surveillance technology and modernized ports of entry,” Mayorkas said.
Mayorkas and Biden both said they had to spend the money as it was ordered in 2019, despite their efforts to get Congress to reallocate the funds. Whatever the reason, the announcement was welcomed by border hawks.
“It is a positive move forward,” Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls said Thursday. “Walls are not an end-all, be-all, but they are effective.”
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said in a tweet Wednesday on border wall construction that, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“The Biden Admin promised 20 months ago that they were going to close the border wall openings in Yuma, AZ and it still hasn’t happened,” Lesko said in her tweet.
The announcement came in a Federal Register posting Thursday in which Mayorkas invoked his authority under a 1996 immigration law “to waive certain laws, regulations, and other legal requirements” to clear the way for construction of border barriers.
That is a particular concern to environmental groups, who claim that not only do walls fail to stop immigration, but they harm the environment in the process.
“There is absolutely no justification for waiving our nation’s most important environmental and public health laws to rush this construction.” said Laiken Jordahl, a southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The move comes as the White House is under increasing pressure to stem the flow of migrants at the southern border, where more than 2.2 million immigrants were encountered in the first 11 months of fiscal 2023. The construction will take place on 10 stretches of the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the border, which has been identified as an area of “high illegal entry.”
When asked about the project Thursday, Biden echoed Mayorkas’ argument that his hands were tied.
“These funds were appropriated in fiscal year 2019 under Republican leadership, and DHS is required by law to use the funds for … appropriated purpose,” Biden said.
When asked if he believes a border wall works, Biden responded flatly, “no,”
A spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform said the change is needed given the recent surge in border crossings.
“It’s certainly a move in the direction of acknowledging that we have a crisis at the border after years of denying it,” said Ira Mehlman, the spokesman. “I guess they’re getting a dose of reality that, you know, we have a crisis at the border.”