Biden administration presses forward with border wall plans in Texas, angering allies

What the federal government says is a levee improvement project near Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission on Jan. 12, 2022. Local immigrant advocates and environmentalists say it looks like a border wall. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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Democrats, environmentalists and advocates for migrants are expressing anger this week as President Joe Biden’s administration continues to push forward with plans to build sections of border wall along parts of Texas’ border with Mexico.

Biden says he has no choice but to continue building the wall, and in a public filing that went into effect Thursday, his administration gave notice that it intends to waive 26 laws and regulations in order to “take immediate action” to build a few miles of new barrier in Starr County.

That sparked outrage among opponents of the wall, who noted that Biden campaigned against the border wall when he ran in 2020.

“This is extremely disappointing, and a horrific step backwards that we just didn’t expect to see from this administration,” said Laiken Jordahl, a southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

But border barrier construction has continued in Texas and elsewhere since the early days of Biden’s term. As early as 2021, construction crews were erecting 15-foot concrete panels topped with 6-foot steel bollards in the Rio Grande Valley. In 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection detailed plans to build 86 miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley, including Starr County.

On Thursday, Biden told reporters that he was required by law to continue certain wall construction because Congress appropriated money for it. That appropriation occurred in 2019, before Biden took office.

“I tried to get to them to reappropriate it, to redirect that money,” he said. “They didn’t. They wouldn’t. And in the meantime, there’s nothing under the law other than they have to use the money for what it was appropriated. I can’t stop that.”

When asked whether he believes the border wall works, he answered, “No.”

That contrasts with what Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in the public filing Thursday, writing that there “is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States in the project areas.”

The laws Mayorkas said the department would waive included the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

In a statement sent later Thursday, Mayorkas stressed that the Biden administration has not changed its policy on border barriers, and that the notice posted in his name had been taken out of context.

“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. “We need Congress to give us the funds to implement these proven tools.”

Still, Democrats in Congress from Texas denounced the actions this week.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, urged the White House to reconsider its decision to proceed with the wall, “especially the disastrous choice to waive environmental laws.” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, meanwhile, called a border wall “a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem.”

“I continue to stand against the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on an ineffective border wall, and I will continue to push for solutions that our men and women on the front line actually need, such as more border technology and personnel at ports of entry and in between ports,” he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans have pushed for more border barriers to be built, with Gov. Greg Abbott directing Texas agencies to take steps to build walls with state resources.

Still, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, said the Biden administration’s actions this week were nothing to celebrate. He said buoys in the Rio Grande, similar to those Abbott deployed in a small stretch of the river in Eagle Pass, are necessary too.

“If Biden is serious, that’s what’s needed,” Crenshaw wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Can be deployed immediately and they actually prevent migrants from crossing the international barrier. But he’s not serious. It’s a stunt to grab some headlines and make it seem like he’s not totally ignoring the crisis he created.”

Maps included in a proposal by U.S. Customs and Border Protection appear to indicate that the wall would cut through tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife corridor that attempts to connect undisrupted habitat along the last 275 miles of the Rio Grande.

Jordahl, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the decision was “shocking and disheartening.”

“Wildlife don’t care if you call it a wall, or a fence, or a barrier,” Jordahl said. “They can’t get through.”

The border barrier could disrupt a sensitive ecosystem in this area, environmental advocates warned, and could particularly harm two endangered species of plants, the Zapata bladderpod and prostrate milkweed. Recovery plans for endangered ocelots could also be impacted, according to the center. Much of the animal’s native habitat in the Rio Grande Valley has already been lost to development.

Jordahl said the border barrier would undermine the refuge’s attempt to create a swath of connected habitat along the border where wildlife can access the river.

“These stretches — this tiny little wildlife refuge — is the best remaining wildlife habitat anywhere in the county,” Jordahl said. “The border wall just rips right through, and would totally stop us from achieving that goal of the refuge system itself.”

Even if the Biden administration must use the appropriated funds for the border, said Jordahl, “there’s nothing that says you have to waive the most important [environmental] laws.”

Meanwhile, Alan Lizarraga, communications coordinator of the Border Network for Human Rights, said he was saddened to see Biden continue Trump’s policies.

"You know, this is a failed strategy,” Lizarraga said. “Over and over, it has shown that building walls and these deterrence policies do not help [address] the roots of immigration. They are not addressing the reasons why people are coming here."

Naida Alvarez, who owns land in the community of Rosita, south of Eagle Pass, said the construction will disrupt her life. She said the wall will pass behind her house, on her land.

“Where we live there are many streams," she said. “If they build a wall all the earth is going to sink. The land will be unstable and houses can sink.”

Right now, she can go fishing near her house and watch wild animals — foxes, wild boars, rabbits — run by.

“What happened with Biden’s word during his campaign?” she said. “He said he was a man of his word, and now he’s changing his word and following with the same policy of the foolish [president] we had.”

Uriel J. García and Matthew Watkins contributed reporting.