WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Thursday defended his administration’s decision to waive 26 federal laws in South Texas to allow for construction of roughly 20 miles of additional border wall, saying he had no choice but to use the Trump-era funding for the barrier to stop illegal migration from Mexico.
Asked if he thought such walls work, he said flatly, “No.”
The new construction was announced in June, but the funds were appropriated in 2019 before the Democratic president took office. Biden said he tried to get lawmakers to redirect the money but Congress refused, and the law requires the funding to be used as approved and the construction to be completed in 2023.
“The money was appropriated for the border wall,” Biden said. “I can’t stop that.”
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Still, the waiving of federal laws for the construction — something also done when Republican Donald Trump was president — raised questions, particularly because Biden condemned border wall spending when he was running for the White House. One of Biden’s first decisions moves as president was to halt the use of emergency funds to build the wall along the Southern border and ended the national emergency there.
The decision comes as the Biden administration is struggling to manage increasing numbers of migrants at the border and spreading out in the larger U.S. Democratic leaders in New York, Chicago and Washington are asking for federal help to handle the growing numbers of migrants in their cities. Administration officials on Thursday announced they’d resume deporting migrants back to Venezuela, as part of their effort to to slow arrivals.
Republicans, for their part, are hammering the president as ineffective on border policy, with some suggesting they would not fund any more efforts in Ukraine without a substantial increase to border security funding.
The decision was met with immediate criticism from immigrant advocates and Mexico President Andres Manuel López Obrador, who called it a “setback.”
“It is a setback because it does not resolve the problem,” he said Thursday. López Obrador had frequently praised Biden in the past because “he is the first U.S. president in a long time who has not built any walls.”
The Department of Homeland Security posted the announcement of the latest wall action in the Federal Registry with few details about the construction in Starr County, Texas, part of a busy Border Patrol sector seeing “high illegal entry.” According to government data, about 245,000 illegal crossings have been recorded so far this budget year in the Rio Grande Valley Sector. It is among the busiest for border crossings in the nation.
“I want to address today’s reporting relating to a border wall and be absolutely clear. There is no new administration policy with respect to border walls,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “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.”
Much of the land along the Rio Grande is subject to erosion and is part of federally protected habitats for plants and animals. A federal project along the river would ordinarily require a series of environmental reviews. Congress gave U.S. immigration authorities the ability to waive those reviews to put up such barriers more quickly.
“The Biden administration’s decision to rush into border wall construction marks a profound failure,” said Jonathan Blazer, director of border strategies at the American Civil Liberties Union. “On the campaign trail, President Biden put it best when he said that the border wall is not a serious policy solution — and we couldn’t agree more. Instead of upholding this promise, the Biden administration is doubling down on the failed policies of the past that have proven wasteful and ineffective.”
This isn’t the first time that border wall has been constructed under the Biden administration. Homeland Security has also worked on roughly 13 miles in the Rio Grande Valley, and another small-scale project to fill “small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities” in the border wall.
But the border wall has been synonymous with Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. He said he wanted to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it, then declared a national emergency to fund construction when Congress would not appropriate funds for it.
Trump’s allies said the move just showed he was right. Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, weighed in too — saying the administration’s actions proved he was right on the wall.
“As I have stated often, over thousands of years, there are only two things that have consistently worked, wheels, and walls!” Trump wrote on his social media platform. “Will Joe Biden apologize to me and America for taking so long to get moving … I will await his apology!”
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.