The Biden administration has utilized a powerful executive power, frequently employed during the Trump presidency, by waiving 26 federal laws in South Texas to permit the construction of a border wall. This announcement signifies the administration’s first use of this sweeping authority. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released the notice on the U.S. Federal Registry, providing limited information about the construction in Starr County, Texas, which is part of a heavily trafficked Border Patrol sector experiencing significant levels of illegal entry. The Rio Grande Valley Sector, encompassing 21 counties, has already recorded approximately 245,000 illegal entries in the current fiscal year.
According to Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of DHS, the notice declared 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 waivers granted by DHS circumvent the time-consuming processes of reviews and lawsuits related to potential violations of environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. These waivers were necessitated to facilitate the use of funds from a congressional appropriation in 2019 specifically designated for border wall construction.
Starr County, situated between Zapata and McAllen, Texas, encompasses approximately 1,200 square miles (3,108 square kilometers) of hilly ranchlands. This area is home to around 65,000 residents and forms part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Although the announcement did not provide any maps, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had previously announced the project in June and commenced soliciting public comments in August. They shared a map outlining the additional construction, which could extend the existing border barrier system by up to 20 miles (32 kilometers) in the area. The project is expected to start south of the Falcon Dam and extend beyond Salineño, Texas.
Environmental advocates express concerns regarding the impact of these structures on public lands and the habitats of endangered plants and species, including the Ocelot, a spotted wild cat. Laiken Jordahl, a southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, stated that “a plan to build a wall will bulldoze an impermeable barrier straight through the heart of that habitat. It will stop wildlife migrations dead in their tracks. It will destroy a huge amount of wildlife refuge land. And it’s a horrific step backwards for the borderlands.”
During the Trump administration, approximately 450 miles (724 kilometers) of barriers were constructed along the southwest border between 2017 and January 2021. Following the suspension of these efforts by the Biden administration at the beginning of his presidency, Texas Governor Greg Abbott resumed the construction. The decision made by DHS on Wednesday contrasts with the Biden administration’s earlier proclamation on January 20, 2021, which stated that “building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution.” CBP, in a statement, asserted that the project aligns with the 2021 proclamation, emphasizing that Congress allocated fiscal year 2019 funds specifically for border barrier construction in the Rio Grande Valley. Furthermore, CBP affirmed its commitment to safeguarding the nation’s cultural and natural resources and implementing sound environmental practices as part of this project.
The announcement has incited political debate within the Democratic administration, as the number of migrants entering through the southern border has surged in recent months, with thousands entering the U.S. through Eagle Pass at the end of September. U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar expressed his opposition to the border wall, claiming that “a border wall is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem. It will not bolster border security in Starr County.” Conversely, proponents of the border wall argue that the waivers should serve as a catalyst for a policy shift. Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, asserted that “the DHS announcement represents a sea change in the administration’s thinking: A secure wall is an effective tool for maintaining control of our borders.” Stein further called for immediate construction of the wall across the border to prevent illegal traffic from shifting to other areas.