With President-elect Biden’s inauguration weeks away, there’s a rush to build a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border
President Donald Trump’s signature border wall has remained a contentious symbol of his legacy. Though President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to halt all construction, that hasn’t stopped work crews from racing to complete the mandated 450 miles of new wall before he takes office.
So far, 423 miles of new fencing has been completed as of early December, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Much of it has been built across national forests, wildlife preserves and other public lands. But progress has slowed down in some parts, such as privately owned areas along the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas, where landowners have battled Trump administration efforts to seize space through eminent domain.
The future of these outstanding lawsuits remains unknown and they will be something the incoming Biden administration will have to figure out, according to Theresa Cardinal Brown, who is director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Brown previously served in the Department of Homeland Security under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. She said, given the cost, it’s unlikely that the Biden administration will simply tear the new walls down. However, the president-elect’s agenda does call for an immediate end to the president’s “so-called National Emergency” that he declared to divert Department of Defense money to help build the barrier.
Brown emphasized that it also matters where these barriers are being built — and if they’re even necessary. While she said walls are particularly useful in cities like San Diego right along the border, she said they aren’t as efficient in more remote areas where technology such as cameras and sensors could be used instead.
Her comments come as Pentagon estimates show that if Biden were to halt construction, it would save the U.S. $2.6 billion, according to the Washington Post.
Some of this construction is happening in areas where a wall already exists, such as in Eagle Pass, Texas. The city was sued by the U.S. government in 2008 to gain access to the land and construct a fence on the banks of the Rio Grande River.
Now the city is fighting efforts to build a replacement barrier there, with its city council passing a resolution opposing it. Eagle Pass Mayor Luis E. Sifuentes told Wake-Up Call that it would be a waste of taxpayers’ funds to replace an existing fence that is already working and doesn’t need repairs. He estimates that the cost would be between $50 to $70 million.
“Twelve years ago, when the wall was built here, there were other components that needed to be addressed and added along with that border wall. And they weren’t — the technology was not upgraded,” he said. “The lighting system they were supposed to put was not put in place. The roads that the border patrol agents use were not fixed up and made safer for them.”
He believes that these federal funds could instead be used to support the community amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has taken a toll on both lives and livelihoods. Sifuentes said the local hospitals were at about 60% capacity as of late December. Though this is down from 90% capacity in July and August, he said the city “cannot afford another surge,” and like many border towns, Eagle Pass derives much of its financial support from Mexico, namely those who cross over from Piedras Negras in Coahuila, Mexico.
Sifuentes bemoaned the closure of several businesses across Eagle Pass, attributing the financial strain to restrictions put in place by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that has barred Mexican nationals from crossing over to the city. In October, DHS reached a deal with both Mexico and Canada to limit all nonessential travel across borders in an effort to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
“Half of our economic commerce comes from our neighboring city, Piedras Negras in Mexico. And unfortunately, those individuals haven’t been able to cross and yet our citizens are free to go and come as they please,” he said.
Much of this rush to build the border wall appears to have to do with fulfilling existing contracts — which will be in question once Biden takes office. Charles Tiefer, a professor of government contracting at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said the Army Corps of Engineers will continue to go full steam ahead.
“They will not just work until they think they have done enough. They will work until they have been told to stop,” he said.
There’s also the question of what will happen to the $1.375 billion for the president’s border wall that was included in the $2.3 trillion government funding and coronavirus relief package that was signed into law.
“It was one thing for Biden to express a policy against putting any more money to work on the wall. It is another thing for Biden to block congressional instructions to put more money to work on the wall,” Tiefer said.
The Army Corps of Engineers told Wake-Up Call it wouldn’t speculate on the termination of unfilled contracts and incomplete border walls, but added that it “expects contractors to continue work as obligated.” While it noted that canceling government contracts isn’t out of the norm, it emphasized that contractors are “entitled to submit a request for termination settlement costs in accordance with the applicable contract clause and rules of the FAR [Federal Acquisition Regulation].”
The debate over what will happen to Trump’s border wall project comes amid a continued influx of migrants at the border. In December, the CBP reported that the number of immigrant children and families that were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has increased. Per CBP data, about 4,630 unaccompanied children were taken into custody by border patrol agents in October, an increase from 712 in April.
The focus on the wall has also arguably taken precedence over some of the president’s other immigration policies, like his travel bans and asylum restrictions. Brown warned that the incoming Biden administration faces a formidable challenge ahead, comparing the president’s various immigration policies to a “skein of yarn.”
She expressed concern about immigration becoming even more politically divisive than it was under the Obama administration. Similar to control gun or abortion, she said it has become “very much entrenched and identified” as a partisan issue.
“I don’t think our country can stand to have an issue like this remain intractable that long, especially not when there is majority support for a position across party lines on this,” she said.
In the final weeks of his presidency, Trump has continued to make a last-minute push on immigration — just last month his administration finalized an agreement to send certain asylum seekers to El Salvador.
Brown predicted that Biden will want to continue working with other countries to mitigate the influx of migrants at the point, pointing to his refugee plan for Central American kids that he started in 2014 as vice president during the Obama administration.
She advised the Biden administration to address immigration on a systematic level.
“It’s one thing to say, we’re going to just go back to pre-Trump. It’s another thing to say, what do we improve on? How do we make it better than the system that Trump inherited?” she said.
Written and reported by Tess Bonn.