On his first day on the job, President Joe Biden signed a flurry of executive orders rolling back Trump administration proclamations on everything from environmental regulations (rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement) to immigration (preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy). The post-inauguration signing spree also happened to include cutting off all federal funding for the construction of a United States-Mexico border wall.
In the “Proclamation on the Termination Of Emergency With Respect To The Southern Border Of The United States And Redirection Of Funds Diverted To Border Wall Construction” order signed last night, January 20, 2021, the administration made it clear that all border wall construction will cease.
The proclamation reads:
Like every nation, the United States has a right and a duty to secure its borders and protect its people against threats. But building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution. It is a waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security. My Administration is committed to ensuring that the United States has a comprehensive and humane immigration system that operates consistently with our Nation’s values. In furtherance of that commitment, I have determined that the declaration of a national emergency at our southern border in Proclamation 9844 of February 15, 2019 (Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border of the United States), was unwarranted. It shall be the policy of my Administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall. I am also directing a careful review of all resources appropriated or redirected to construct a southern border wall.
The emergency declaration being referred to, enacted in February of 2019 and never rescinded, allowed the Trump administration to pull an additional $5.7 billion in funding from various other federal departments after “only” receiving $1.375 billion for border wall construction.
That resulted in the rerouting of $8 billion towards the “construction and repair of 234 miles of wall along the southern border. That figure includes the previously allocated $1.375 billion, as well as $3.6 billion diverted from military projects, $2.5 billion from the Pentagon’s drug prevention program, and $600 million claimed from the drug forfeiture program.”
Now that southern border wall construction has been broadly halted, the administration will reroute the already appropriated funding towards the termination of agreements and paying contractors… but, as the proclamation notes, that actually doesn’t preclude finishing work with no way to get out of:
Plan for Redirecting Funding and Repurposing Contracts. The Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney General, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the heads of any other appropriate executive departments and agencies, and in consultation with the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, shall develop a plan for the redirection of funds concerning the southern border wall, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law. The process of developing the plan shall include consideration of terminating or repurposing contracts with private contractors engaged in wall construction, while providing for the expenditure of any funds that the Congress expressly appropriated for wall construction, consistent with their appropriated purpose. The plan shall be developed within 60 days from the date of this proclamation. After the plan is developed, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall take all appropriate steps to resume, modify, or terminate projects and to otherwise implement the plan.
While the exact figure will need to be calculated, last month U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan told Border Report that prematurely canceling the outstanding contracts, many through 2022, could cost billions.
Of course, this is too-little-too-late to halt irreparable environmental damage. As AN has previously covered, DHS contractors had already blasted through Monument Hill in the southernmost section of Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a UNESCO biosphere reserve home to Native American burial grounds and a number of threatened species. That’s just one small piece of the cultural and environmental destruction already wrought by the border wall; for instance, the sections already built in Arizona may have permanently prevented jaguars from returning to their native homes in the U.S.
As National Geographic pointed out in their 2020 feature on the border wall’s environmental impacts, thousands of miles of 30-foot-tall concrete-and-steel fencing has already torn through sensitive areas of the southern border, and the overall impact may never be known. The Trump administration intentionally rolled back a suite of laws to jumpstart construction, including those that would have forced the DHS to conduct environmental impact reports or conduct environmental impact monitoring. Of course, as National Geographic also pointed out, the Department of Homeland Security, under the 2005 Real ID Act, was already free to essentially ignore any law that would have prevented border wall construction from moving ahead.
At the time of writing, it’s unclear what the new proclamation will mean for the extant stretches of border wall already built. Will the Biden administration take them down, or leave them standing for a future administration to potentially continue?