Administration’s first use of executive power often used by Trump alarms environmental advocates and fellow Democrats
Joe Biden faced intense criticism from environmental advocates, political opponents and his fellow Democrats after the president’s administration waived 26 federal laws to allow border wall construction in south Texas, its first use of a sweeping executive power that was often employed under Donald Trump.
“A border wall is a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” the Democratic Texas congressman Henry Cuellar said. “It will not bolster border security in Starr county.
“I continue to stand against the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on an ineffective border wall.”
Environmental advocates said the new wall would run through public lands, habitats of endangered plants and species such as the ocelot, a spotted wild cat.
“A plan to build a wall will bulldoze an impermeable barrier straight through the heart of that habitat,” said Laiken Jordahl, a south-west conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“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 presidency, about 450 miles of barriers were built along the south-west border. The Biden administration halted such efforts, though the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, resumed them.
A federal proclamation issued on 20 January 2021 said: “Building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution.”
On Wednesday, border officials claimed the new project was consistent with that proclamation.
“Congress appropriated fiscal year 2019 funds for the construction of border barrier in the Rio Grande Valley, and [homeland security] is required to use those funds for their appropriated purpose,” a statement said.
The statement also said officials were “committed to protecting the nation’s cultural and natural resources and will implement sound environmental practices as part of the project covered by this waiver”.
Observers were not convinced. Referring to a famous (and much-mocked) Trump campaign promise, Matt Stoller, research director at the American Economic Liberties Project, said: “Well Mexico didn’t pay for the wall, but Biden did.”
Pointing to a campaign promise by Biden – “There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration” – Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser, said: “Biden’s flip-flop here is not only a validation of President Trump’s border and immigration policies, but also a validation of President Trump’s entire 2024 America First campaign!”
Polling shows Trump leads Biden when voters are asked who would handle border security better.
On Wednesday, homeland security officials posted the announcement on the US federal registry. Few details were provided about construction in Starr county, Texas, which is part of a busy border patrol sector currently seeing “high illegal entry” by undocumented migrants via Central and South America.
According to government data, about 245,000 such entries have been recorded this fiscal year in the Rio Grande Valley sector.
“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 homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said in the federal registry notice.
The Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and Endangered Species Act were among federal laws waived to make way for construction. The waivers avoid reviews and lawsuits challenging violation of environmental laws.
Starr county, between Zapata, Mexico, and McAllen, Texas, is home to about 65,000 people in 1,200 sq miles, part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Federal officials announced the project in June and began gathering public comments in August, sharing a map of construction that could add up to 20 miles to existing border barriers. The Starr county judge, Eloy Vera, said the new wall would start south of the Falcon Dam and go past Salineño, Texas.
“The other concern that we have is that area is highly erosive,” the county judge said, pointing to creeks cutting through ranchland. “There’s a lot of arroyos.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting