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What Will Happen To The Border Wall After Biden’s 60-day Review?

Wiki Commons http://bit.ly/2B0UmGC
Steve Hillebrand
US Fish And Wildlife Service

Last month, Melissa Cigarroa stood on a podium and spoke to a crowd in the Rio Grande Valley. The crowd held signs with demands like “not another foot.”

A few miles away, then-President Donald Trump was in town to celebrate his wall. Cigarroa and the protesters did not approve of his visit or his wall.

For Cigarroa, it’s personal. She owns land along the border in Zapata County where Trump decided to build a wall. She traveled almost three hours from Laredo that morning to deliver her message.

“Trump’s senseless wall cannot become Biden’s first broken promise. We call on Biden to act immediately to stop the wall,” she told the crowd and led them in a chant calling for “not another foot,” a reference to Biden’s campaign promise.

Activists from Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley held counter-rally to Trump's Alamo visit at the headquarters of La Unión del Pueblo Entero in San Juan.
Activists from Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley held counter-rally to Trump's Alamo visit at the headquarters of La Unión del Pueblo Entero in San Juan.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden canceled Trump’s national emergency declaration, which redirected more than $6 billion in federal funds to border wall construction.

Upon hearing the news that Biden would take action on day one, Cigarroa and other activists from Laredo and the border organized a Zoom party.

“People were optimistic. They were excited,” she said. “We were, we were just enjoying the moment. Understanding, ‘Okay, well, tomorrow, we need to examine it and figure it out. But tonight, we're gonna celebrate.’”

Biden ordered a pause and 60-day review of wall construction to begin on Jan. 27 at the latest, according to his executive order. But it’s uncertain what will happen after those 60 days — around March 27.

“I think this is, this can be great news. But we're still just cautious, concerned, holding our breath,” said Norma Herrera, an activist in the Rio Grande Valley.

In the days following Biden’s order, Herrera and activists across the border closely monitored construction sites. Construction seems to have stopped for now, but she’s skeptical the project won’t still somehow resume.

“They're going to consider all these things, which contract they cancel, which they don't and what they do with that money, and until really, we know what those decisions are, it's hard to have faith that they're going to do the right thing,” she said.

Biden’s order says that after the 60-day review, the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security shall “take all appropriate steps to resume, modify, or terminate projects...”

“The President, the administration is still leaving that option open for themselves to still continue the construction, should they deem it necessary,” Herrera said.

Biden’s track record doesn’t give Herrera and other advocates peace of mind. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Rio Grande Valley saw about 55 milesof border fencing completed under the Obama-Biden presidency. That’s more than the 17 miles Trump’s administration said they completed in the Valley.

“They completed everything the Bush administration initiated,” said David Donatti, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “So, we don't want that. And I think the political situation is different now, which is why we're slightly more optimistic.”

Donatti represents three landowners in Starr County and said he would continue working with them to fight federal land seizures in court. Biden’s order didn’t directly address the many lawsuits against border landowners, but they appear to have been paused. U.S. attorneys have also withdrawn efforts to take immediate possession of some land in the Laredo area.

Donatti is also working on cases over Trump’s maneuvers to fund and build the border wall brought on by the ACLU on behalf of groups like the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in one of those cases this month, but the court postponed hearings in cases over Trump’s immigration policies and border wall at the request of the Biden administration.

During the 60-day review, Biden will also have to evaluate the $1.375 billion Congress allocated in December for a "barrier system.”

“There's an open question as to what the Biden administration can do with that, whether they have to use it and for what purposes. And so part of what we're pushing back against is making sure that that's not it's not just construction as a matter of course,” Donatti said.

Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat who also represents part of the Valley, said that funding can be repurposed for a different “barrier system” that isn’t a wall.

“The bottom line is, you know, we want to stop the construction of the wall,” he said. “We don't want to have open borders. We want to see that money, you know, at least our Homeland dollars, be redirected for technology, cameras, sensors, personnel.”

Activists like Herrera want that money to go toward health care and education in border communities and are bracing to push back against “virtual walls.”

For now, the clock is running as Biden plans his next move. Border residents are waiting.

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Updated: March 5, 2021 at 3:22 PM CST
This story has been updated to clarify that Biden ordered a 60-day review of border wall construction. His pause of border wall construction does not yet appear to have an end date.
María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria