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Biden administration waives 26 federal laws to build more border wall in South Texas

A border patrol vehicle on the banks of the Rio Grande in Rio Grande City.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
A border patrol vehicle on the banks of the Rio Grande in Rio Grande City.

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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said this week that the Biden administration planned to waive 26 environmental, public health and cultural preservation laws in order to fast-track the construction of a border wall in South Texas.

Mayorkas said the move would address migrant crossings between ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley. The administration would use funds from a 2019 appropriation designated by Congress to construct the wall, made available by a Trump administration disaster declaration.

During the Trump years, 458 miles of border wall had been constructed along the 2,000 mile southern border — including 55 miles in Texas.

The Biden administration paused wall construction in January 2021 after it revoked then-President Donald Trump’s disaster declaration, pledging to stop border wall construction entirely.

In a sharp turnaround, Mayorkas said the administration would begin rebuilding border wall under Section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

“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,” he wrote, citing 245,000 migrant crossings between ports of entry in the U.S. Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector since last year.

Trump took to social media Thursday to celebrate the news and demand an apology from President Joe Biden. "Will Joe Biden apologize to me and America for taking so long to get moving," Trump wrote in a post.

Biden was asked by reporters Thursday if he thought the idea of a border wall worked. He responded "no" but added that the administration needed to use the money allocated for this purpose.

"This border wall funding was appropriated in FY2019 under Republican leadership, and unfortunately, the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 requires the Administration to execute this funding," said Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I continue to stand against the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on an ineffective border wall, and I will continue to push for solutions that our men and women on the front line actually need, such as more border technology and personnel at ports of entry and in between ports," Cuellar said.

Some of the wall would be built on protected lands that are part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

“They know that if they didn't waive these laws, they would have to follow laws like NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act], that require them to factor in public input to these decisions,” Laiken Jordahl, Southwest Conservation Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, told TPR. “They'd have to follow laws like the Endangered Species Act that protect endangered wildlife from extinction. Endangered species like the ones that these walls would likely be ripping through the habitat of.”

In August, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) opened public comment on a planned 20 miles of border wall construction. A map it provided showed construction locations similar to those outlined in Mayorkas’ waiver.

In a report published in September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found several examples of harm done by border wall construction to the surrounding environment and nearby tribal lands. The GAO recommended the federal government act to mitigate the damages but has yet to confirm if any actions have been taken.

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Gaige Davila is the Border and Immigration Reporter for Texas Public Radio.