By Peter Pinedo
Amid a record surge in illegal migrant crossings at the southern border, the Biden administration is building 17 miles of new border wall in Starr County in the Rio Grande Valley sector of Texas.
“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,” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an Oct. 5 announcement.
In addition to the new wall, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said that it would also be replacing fencing in portions of the border in California and Arizona as well as installing additional detection technology, lighting, and access roads along the border.
Though work on the border wall was commissioned by the Biden administration, Luis Miranda, a spokesperson for DHS, told CNA that the new portions of the wall are being built using funds appropriated under the Trump administration.
Rio Grande Valley bearing brunt of migrant crisis
According to the DHS, border patrol officials in the Rio Grande Valley encountered 245,000 illegal migrants in that sector of the border in the last year alone.
CBP, which originally announced the additional wall construction on June 30, said in June that the project would be carried out “to mitigate immediate life, safety, and operational risks to the local community, migrants, and Border Patrol agents in the area.”
The new additions to the wall come as border protection agents and troopers sent by the state of Texas have been overwhelmed by unprecedented numbers of migrants illegally crossing the border.
Among the migrants, officials like U.S. Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens regularly report arresting violent criminals, cartel members, and sex offenders.
‘This is not a policy decision’
Miranda told CNA that the new wall construction does not indicate a policy change by the Biden administration and that it is being carried out using funds specifically appropriated for the wall under the Trump administration.
“This is not a policy decision,” the spokesperson said, noting that “the administration repeatedly called on Congress to cancel or reappropriate remaining border barrier funding and instead fund smarter border security measures, like border technology and modernization of land ports of entry that are proven to be more effective at improving safety and security at the border.”
He explained that the wall construction in Starr County does not indicate any plans to build additional walls.
Likewise, a spokesperson for CBP told CNA that “Congress appropriated fiscal year 2019 funds for the construction of border barrier in the Rio Grande Valley” and that the “DHS is required to use those funds for their appropriated purpose.”
The CBP spokesperson said that this project is still “consistent with DHS’s plan to fulfill the requirements of President Biden’s proclamation,” which “ended the diversion of funds for border wall from military projects or other sources.”
The project is utilizing an estimated $190 million remaining from the $1.375 billion originally appropriated in 2019, according to the CBP.
The wall is being made in the same manner as constructed during the Trump administration, using 18-foot steel bollard fence panels placed in concrete jersey barriers.
Border communities and cities overwhelmed by migrants
The impact of the record numbers, which has long been felt by border communities and states, has also begun to take a toll on cities across the U.S.
“This issue will destroy New York City,” New York Mayor Eric Adams said of the migrant surge during a Sept. 6 town hall.
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who says he has bused more than 50,000 migrants to sanctuary cities, said in an X post Thursday that “these cities experience a fraction of what Texas border communities face daily.”
Among the laws the Biden administration had to waive to build the additional wall were the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
The CBP spokesperson said that they remain “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.”
Yet environmental advocates in south Texas have a very different story to tell.
“This is a horrific step backwards for the borderlands,” Laiken Jordahl, southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, told CNA. “Starr County is home to some of the most spectacular and biologically important habitat left in Texas and now bulldozers are preparing to rip right through it.”
Jordahl said that “these walls will fragment and destroy wildlife habitat, cut off crucially important access to water, and further contribute to the wildlife extinction crisis.”
He went on to call the wall construction a “cynical decision” by Biden “to destroy a wildlife refuge and seal the beautiful Rio Grande behind a grotesque border wall.”
DHS said on June 30 that it would “analyze the potential for environmental impacts from the implementation of the projects and develop measures that avoid or minimize impacts to the greatest extent possible.”