McALLEN, Texas (AP) — The Biden administration announced they waived 26 federal laws in South Texas to allow border wall construction on Wednesday, marking the administration’s first use of sweeping executive power to pave the way for building more border barriers — a tactic used often during the Trump presidency.
The Department of Homeland Security posted the announcement on the U.S. Federal Registry with few details outlining the construction in Starr County, Texas, which is part of a busy Border Patrol sector seeing “high illegal entry.” According to government data, about 245,000 illegal entries have been recorded in this region during the current fiscal year.
“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,” Alejandro Mayorkas, the DHS secretary, stated in the notice.
The Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and Endangered Species Act were some of the federal laws waived by DHS to make way for construction that will use funds from a congressional appropriation in 2019 for border wall construction. The waivers avoid time-consuming reviews and lawsuits challenging violation of environmental laws.
Although no maps were provided in the announcement, a previous map shared during the gathering of public comments shows the piecemeal construction will add up to an additional 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the existing border barrier system in the area.
“The other concern that we have is that area is highly erosive. There’s a lot of arroyos,” said Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, the highest-elected official in the county, pointing out the creeks cutting through the ranchland and leading into the river.
Starr County is home to about 65,000 residents spread over about 1,200 square miles (3,108 square kilometers) that includes ranchland and part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Environmental advocates say structures will run through public lands, habitats of endangered plants and animal species like the ocelot, a spotted wild cat.
“A plan to build a wall through will bulldoze an impermeable barrier straight through the heart of that habitat. 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,” Laiken Jordahl, a southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Wednesday afternoon.
During the Trump administration, about 450 miles (724 kilometers) of barriers were built along the southwest border between 2017 and January 2021. Texas Governor Greg Abbott renewed those efforts as part of his ongoing immigration enforcement from the state level after the Biden administration initially halted them at the start of his presidency.
The DHS decision on Wednesday contrasts the Biden administration’s posturing when a proclamation to end the construction on Jan. 20, 2021 stated, “building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection had no immediate comment.
The announcement prompted political debate by the Democratic administration facing an increase of migrants entering through the southern border in recent months, including thousands who entered the U.S. through Eagle Pass at the end of September.
“A border wall is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem. It will not bolster border security in Starr County,” U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar said in a statement. “I continue to stand against the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on an ineffective border wall.”
Political proponents of the border wall said the waivers should be used as a launching pad for a shift in policy.
“After years of denying that a border wall and other physical barriers are effective, the DHS announcement represents a sea change in the administration’s thinking: A secure wall is an effective tool for maintaining control of our borders,” Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in a statement. “Having made that concession, the administration needs to immediately begin construction of wall across the border to prevent the illegal traffic from simply moving to other areas of the border.”