DHS, DOD create plans for unused border wall funding; future of border lawsuits remain unclear

The Biden administration announced new plans for the border wall funding that stood in limbo after construction was paused on the president’s first day in office, although the future of some border wall lawsuits, including those in the Rio Grande Valley, remains unclear.

A fact sheet was shared by the White House on Friday. They announced how DHS and DOD plan to spend the funds, while reiterating their petition to have Congress cancel any border barrier funds that remain at the end of the year.

“Under these plans, DHS and DOD are: 1) canceling wall projects funded with resources diverted from military construction and other efforts and return the remaining available funds to their original appropriated purposes; 2) ending wall expansion to the extent permitted by law; and 3) addressing safety and environmental issues resulting from border wall construction under the previous Administration,” the statement read.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks already approved the redirection of unobligated military construction funds previously allocated for border construction, a total of about $2.2 billion, for 66 projects in 11 states, 3 territories and 16 countries.

DHS is legally required to use the funds consistent with their appropriated purpose, but they “suspended performance of all border barrier contracts and southwest border barrier construction activities, with the exception of activities related to ensuring project sites are safe and secure in accordance with the terms and conditions of the contracts,” according to their Border Wall Plan shared this week.

In the Rio Grande Valley, CBP records show there were over 100 miles under contract for border wall construction. As of Friday, the website did not indicate any changes to the contracts.

“The Administration will uphold the rule of law, and utilize all legal authorities to stop wall expansion,” the White House fact sheet read.

Cases pending in federal court will be re-assessed, the White House said: “DHS will also review the status of all pending border wall land eminent domain actions and reassess the extent to which land acquired in prior years remains necessary after environmental planning activities have been completed. If DHS determines use of the land will be necessary, particularly for life, safety, environmental, or other remediation work, it will initiate robust landowner engagement. If DHS determines it no longer requires the use of such land, it will work to return the land to its prior owners.”

The Biden Administration said the 52 border wall miles that were constructed under Trump cost taxpayers as much as $46 million per mile. The president’s new budget for 2022 does not propose new funding for border wall construction, but it encourages the use of funds for border technology.

“These resources can instead be used for modern, privacy-protective, and effective border management measures like enhanced technology between points of entry and improved infrastructure at Land Ports of Entry,” the fact sheet read, adding, “Unless and until Congress acts on the request, the Administration will continue to use the funds responsibly for their appropriated purpose, as required by law, and DHS has developed a plan to do so.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said they’ve received the message.

“Congress will have to put a stamp of approval on this and we’ll work on that as we go through this process,” Cuellar said Friday.

Cuellar will be returning to D.C. where he serves on the Appropriations Committee.

“We go back next week. And, the next month and a half it’s going to be busy, because we’re going to finalize all these appropriation bills,” he said.

Key members of Congress also received a letter Friday from the border property owner who oversees the National Butterfly Center, or NBC, imploring them to do more to protect their land from border wall construction.

“Although the NBC has been spared border wall construction, to date, we are not safe from land condemnation should the Biden Administration choose to advance the “border wall system,” the five-page letter authored by the center’s executive director, Marianna Treviño Wright, read in part.

The center fought to keep its property clear of border wall construction, though private landowners near the NBC allowed the creation of a private wall where land beneath it continues to erode. Wright filed a lawsuit against the private wall builders in 2019, but multiple factors have kept it from being resolved.

“Congress ought to permanently stay all suspended border wall construction activities and restrict any funding that might be used for land condemnation proceedings and border wall construction,” Wright wrote in her letter.

While the Biden Administration is abandoning border wall plans, they’re proposing other solutions to contribute to the immigration challenges.

In the president’s budget proposal for 2022, most notably about $1.2 billion will be dedicated for border infrastructure that will include “modernization of land ports of entry; investments in modern border security technology and assets, and efforts to ensure the safe and humane treatment of migrants in CBP custody.”

About $861 million will also be provided to address root causes of migration for Central America in a 4-year commitment, a total of $4 billion. Another $891 million will be set aside to add 100 new immigration judges; and $345 million will be used by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to reduce asylum backlogs and modernize systems.

Wright is hoping Congress will add language that will draw a line protecting properties like the center.

“The following should be included in the FY2022 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill: Prohibit the use of funding by the Department of Justice for land condemnation proceedings for the planning or construction of border wall and related infrastructure,” Wright wrote.