McALLEN, Texas — The Biden administration announced it waived 26 federal laws in South Texas to allow border wall construction on Wednesday, marking the administration’s first use of a sweeping executive power employed 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 so far this fiscal year in the Rio Grande Valley Sector which contains 21 counties.
“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.
Starr County’s hilly ranchlands, sitting between Zapata and McAllen, Texas, is home to about 65,000 residents sparsely populating about 1,200 square miles (3,108 square kilometers) that form part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Although no maps were provided in the announcement, CBP announced the project in June and began gathering public comments in August when it shared a map of the additional construction that can add up to 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the existing border barrier system in the area. Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said it will start south of the Falcon Dam and go past Salineño, Texas.
“The other concern that we have is that area is highly erosive. There’s a lot of arroyos,” Eloy Vera, the county judge said, pointing out the creeks cutting through the ranchland and leading into the river.
Concern is shared with environmental advocates who say structures will run through public lands, habitats of endangered plants and 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 after the Biden administration 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.”
In a statement Wednesday, CBP said the project is consistent with that 2021 proclamation. “Congress appropriated fiscal year 2019 funds for the construction of border barrier in the Rio Grande Valley, and DHS is required to use those funds for their appropriated purpose,” the statement said. “CBP remains 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.”
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.”