Biden administration to build new border barriers, citing safety needs

The Biden administration said Thursday it will bypass environmental and conservation laws for the first time to fast-track barrier construction along the southern border, citing an “acute and immediate” need to stop soaring numbers of migrants crossing illegally in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas.

The announcement, published in the Federal Register, amounted to a partial shift for President Biden, who halted border wall construction when he took office in a rebuke to his predecessor’s pet project.

Asked by reporters at the White House Thursday about his administration’s plans, the president said he did not believe the barriers were effective but construction had to move forward because Congress had appropriated the money.

The federal register notice issued Thursday by Department of Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas says the administration faces an overwhelming increase in illegal border entries, requiring new barriers whose construction cannot be delayed by U.S. environmental laws and other safeguards.

The administration will waive more than two dozen laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, the notice states.

“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,” Mayorkas’s notice states. It described plans for new segments of fencing at 10 locations in the Rio Grande Valley, where U.S. agents made nearly 245,000 border arrests during the 2023 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

Biden’s “pause” on construction in January 2021 left the $11 billion barrier— one of the most expensive federal infrastructure projects in U.S. history — with dozens of unfinished gaps and piles of unused steel bollards laying around in the desert.

Trump added more than 450 miles of new barriers during his term. Republican lawmakers have been trying since then to force the administration to resume construction on the roughly 250 additional miles of barriers called for in the Trump plan.

Biden’s inauguration-day order halting barrier construction allowed for exceptions to “avert immediate physical dangers.” Mayorkas later authorized crews to close some unfinished gaps using funds previously authorized by Congress, citing concerns such as site safety, erosion prevention and a need to shore up the structural integrity of the barriers.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials appeared to be taking a more expansive view of the safety exception, saying the protection of U.S. agents, migrants, and border communities fits within the scope of Biden’s January 2021 order. CBP officials said they would take care to mitigate the impacts of the new barriers.

“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,” CBP spokesperson Erin Waters said in a statement.

Last month Border Patrol agents made nearly 219,000 arrests along the southern border, the highest monthly tally in 2023, according to preliminary CBP data obtained by The Post. The Rio Grande Valley was CBP’s second-busiest sector in September, after southern Arizona’s Tucson sector, the data show.

Wildlife advocates who applauded Biden’s construction freeze in 2021 said they were dismayed to see his administration adding more miles of 30-foot-tall steel bollards. The fencing blocks the migratory routes of larger mammals.

“It’s disheartening to see President Biden stoop to this level, casting aside our nation’s bedrock environmental laws to build ineffective wildlife-killing border walls,” Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

The area where the new segments will be added, 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. “This is a horrific step backwards for the borderlands.”

The border wall’s effectiveness at preventing illegal crossings remains a point of contention. Smuggling organizations in Mexico have sawed through its steel bars thousands of times, requiring millions in repairs. Smugglers also regularly deploy cheap ladders to bring migrants over the top, lowering them down the other side with ropes.

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