McALLEN, Texas (AP) — The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it was waiving 26 federal laws in South Texas to allow construction of the border wall, marking the administration’s first use of broad executive power employed by often during the Trump presidency.
The Department of Homeland Security published the announcement in the US Federal Register with few details describing construction in Starr County, Texas, which is part of a busy Border Patrol sector seeing a “high level of illegal entry.” According to government data, during the current fiscal year, around 245,000 illegal entries have been registered in this region.
“There is currently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the United States border to prevent illegal entry into the United States in the project areas,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in the news. .
The Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were among the federal laws that DHS waived to make way for construction that will use funds from a 2019 congressional appropriation to the construction of the border wall. Waivers avoid time-consuming reviews and lawsuits challenging violations of environmental laws.
The mountain ranches of Starr County, located between Zapata and McAllen, Texas, are home to about 65,000 residents who sparsely inhabit about 1,200 square miles (3,108 square kilometers) that are part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Although no maps were provided in the announcement, a previous map shared during public comment gathering shows the phased construction will add an additional 20 miles to the area’s existing border barrier system. Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said it will begin south of Falcon Dam and pass through Salineño, Texas.
“The other concern we have is that this area is highly erosive. There are many streams,” said Eloy Vera, the county judge, pointing out the streams that run through the ranch and flow into the river.
Concern is shared with environmental advocates who say the structures will cut through public lands, habitats for endangered plants and species such as the ocelot, a spotted bobcat.
“A plan to build a wall will tear down an impermeable barrier directly through the heart of that habitat. It will stop wildlife migrations in their tracks. It will destroy a huge amount of wildlife refuge land. And it’s a terrible step backwards for the borderlands,” Laiken Jordahl, southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Wednesday afternoon.
During the Trump administration, about 450 miles 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 beginning of his presidency.
Wednesday’s DHS decision contrasts the Biden administration’s stance when a proclamation to end construction on Jan. 20, 2021 said, “building a massive wall spanning the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection had no immediate comment.
The announcement sparked a political debate by the Democratic administration that faces a surge of migrants entering the southern border in recent months, including thousands who entered the United States through Eagle Pass in late September.
“A border wall is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem. It will not strengthen border security in Starr County,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said in a statement. “I continue to oppose the waste of taxpayer money on an ineffective border wall.”
Political advocates of the border wall said the waivers should be used as a launching pad for policy change.
“After years of denying that a border wall and other physical barriers are effective, the DHS announcement represents a radical shift in the administration’s thinking: a secure wall is an effective tool to maintain 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 a wall across the border to prevent illegal trafficking from simply moving to other areas of the border.”