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Biden administration offers plan for unused border wall funds

Money would be used for border technology, cleanup of wall sites, schools for military personnel and more

Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Fla., takes a selfie in front of piles of unused border fence during the tour of the border wall on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M., on April 12, 2021.
Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Fla., takes a selfie in front of piles of unused border fence during the tour of the border wall on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M., on April 12, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House released a plan Friday to use unspent funds previously set aside by the Trump administration for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to repair damage caused by wall construction while returning other funds to the military.

In the report issued by the Office of Management and Budget, the departments of Homeland Security and Defense spelled out plans to redirect billions of dollars away from wall construction. 

Biden’s budget office also calls on Congress to “cancel any border barrier funds that remain at the end of the year so that 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.”

In the fiscal 2022 budget plan released on May 28, the White House asked Congress to rescind, or cancel, $1.9 billion in remaining border barrier funds from prior appropriations.

Friday’s report reiterates that request in order for that money to instead be directed to “modern, effective border management measures to improve safety and security.” The report highlights $1.2 billion in the budget request for border infrastructure, including security technology, modernizing land ports of entry and “efforts to ensure the safe and humane treatment” of migrants in Customs and Border Protection custody.

The report also points to an $861 million request for aid to Central America to try and stem the tide of migrant border-crossings, and the administration has also requested $891 million for immigration judges and $345 million for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “to reduce asylum backlogs and modernize systems.”

‘Serious risks’

The report sharply criticized former President Donald Trump, saying his administration “built 52 miles of wall where no barrier previously existed, with some wall segments costing American taxpayers up to $46 million per mile.”

The report said the effort “diverted critical resources away from military training facilities and schools, and caused serious risks to life, safety and the environment.”

Nevertheless, the report acknowledges that all the legal questions surrounding the administration’s ability to end wall construction have not been put to bed. It said the administration will end wall expansion “to the extent permitted by law.”

The action to halt building of a border wall comes at a time when Republicans and some Democrats are faulting the administration for not stopping an unprecedented surge of migrants, primarily from Central and South America, across the border.

Biden campaigned on a pledge to end wall construction. On Jan. 20, his first day in office, he issued a proclamation ending a national emergency declared by Trump and halting the shift of funds from the Pentagon to the wall. Biden ordered construction stopped and put a hold on up to $1.4 billion in funds specifically appropriated for the wall in fiscal 2021.

Republicans accused Biden of violating a budget law that bars the president from impounding appropriated funds, and the Government Accountability Office is working up a legal opinion on the issue.

In addition to redirecting and halting funding, the report says the administration is reviewing the status of all pending eminent domain actions to acquire land for the wall and reassessing “the extent to which land acquired in prior years remains necessary after environmental planning activities have been completed.”

If DHS determines it needs the land, “particularly for life, safety, environmental, or other remediation work, it will initiate robust landowner engagement,” the report says. “If DHS determines it no longer requires the use of such land, it will work to return the land to its prior owners.”

DHS will use the remaining unobligated funds that were appropriated for the wall “to address urgent life, safety, and environmental issues resulting from wall construction,” the report says. The department already has begun to repair a Rio Grande Valley flood protection system that it said the previous administration compromised, and to remediate soil erosion along a 14-mile segment in San Diego.

Other remaining funds will be used for cleanup of wall construction sites previously funded by money shifted from the Pentagon, including drainage, erosion control and material disposal.

As part of the plan, the administration is returning more than $2 billion in unobligated military construction funds that had been shifted to the wall. The Pentagon has started canceling wall projects using those diverted funds.

The action would restore funding to on-base schools, hangars, housing and other facilities including:

  • $10 million for a missile field expansion at Fort Greely in Alaska.
  • More than $25 million for a 2nd Radio Battalion Complex in North Carolina.
  • $79 million for Spangdahlem Elementary School for children of U.S. military personnel stationed in Germany.

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