By Kylie Marsh / Prism
President Joe Biden continues to face backlash from environmentalists, immigrant advocates, and border community members after he waived 26 laws to expedite border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley earlier this month.
Biden waived historic laws protecting wildlife, the environment, and culturally important heritage sites and said the decision was due to an obligation to use fundsappropriated from the Department of Homeland Security in 2019 by the end of this year.
“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,” said Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. Some of the laws, like the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, go back as far as the 1930s.
In a notice to the Federal Register posted Oct. 5, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas wrote that these funds were appropriated specifically for the construction of the wall and must be used for that purpose. When questioned by reporters at the White House, Biden stated he tried to redirect these funds but was unsuccessful.
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Mayorkas’ notice to the Federal Register stated that “[t]here 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,” even though a 2021 federal proclamation states that the border wall is “not a serious policy solution.”
In 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection surveyed community stakeholders for their concerns regarding the border barrier project. Many community members raised concerns about the environmental impacts and destruction to the animal habitat, identifying that native animals like the Mexican grey wolf and ocelot will likely be threatened.
Despite promising a more humanitarian approach to immigration in contrast to his predecessor, Biden’s policy has been more aligned to the MAGA Republican’s line than the traditionally Democratic one. Biden once told reporters he didn’t like Title 42, a regulation that allowed border agents to turn away asylum-seekers in the name of COVID-19 prevention; however, his administration has defended the regulation in court and made stricter requirements for migrants to be granted asylum inside the U.S.
Jeff Migliozzi is the senior communications manager at Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, dedicated to ending migrant detention. He characterizes Biden’s policies as a betrayal.
“Measures that harden the border, such as the wall … contribute to a record number of deaths along the borderlands since they force migrants into even more treacherous routes,” he said.
“The conflicting messages from Mayorkas and Biden go to show this is an administration that is feckless on immigration and highly susceptible to changing its messaging based on the changing winds of media attention and public pressure,” Migliozzi said. “Biden fails to fight for his stated agenda … The administration went out of its way to waive these laws and build the wall, which will have devastating consequences.”
Migliozzi also referred back to Jordahl, who echoed the opposition on an environmental basis.
“The U.S.-Mexico border wall is part of a larger strategy of ongoing border militarization that damages human rights, civil liberties, native lands, and international relations,” Jordahl said.
Colleen Putzel-Kavanaugh is an associate policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan migration policy think tank in Washington, D.C. She says that the Biden administration’s immigration policies aim to facilitate humanitarian aid.
“While the border wall doesn’t necessarily stop migrants from coming, it can filter people to certain points and concentrate those populations in certain areas,” she said. For example, most of these families are waiting for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to pick them up so they can ask for asylum. “These polices really aim to facilitate humanitarian aid and prioritize enforcement.”
Focusing on the current administration’s actions alone doesn’t give a full picture of the story of asylum-seekers at the border, whose numbers are reportedly surging. This year, CBP personnel have encountered more than 2.4 million migrants at the Southern border, with more than 330,000 in the Rio Grande Valley, where these new portions of border wall will be built. Many of these migrants are families with young children.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Putzel-Kavanaugh said, adding that the appropriations package for border barrier construction included things like surveillance, motion detection, safety barriers, access roads, light poles, and moveable gates, which will help facilitate migrant processing. Putzel-Kavanaugh also emphasized the importance of viewing Biden’s immigration policy holistically.
“The Biden administration also did a lot to reverse the harmful Trump-era policies,” she said, listing reversing Trump’s Muslim travel ban, codifying DACA, expanding humanitarian aid to migrants from Central and South America, and reuniting separated families.
Some advocates, however, are still critical of Biden’s immigration policy.
“Biden has failed to restore and strengthen the asylum system, while at the same time increasing his reliance on the deadly immigration detention system,” he said.
Reports show that migrants are coming from farther South, traveling through Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, and even countries like China and nations in Africa. These migrants will sometimes cross the Atlantic Ocean and are forced to pay smugglers to travel through territory controlled by paramilitary groups.
Putzel-Kavanaugh said this has created an opportunity for the countries in the region to collaborate for solutions, rather than siloing policy to Mexico and the U.S.
“There’s really been a shift in regional engagement,” she said. “Multiple countries have stepped up.”
Migliozzi maintains that much of the crisis, though, is due to the U.S.’ history of militarized involvement in Latin America.
“U.S. imperial and corporate interests have long displaced people and forced them to flee the only home they’ve known,” he said. “This hasn’t changed under Biden, and this administration has taken steps, especially in Central America, to externalize and militarize the border further south.”
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.
Kylie Marsh is a writer and artist based in Durham, North Carolina. She loves nature, running, history, reading, and getting involved in her community. She hopes to tell stories that will arm people with information to stamp out conflict and make the world a better place. You can find her work at fridayx.carrd.co.