Homeland Security officials said Friday they are “legally required” to spend billions of dollars Congress allocated to Mexican border wall construction, but said they will focus on projects that “mitigate” damage from previous construction rather than on finishing the wall former President Trump had planned.
Billions of dollars in Defense Department money Mr. Trump had diverted toward the wall have already been canceled and returned to the Pentagon, but the Department of Homeland Security said there is a large pool of money Capitol Hill approved over the last four years specifically for border barriers, and it is obligated to spend it.
“Congress provided DHS with some funding for border barrier projects, which the agency is legally required to use consistent with their appropriated purpose,” the department said. “In doing so, DHS will prioritize the remaining border barrier funds to address and remediate urgent life, safety and environmental issues resulting from the previous administration’s border wall construction.”
That means such things as plugging gaps in the levee wall in southern Texas and repairing soil erosion in San Diego. Both of those projects had previously been announced.
It’s not clear how much of the billions of unspent wall dollars would be absorbed by that kind of repair work.
Homeland Security tacitly acknowledged it can’t spend all the money on repairs, and begged Congress to claw back the funding.
In the meantime, the department signaled it will move slowly to spend the rest of the cash, detailing a lengthy approval process designed to tie construction up for years. The process includes extensive environmental studies, community input and negotiations with “advocates.”
Rep. John Katko, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, blasted the new priorities.
“Soil erosion is not border security,” he said. “This is clearly not what Congress intended when appropriating these funds.”
The conclusion that the department is legally obligated to spend the money is a blow to President Biden, who had vowed not to build another foot of wall, and early in his tenure issued an executive order halting building.
The Washington Times reported that the decision likely broke the law, violating Congress’ power of the purse. Since 2017, Congress had specifically approved about $5 billion in money for wall construction.
The Government Accountability Office is investigating the halt to determine whether it did in fact violate the law.
Mr. Trump campaigned in 2016 pledging that Mexico would pay for the wall. Once in office, he regularly asked Congress for $5 billion a year in wall money, but lawmakers approved $1.375 billion each of his final three years.He signed those bills, but then declared a national emergency and claimed the power to siphon money from Pentagon accounts for the border barrier as well.
Mr. Biden canceled that emergency and restored whatever money hadn’t already been spent.
When Mr. Trump left office about 460 miles of wall had been built on his watch, most of it replacing outdated fencing put up in the Bush and Obama years.
Homeland Security officials had plans and funding for about 300 more miles, with much of that going to places where no barriers had existed before.
Mr. Biden, who supported wall-building while a senator and who was part of the Obama administration that built dozens of miles of border wall, has now said he doesn’t think it’s a viable solution to the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America.
Border Patrol agents disagree, saying the barriers have proved valuable in constricting the flow of people, allowing agents to be in place to catch border-jumpers.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has disputed his agents’ conclusions, saying it’s not a unanimous feeling.