- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Republicans preserved nearly $2 billion in unspent border wall construction money as part of the government-wide spending bill announced Wednesday, and also won increases in funding for ICE and the Border Patrol, dashing hopes of immigrant-rights advocates who’d called for deep cuts.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportation operations will get $109 million more than President Biden requested, and Customs and Border Protection is receiving about $1 billion in cash to deal with the surge of immigrants entering the country illegally that’s erupted on Mr. Biden’s watch.

The bill also includes a total rewrite of the government’s “golden visa,” or EB-5 program, which allows wealthy foreigners to buy into a pathway to citizenship by making major investments in job-creation projects in the U.S. EB-5 has been rife with fraud.

The immigration provisions are tucked inside the massive $1.5 trillion package governing funding for fiscal year 2022. The 2,741-page bill was released around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, and lawmakers had just hours to skim the legislation before the first votes were taken.

The border wall money was among the biggest fights.

While there is no new money for the wall, President Trump left office with nearly $2 billion in the pipeline.

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Mr. Biden immediately halted construction and asked Congress to rescind the money that was already approved. Democrats pushed a bill through the House last year that included language revoking the cash.

But Republicans succeeded in deleting that language from the final bill this week.

“The bill fully rejects the proposed rescission of $1.9 billion in previously appropriated funds for the construction of physical infrastructure along the Southwest Border,” GOP negotiators said in a statement detailing the final contours of the legislation.

Keeping the money in the pipeline is a blow to Mr. Biden, who at some point will have to spend the money or else risk running afoul of the Impoundment Act, which requires the president to follow Congress’s wishes on appropriations.

The longer the money hangs around, the more legal pressure there is to spend it.

The federal comptroller general determined last June that the delays at that point were legal — but said at some point it could cross the line if it becomes clear the administration is intentionally resisting.

Mr. Biden argues he’s slow-walking on construction in order to do more environmental studies and consultation with local communities. He says that’s what the law required.

Mark Morgan, who ran CBP in the Trump administration, told The Washington Times those are “smoke screens,” and the agency already checked those boxes on the wall projects in the pipeline.

He said Mr. Biden has been in violation of the Impoundment Act for some time.

“They’ve been playing this game all along. They know the impoundment issues. They’ve been doing just enough to try to pass the bare minimum test,” he said. “I think he’s in direct violation because he actually directed agencies to stop spending money on a congressionally passed budget.”

On Capitol Hill, some Republicans griped that the spending bill didn’t include any new money for the wall.

They were also disappointed that there was no money to hire new agents or officers for immigration enforcement at the border or the interior.

Democrats celebrated the lack of new deportation officers in the bill, and cheered additional money included to outfit more agents and officers with body cameras.

But Democrats did agree to an overall 7% boost in funding for ICE. That includes maintaining the current 34,000 daily detention bed capacity.

Lawmakers also inserted language into a report accompanying the spending bill demanding more scrutiny of ICE’s 287(g) program, which trains local law enforcement to spot deportation targets that come into prisons and jails.

And the bill includes more than $400 million in taxpayer support to help ease the backlog of cases at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Homeland Security didn’t respond to a request for comment on the bill’s treatment of the border wall, but Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has called the wall spending “ill-advised,” and said he wants more money for technology instead.

Under Mr. Trump, 458 miles of border wall were erected. Plans for nearly 300 more miles were cut short by his election defeat.

Mr. Biden had vowed during the campaign not to build another foot during his administration.

He’s had to back off that pledge somewhat, with Mr. Mayorkas agreeing to spend money to erect gates and plug some gaps left by the construction halt.

Mr. Morgan said Mr. Biden is playing games with the unspent money.

“Any statements that he makes, any rhetoric now of his justification for not building it, is disingenuous at best,” Mr. Morgan said. “His intent was to thwart the budget that was passed by the United States Congress. That’s unconscionable to me.”

Mr. Morgan said preserving the wall money in the pipeline was a “positive step,” but he said there’s more Republicans should do.

He suggested requesting the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general to review wall-building contracts, with an eye toward how much money is being wasted with the current halt.

Each of the more than two dozen wall contractors will negotiate a settlement to shut down the contracts — effectively paying them for wall work not to be done, he said.

“It’s costing millions and millions of dollars to not build the wall,” Mr. Morgan said.

Mr. Morgan also defends the wall’s efficacy and says people are mischaracterizing it by only looking at the barrier. The Trump team repeatedly referred to a “wall system,” which included the barrier, but also technology to detect incursions and access roads to allow agents to get on the spot and arrest those who do breach the fence.

He said places where the wall system went up saw massive improvements in preventing illegal crossings, curbing drug trafficking and increasing agent safety.

“Every single measure of success improves when you have the wall system as part of that multilayer strategy,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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