Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is poised to run out the clock on former President Donald Trump’s border wall, leaving potentially billions of dollars in unspent money and hundreds of miles of fencing unfinished.
Some $200 million in wall money will expire in September at the end of this fiscal year, according to the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Kay Granger. Another $2.6 billion more will expire in coming years, she said.
“We’re just going to let that happen?” the Texas Republican said during a hearing with Mr. Mayorkas last month.
It was a question repeated over and over, and one to which the secretary wouldn’t give a straight answer.
“I can assure you that we will comply with all our legal obligations,” Mr. Mayorkas said.
Six years after Mr. Trump began his wall project, and more than two years after President Biden declared a halt to construction, it remains an acute political problem.
The Border Patrol’s senior leaders say the wall works and they need more of it.
Mr. Mayorkas, carrying out Mr. Biden’s campaign promise not to build another foot of wall, has largely resisted his own agents’ entreaties, rejecting their expertise and telling them what they really need are more personnel and technology.
The agents got 458 miles of new fencing under Mr. Trump. Of that, 373 miles were upgrades for previous barriers and 85 miles were in unfenced locations.
Congress ponied up about $4.5 billion, and Mr. Trump, unsatisfied with that total, siphoned another $600 million from a Treasury Department forfeiture fund and $9.9 billion from Pentagon accounts. Altogether, it was enough to build the 458 completed miles, with another 280 miles in the works.
Mr. Biden’s election upended those plans: He issued orders revoking Mr. Trump’s emergency declaration and returning the Pentagon’s money to the Defense Department. And he halted all wall construction.
But that left more than $2 billion that Congress had authorized but that hadn’t been spent.
That’s the cash Republicans say Mr. Mayorkas should spend — and that he’s been slow-walking,
Mr. Mayorkas said he has approved 129 projects to fill gaps and complete gates in the wall.
But he also acknowledged the government is having to pay money to store wall-building materials,
“We are indeed,” he told Rep. Michael Cloud.
The Washington Times asked the Department of Homeland Security about the $200 million Ms. Granger said would expire.
The department, in a statement, pointed to projects that are on hold while it conducts environmental studies, consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act.
Mark Morgan, who ran Customs and Border Protection in the latter part of the Trump administration, rejected that excuse.
“We already did all that. All that was already done,” Mr. Morgan said. “How long does that take? They’ve been in this administration 25 months.”
The projects Mr. Mayorkas has approved are small bore. For the most part, they are problems of Mr. Biden’s own making, Mr. Morgan said — holes left in the wall when the president ordered a halt to construction.
Mr. Morgan, now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, pointed to one instance in which the Trump administration was going to build a more robust levee wall, so the existing one was taken down. But the Biden halt prevented the new one from being built. Finishing that is on Mr. Mayorkas’s project list.
“He’s taking credit for that,” Mr. Morgan said. “He has not built any wall. He has installed a couple of gates that agents are begging for, for agent safety reasons.”
Mr. Morgan said all of the Mayorkas-approved projects combined would total less than a mile of construction.
Support for a border wall has seen its ups and downs.
Before Mr. Trump took office, the public was generally in favor of the idea. Support soured once Mr. Trump made it his marquee campaign promise and then used emergency powers to siphon money to the project beyond what Congress had allocated.
With Mr. Trump out of office, polling shows the wall is once again more popular, with one October 2022 survey by Issues & Insights putting support at 57%, compared to 33% opposed. Nearly 40% said they were “strongly” in favor, or twice the 20% who were strongly opposed.
Party divisions remain strong, however, with Democrats are still deeply skeptical.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, the top Democrat on the spending subcommittee that oversees Homeland Security, said at the hearing with Mr. Mayorkas that the wall is a poor way to spend money.
“With all due respect, it’s a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” Mr. Cuellar said. “I can spend $36 million on a mile of fencing, and all I need is $100 to buy a ladder to take care of that particular fence.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill, though, point to the agents on the ground who say the wall is a winner. They say it’s time Mr. Biden listens to them.
“Not only is this administration refusing to take action to address the border crisis, but they are actively refusing to spend money that Congress appropriated for a specific purpose,” Rep. David Joyce, Ohio Republican, told The Washington Times. “Allowing this money allocated for border wall infrastructure to expire ignores congressional intent and undermines congressional authority.”
Mr. Joyce, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees Homeland Security’s spending, said the administration has “stonewalled” efforts to get the construction restarted.
The Government Accountability Office in 2021 reviewed Mr. Biden’s border wall halt and concluded that it was legal because it wasn’t intended to derail the wall, but rather to ensure that it was being built correctly. GAO had indicated there may come a time when failure to follow through would become a legal matter.