Eugene Garcia / AP

Biden Administration Outlines Plans for Unspent Border Wall Funds

A watchdog is still in the process of determining whether or not the construction pause at the start of Biden's term was legal. 

The Biden administration outlined on Friday how it is going to use the $2.2 billion in unobligated funds for the U.S-Mexico border wall and repair damage in the area, issuing a rebuke of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. 

Biden ordered a pause on border wall work upon coming into office and his administration announced on April 30 it was canceling border wall contracts from the Trump era. “In total, the previous administration built 52 miles of wall where no barrier previously existed, with some wall segments costing American taxpayers up to $46 million per mile,” said a fact sheet Friday from the Office of Management and Budget. “The effort diverted critical resources away from military training facilities and schools, and caused serious risks to life, safety and the environment. It also took attention away from genuine security challenges, like drug smuggling and human trafficking.” 

The Defense Department finalized a plan to use “the $2.2 billion of unobligated military construction funds previously made available for border barrier construction to restore funding in fiscal 2021 for 66 projects in 11 states, three territories and 16 countries,” said a press release from the department.  “The decision to restore funding for well-designed and executable projects was based on operational and component priorities.” 

These projects involve essential operational and training facilities, schools, hangars and housing. 

The Homeland Security Department has started to repair damage in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and fix soil erosion in San Diego. 

“DHS will also prioritize using the remaining funds consistent with their appropriated purposes for necessary clean-up of construction sites previously funded by the Department of Defense, including drainage, erosion control, site remediation and material disposal,” said a press release from DHS on Friday. “Appropriated funds may also be used for mitigating some environmental damage caused by border wall construction.” 

For projects that do not require immediate attention, DHS is going to take on a comprehensive review for a remediation plan that includes an analysis of the environmental impact and engagement with stakeholders, such as residents of border communities and their congressional representatives, tribal communities, environmental groups and other interested non-governmental organizations. 

The administration also called on Congress to cancel funds for the border wall that were already appropriated.

“DHS is legally required to use the funds consistent with their appropriated purpose,” OMB noted. “The administration will uphold the rule of law and utilize all legal authorities to stop wall expansion.” 

In addition to the $3.6 billion the Trump administration divested from military construction through an emergency declaration, it also used $601 million from a drug forfeiture fund at the Treasury Department and $2.5 billion from a drug prevention program at the Defense Department through other authorities, Politico reported. “DHS is also returning remaining Treasury Forfeiture Fund resources to the Department of Treasury,” said OMB. 

In March, 40 Republican senators asked the Government Accountability Office to determine if Biden’s pausing construction on the wall and freezing funds violated the Impoundment Control Act, which prevents the executive branch from withholding funds for policy reasons and outlines a process for seeking to delay funds appropriated by Congress. The Republicans said they believe the Biden administration violated this law.

GAO began looking at this issue right after Biden’s announcement in January and then accepted the request from the lawmakers. 

In an update posted on June 2, GAO said “our legal decision on this matter is currently being developed in accordance with this longstanding practice.” This was in response to a request for an update from Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., ranking member of the House Budget Committee, and the other lawmakers who asked for the review. 

The news from the Biden administration comes after Texas Gov. Greg Abbot (R) said on Thursday his state is going to build its own border wall along Mexico, although NBC News pointed out it is unclear if he has the authority to do so given the mix of federal and state lands and private property.