The Biden administration on Friday returned to the Pentagon more than $2 billion in military funds that President Trump had diverted for border wall construction, denouncing the transfers away from the Defense Department as wasteful.
The funds — the unspent balance of $3.6 billion in Pentagon construction funding reprogramed during the Trump administration — will now be used as originally intended, for over 60 projects at military installations in the U.S. and overseas.
During the Trump administration, the federal government built 52 miles of new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), with some stretches of barrier costing as much as $46 million per mile.
Mr. Trump’s effort to build a wall along the border with Mexico — a signature campaign promise — became one of the most expensive federal construction projects in U.S. history. By the end of his presidency, officials had identified $15 billion to build border barriers by diverting $10 billion from military counter narcotics and construction programs and convincing Congress to allocate the rest.
“The effort diverted critical resources away from military training facilities and schools, and caused serious risks to life, safety, and the environment,” the White House said in a statement Friday. “It also took attention away from genuine security challenges, like drug smuggling and human trafficking.”
The restored funding will benefit military projects in 11 states, three U.S. territories and 16 countries, including plans to add two missile interceptors in Fort Greely, Alaska and revamp an elementary school for the children of U.S. service members stationed in Germany.
Recipients of the restored funds also include two Marine battalions in North Carolina; an Air Guard marksmanship training program in Indiana; and a station at the Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida that will house fire-fighting vehicles and U.S. service members.
On his first day in office, Mr. Biden ordered an immediate halt to border wall construction and terminated an emergency declaration Mr. Trump invoked to divert funds towards the project.
Congress funded an additional nearly $1.4 billion in border wall appropriations for fiscal year 2021 as part of its broader COVID-19 relief bill last December. While DHS is legally obligated to use the funding for border barrier projects, the Biden administration on Friday called on Congress to “cancel” the remaining funds, preventing further border wall expansion.
The Biden administration announced Friday it would begin funneling congressionally allocated border wall funds to address “urgent life, safety, and environmental issues resulting from the previous Administration’s wall construction.”
Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas announced the department would begin to fix environmental harm caused by border wall construction during the Trump administration, including physical damage to Rio Grande Valley’s flood barrier system and 14 miles of soil erosion near San Diego.
Following a review of the border wall construction projects, the Biden administration will also divert DHS funds to clean-up of construction sites formerly funded by the Pentagon, “including drainage, erosion control, site remediation, and material disposal.”
The Government Accountability Office is expected to issue an opinion on the legality of Biden’s decision to curtail spending on the southern border wall as soon as later this month.
Last month, Mayorkas told lawmakers that the Biden administration was “studying” gaps and gates in the wall construction initiated under the Trump administration to determine how best to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We have committed to finishing the levees, as well as addressing the erosion of land under roads adjacent to the wall as two public health imperatives,” Mayorkas told Oklahoma GOP Senator James Lankford. “What is the most effective way to address gates and the completion of gates, as well as the closing of gaps? That is something that is under review now.”
But Friday’s announcement doesn’t include immediate action to close any gaps in wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Biden administration said Friday that even though it’s canceling border wall construction, it will still review pending eminent domain cases along the southern border, which could result in the seizure of homes. According to OMB, “If DHS determines use of the land will be necessary, particularly for life, safety, environmental, or other remediation work, it will initiate robust landowner engagement. If DHS determines it no longer requires the use of such land, it will work to return the land to its prior owners.”
Some 140 eminent domain cases remain active, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project. In April, a federal judge ruled earlier this month that the government could take “immediate possession” of one Texas family’s land along the Southwest border in Hidalgo County, after a years-long court battle.
Despite the halt in border wall construction, 3,800 members of the National Guard remain deployed at the southern border, in support of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), according to a defense official. DHS has formally asked to extend the National Guard deployment past October and into fiscal year 2022. That request is currently under review by the Department of Defense.
Eleanor Watson contributed to this report.