A construction vehicle drives along the border wall

A construction vehicle drives along the border wall with Mexico on January 12, 2021 in Sasabe, Arizona.

(Photo: Micah Garen/Getty Images)

'Horrific Step Backwards': Biden Admin Waives Protections to Speed Border Wall Construction

"Every acre of habitat left in the Rio Grande Valley is irreplaceable," said one advocate. "We can't afford to lose more of it to a useless, medieval wall."

Environmental protection advocates and immigrant rights campaigners expressed horror Wednesday over a Department of Homeland Security plan entered into the Federal Register that will waive more than two dozen laws in order to expedite the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

The "notice of determination" was entered under Section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act, which was signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, and said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas "has determined, pursuant to law, that it is necessary to waive certain laws, regulations, and other legal requirements."

The 26 laws—which include the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—are being set aside "to ensure the expeditious construction of barriers and roads in the vicinity of the international land border in Starr County, Texas," the Federal Register said.

The waiver will allow construction through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and could threaten endangered species including ocelots, as well as the plant species Zapata bladderpod and prostrate milkweed, said the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

Voces Unidas Rio Grande Valley said it was "disappointed, but not surprised" by DHS's plan and noted that it will further limit the access to green spaces that area residents have.

Mayorkas' determination marks the first time the Biden administration has used its waiver authority under the REAL ID Act of 2005 to override federal laws.

The Trump and George W. Bush administrations used the authority in all four states that border Mexico to build walls and roads that they claimed were "an impediment" to the construction. Environmental groups have long condemned the REAL ID Act and its waiver authority.

Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate for CBD, said it was "disheartening to see President Biden stoop to this level" in order to "build ineffective wildlife-killing border walls" that international advocates say also violates human rights.

"Starr County is home to some of the most spectacular and biologically important habitat left in Texas and now bulldozers are preparing to rip right through it," said Jordahl. "This is a horrific step backwards for the borderlands."

The proposal is the Biden administration's latest escalation of its anti-immigration policies and follows an expansion of the Trump-era Title 42 policy and a rule barring entry into the U.S. for asylum seekers who can't prove they applied for asylum in another country.

"Every acre of habitat left in the Rio Grande Valley is irreplaceable," said Jordahl. "We can't afford to lose more of it to a useless, medieval wall that won't do a thing to stop immigration or smuggling. President Biden's cynical decision to destroy a wildlife refuge and seal the beautiful Rio Grande behind a grotesque border wall must be stopped."

The proposal was announced a month after the federal government's own watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, released a report saying that border wall construction under Trump damaged native plants, helped spread invasive species, disrupted migration patterns for endangered species, and destroyed Indigenous burial grounds and sacred sites.

"There's no end to this insanity," said historian Greg Grandin of Biden's plan to fast-track the wall's construction.

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