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  • Brock Dodds

Biden Administration Accelerates Border Wall Construction

By: Brock Dodds Edited by: Ashlyn Bi November 20, 2023


In a shocking pivot, the Biden administration on October 5th announced the waiving of numerous federal laws to expedite the construction of 20 additional miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley. Construction resumed in June, but progress had been relatively sluggish until this recent development.

A centerpiece of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was strong opposition to his opponent’s prioritization (and often inflammatory rhetoric in support) of constructing a wall on the southern border. Joe Biden promised to end further construction on the border wall if elected. Biden won this election with the support of many groups who shared his harsh criticism of Trump’s immigration policy approach, especially Trump’s forceful advocacy for a border wall. Despite his rhetoric, Trump’s border wall was not complete upon his departure from office. Among the initial actions taken by the Biden administration upon assuming office was to cease any additional wall construction. Consequently, this decision has garnered significant attention since it deviated from earlier promises and established policies. However, the calculus behind the decision seems to be one of legal necessity—the executive branch cannot alter funds Congress has earmarked for a certain project or initiative without Congressional approval. In 2019, Congress appropriated the allocation of funds for border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley.  The condition stipulated that it could solely serve that particular purpose, and the construction of the specified 20-mile segment had to be completed by 2023, a requirement outlined in the funding allocation bill.

The time restraint requirement explains the waiving of multiple federal laws to expedite the process. Most notably, Biden waived the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and Endangered Species Act requirements that the administration claims would have significantly slowed down construction. However, this did not stop groups like the American Civil Liberties Union from condemning the decision. The ACLU expressed disappointment at the prospect of the border continuing to be less penetrable and the apparent 180 on campaign promises. Wildlife and ecological advocates have also criticized the move, as the land along the Rio Grande is especially vulnerable to erosion and includes federally protected habitats. The opposition from Biden’s left is not just related to waiving these federal protections. There is also principled opposition to the idea of a wall itself. Biden has explicitly said he believes walls do not work, but this has not changed the minds of his detractors, who see this apparent reversal as the betrayal of a staunch campaign promise. 

Excluding this decision, the Biden administration has been more pro-immigration in rhetoric and policy than the previous administration. As previously mentioned, one of the first executive orders Biden signed while in office was halting construction on the border wall. Biden also reversed the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy that required asylum seekers to wait in border towns on the Mexican side of the border while their asylum claims were being processed. The Biden administration sharply criticized this policy for prolonging the time asylum speakers had to spend in dangerous conditions, as it forced asylum seekers to remain in cities with high rates of violence, poverty, and corruption. In May, Biden finally ended the Trump-era Title 42 border restriction, utilizing COVID-19 as a justification to turn away migrants without hearing asylum claims. Biden’s immigration stance, however, is also characterized as one in which his rhetoric often outpaces actual policy action & the views of his expert advisors. While Biden’s rhetoric has remained vaguely yet staunchly humanitarian regarding immigration—largely unchanged from his rhetoric on the campaign trail—Biden’s DHS has often struck a more pragmatic tone, with the DHS secretary sternly warning migrants not to enter the US illegally and emphasizing that the US’s policy is still one of generally expelling those who enter the country illegally. In the wake of the decision to speed up the border wall, the DHS has walked a very thin line and come close to contradicting Biden. The DHS secretary said “physical barriers” are needed at the border, but did not mention walls. Regardless of these discrepancies between initial rhetoric and policy action, it is clear that when the Biden administration becomes more restrictive on immigration, it does so reluctantly, and the recent border wall waivers are further evidence of this. 

It is safe to say that the October 5th move puts Biden between a rock and a hard place. Individuals on the left in the media, within civil society, and among Democratic party members view the expedited wall construction and apparent disregard for federal environmental regulations as a departure from the pro-immigration principles and commitments that constituted a significant portion of Biden's campaign. Those who supported the wall during the Trump administration see it as a vindication of their immigration policy, and Republicans are likely to use it to paint their position as the only practical one. Although Congress required the wall be built by the end of 2023, this is unlikely to be a politically effective defense due to its level of nuance–technical arguments based on the complex requirements created by the checks and balances system rarely erase the effects of simple perception. So, what could Biden have done to avoid this bind? The answer is not much. One could argue Biden should have been realistic about this policy and Congress’s requirements during his campaign. However, this is only with the benefit of hindsight. Less idealistic rhetoric on immigration during the 2020 campaign likely would have energized the base and those to the left of Biden less, and no one had any guarantee that Biden would win by the margin he did. Considering the available choices during that period, Biden's most favorable action regarding immigration rhetoric was to reject the border wall. Anything less would have also created a weak spot for Trump to exploit by claiming Biden knew walls worked to some extent. Essentially, the 2019 wall construction bill’s stipulations were a politically savvy move by Republicans that guaranteed Biden would take some damage politically when he finally had to approve the construction of the Rio Grande Valley section. Biden did attempt to have Congress redirect the funds for the wall, which was unsuccessful. 

The effect the October 5th decision to waive numerous federal laws to speed up 20 miles of border wall construction will have on Biden’s chances in 2024 remains to be seen. However, immigration will continue to be a controversial issue with no silver-bullet solution. Politically, no position on immigration is guaranteed to be successful. The Biden administration must continue balancing rhetoric and policy to tackle the issue without destroying the political atmosphere.



[9111-14] DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY Determination Pursuant to Section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant. (2023).

Kinery, E. (2023, October 5). White House speeds up additions to Trump border wall years after Biden vowed “not another foot.” CNBC. --Biden continues construction --Funds appropriated by congress; have to be used for the wall --Biden waived clean air act, safe drinking water act, and endangered species act to speed up construction --Biden also says he doesn’t believe walls work --DHS secretary says “physical barriers” are needed Conclusion: Ultimately something compelled by law, but there is also mixed messaging surrounding the issue because of the waiving of acts and DHS secretary’s comments.

Long, C. (2023, October 5). Biden says he had to use Trump-era funds for the border wall. Asked if barriers work, he says “No.” AP News.

Robles, J. (2023, May 13). Title 42 migration restrictions have ended, but Biden’s new policy is tougher. The Guardian.

US Customs and Border Protection. (2023, September 22). CBP Releases August 2023 Monthly Update | U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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