Washington — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday rebuffed growing criticism over his decision to approve the construction of more than aalong the U.S.-Mexico border, saying the Biden administration was bound by law to follow through with the project.
Mayorkas rejected the notion that the administration had changed its policy as it relates to a border wall, which President Biden strongly denounced during the 2020 presidential campaign.
“From day one, this Administration has made clear that a border wall is not the answer,” Mayorkas said in a statement Thursday. “That remains our position and our position has never wavered.”
The controversy began Wednesday, when the Department of Homeland Security posted a notice in which Mayorkas had waived over two dozen federal laws, including ones to protect wildlife and the environment, to expedite the construction of border barriers and other infrastructure in a section of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. In the notice, Mayorkas said there was an “acute and immediate need” to construct the barriers to prevent unlawful border entries, which soared to a yearly high in September.
The announcement quickly sparked a heated debate, as well as condemnation from environmental activists, migrant advocates, Democratic lawmakers and even Mexico’s president, who said the move echoed former President Trump’s controversial efforts to build hundreds of miles of wall to deter migrant crossings.
Conservatives, meanwhile, said the move gave credence to Mr. Trump’s signature border policy, and highlighted the announcement as an abrupt and hypocritical 180-degrees change of course by Mr. Biden.
During the 2020 campaign, Mr. Biden vowed not to build “another foot” of the border wall. On his first day in office in 2021, he issued an executive order halting border barrier construction. “Like every nation, the United States has a right and a duty to secure its borders and protect its people against threats. But building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution,” Mr. Biden wrote in that order.
On Thursday, Mayorkas said the notice on Wednesday had been “taken out of context.” It did not, he said, “signify any change in policy whatsoever.”
Mayorkas said the administration was legally obligated to use money Congressin south Texas for its intended purpose. “We have repeatedly asked Congress to rescind this money but it has not done so, and we are compelled to follow the law,” he said.
Asked about the controversy earlier on Thursday in the Oval Office, Mr. Biden delivered a similar remark.
“The money was appropriated for the border wall. I tried to get them to reappropriate it, to redirect that money. They didn’t, they wouldn’t. And in the meantime, there’s nothing under the law other than they have to use the money for what it was appropriated. I can’t stop that,” he said.
Mr. Biden said he did not think border walls were effective.
Before this week’s announcement, the Biden administration had mainly used border barrier money to fill gaps in the wall.
The president’s remarks on Thursday did not diminish the criticism over the decision to build the barriers in South Texas, including from his Democratic allies.
California Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragán, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called Mayorkas’ notice “disappointing”
“While this border wall funding was signed into law by President Trump under Republican leadership, this decision is not in line with the current administration’s commitments to end border wall construction,” she said.