LOS ANGELES - Joe Biden, projected to become America's 46th president in January, has vowed to stop the construction of a border wall along the Mexico border, leaving questions about the future of the centerpiece of President Donald Trump’s bid to curb unauthorized immigration at the southern border.
Laredo Sector Chief Patrol Agent Matthew Hudak said contracts are in place to start constructing approximately 113 kilometers of wall in the Laredo sector of Texas, which spans more than 270 kilometers of the border between the United States and Mexico.
Hudak said a wall would help fight criminal groups that use the border as a way of making money by smuggling people and contraband.
“When we put (up) wall systems ... it takes away that profitability for these criminal organizations. That’s money that’s not going back into Mexico to supply the weapons, the ammunition that’s being used to victimize our neighbors across the border,” Hudak said.
Fate of the border wall
Biden said he would not tear down the wall already built by Trump. But during the joint national convention last August of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, he vowed that “there will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration.”
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it is on target to build 724 kilometers of border wall by the end of 2020.
“President Trump is still the president (and) will be until January 20, so until then, we can expect construction on the border wall to continue,” said Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based policy think tank.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the majority of contracts have been awarded and construction is under way for the approximately 1,188 kilometers funded to date.
However, Bolter said the Biden administration does have options regarding existing contracts.
“His administration may be looking at terminating contracts that are currently in progress, possibly even places where construction is currently in the works," said Bolter. "The government does have a lot of leeway to do this and could generally be done pretty easily, sometimes having to pay a termination fee out to contractors.”
Fate of wall controversies
Trump’s authority to use much of the money to build a border wall is being challenged and awaiting a Supreme Court decision. The legal fight may become a moot point under a Biden administration.
“I think this is going to be one of those problems that (is) going to find a solution in the political transition,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston.
“The Supreme Court’s decision will really not matter,” Payan said.
Biden also said, “Withdraw the lawsuits. We’re out. We’re not going to confiscate the land,” speaking about the government lawsuits against landowners who refuse to give up their land for a border wall.
Focus on technology
Instead of building more walls, Democrats have long favored using technology as an alternative along the more than 3,000 kilometers that make up the southern border.
“I'm going to make sure that we have border protection, but it's going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it,” said Biden.
In Laredo, technology such as cameras, radar detection, sensors and drones have helped border patrol agents where very little wall had existed, but Hudak said more tools help agents better succeed at their jobs.
“When we can have that technology tell us exactly what we’re dealing with before we get near it, it’s safer for everybody,” Hudak said. “It’s a combination of the physical barrier (and the) patrol road, so our agents will have mobility up and down the entire stretch of border and then also the technology systems that go with that, as well. So, it’s a suite of all of those things coming together. ... Then, we add the manpower to it, and we have all three pieces of that triangle working together.”
Opponents say a border wall harms ecosystems, causing floods and endangering animals and that Biden should do more than stop wall construction.
“I think we are underestimating the kind of damage that the wall is going to wreak along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Payan of Rice University. “And so, even if (Biden) doesn't intend to destroy any of the wall that has already been built, I think in some places it may have to be brought down. The damage is just too severe on the environment.”
Policies beyond the wall
Beyond the border wall, many immigrant rights groups hope a Biden administration will undo many of Trump’s executive actions on immigration, which do not need congressional approval. Analysts say one program Biden can easily reinstate is President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed work permits for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children.
Trump ordered an end to the program in 2017. In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the DACA recipients, but the possibility persists that the administration could still end DACA in the future with proper justification.
However, undoing other Trump’s policies may prove to be difficult, including the Migrant Protection Protocols, which require most undocumented immigrants to be returned to Mexico until their immigration court hearing date. Bolter said it will take time and resources to maneuver administrative and bureaucratic procedures to undo many of Trump’s programs.
“Even the executive actions that President Trump has taken, even though they technically can be undone by the administration itself, the process of going through and undoing every single regulation is going to be extremely arduous," said Bolter. "It's not something that can be done immediately if new regulations have to go through notice and comment period.”
A Biden administration will have competing priorities, including the pandemic and humanitarian and security at the border.
“It's just unlikely (the Biden administration will) be able to dedicate the same resources to immigration that Trump has,” said Bolter.