RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas — Most of the $2 billion that Congress set aside for 110 miles of wall and technology in the busiest region of the U.S.-Mexico border sits in the bank unspent as thousands of migrants illegally cross each day.
Eighty-nine miles of the project is unfinished, along the winding Rio Grande River that divides the two countries. While President Joe Biden’s administration shut down wall construction funded through diversions from the Trump administration, the project was approved and funded by the House and Senate. Besides this section, most of the wall projects funded by Congress during the Trump administration have been completed.
A senior Border Patrol agent said the project costs about $20 million a mile, and it is not clear why the final 89-mile stretch has been stalled or who will make the final call on whether to spend the money.
“We work for the government. We work for the Department of Homeland Security, so the secretary,” the official said, who was only able to speak anonymously with the Washington Examiner during a congressional tour this week. “He gets his orders from Congress and also from the executive branch, right? But ultimately he’s appointed, right? So he’s our boss. We do what he tells us.”
Top Republicans have moved to force the Biden administration to build the portion of the wall that was appropriated by Congress. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, and Vice-Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama have asked for the Government Accountability Office to intervene and decide whether Biden violated the Impoundment Control Act by suspending all projects without providing legal justification. Such a finding could give them reason to sue.
Ten projects totaling 110 miles were slated for this 320-mile stretch of border river. Congress could repurpose the remainder of the $2 billion to fund only technology at the border even though the money was originally meant to cover the cost of the wall, the levee system used to prevent floodwaters from entering town, roads, and lighting along the wall.
Wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley first began in the early 2000s after Congress funded 55 miles of the barrier. That 10-foot wall is in less-than-ideal condition and far less capable of preventing illegal crossings compared to the 30-foot wall that has become the standard.
In 2010, when construction of those 55 miles was completed on the eastern side of this region, agents saw a significant shift in locations where illegal crossers attempted to swim across. Migrants increasingly opted to cross on the western side of the Rio Grande Valley, where there was no barrier to keep them from coming into the United States.
“When we finished the border wall system, there was a traffic discrepancy […] Seventy percent of our traffic was on the west side, 30% was on our east side. Well, once we finished that wall, the percentage just started changing. And we started gaining control over that east side because we had that infrastructure,” the official said. “In 2019 is when the discrepancy was at its highest […] Ninety-five of all our illegal traffic was now occurring only on our west side, and only 5% was on our east side.
“We’ve finished 21 miles over on our west side. And we’re starting to see a shift back,” the official said. “I can tell you this: if we construct the remaining 89 miles, we will gain operational control.”
One of the unfinished projects, known as RGV-4, is missing power for the 50-foot-tall lights that line the wall, the official pointed out during a tour. The fiber optic system underground that detects movement on the land has not been installed. This sensitive piece of technology can tell the difference between an animal walking overhead and a person, or between an airplane in the sky and a vehicle driving through. On top of that, just 50 of the 83 camera poles that were supposed to be installed here have gone up.
The project has long portions of fencing that stretch 32 feet high. The fence sits atop the concrete levee wall, which is 14 feet and serves as a wall to floodwaters from the river. Gates that would allow Border Patrol to drive past the wall and closer to the river have not been powered and thus cannot be opened. In other spots of the wall, there are no gates so National Guard officials sit and man the opening in case migrants are spotted coming through.
The wall here is black in some areas and brownish-red in others. While former President Donald Trump had called for the fence to be painted black because he said it looked better, the official said it actually serves an important purpose.
“The darker color stuff heats up, gets hotter. It’s also slicker. In other places where you have the natural rust on it, that rust actually makes like a grip-like feature,” said the official. “When you don’t have rust, it’s slick like this. It’s harder to grab a hold of [and climb].”
The Border Patrol brought in outside experts from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to see what combination of infrastructure and technology would help agents gain control of the border. While Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration may be inclined to spend the remaining money on technology and not wall construction, the Border Patrol official said “technology doesn’t slow them down.”
“We’ll take the technology, but we won’t gain operational control over the area. It’ll help, but we won’t accomplish our mission,” the official said.
Even if the Biden administration gave the green light for construction to continue, it would take six to eight months to screen and vet the thousands of workers needed for the projects. It would also take time to get the equipment and supplies back on site, according to the border agent. But despite the significant amount of work, it is what the Border Patrol is hoping comes to fruition.
Author : Anna Giaritelli
Source : Washington Examiner : $2 billion of border wall money sits idle in bank as Biden leaves busiest migrant area wide open