Mexico praised Biden’s order halting the construction of the border wall, but questions remain if it will be left or torn down?
A new press release today from the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs welcomed new president Joe Biden’s signing of an executive order to halt border wall construction along the southern U.S. border with Mexico, extending DACA protections and suspending the return of asylum seekers to Mexico.
The statement also commented favorably on proposed legislation from the new U.S. administration to grant a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants.
Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard welcomed the new change in tone, adding that Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been steadfast in his support for the proposed immigration legislation and opposition to the border wall for many years.
The border wall has been a controversial and politically divisive issue not only between the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. but also between the U.S. and Mexico, which often felt slighted by the previous administration’s comments and policies regarding the border and immigration.
Of the 450 miles of wall construction during the Trump era, slightly less than 80 miles was actually new fencing. The majority of the border wall construction was mostly upgrades to existing barriers, according to Customs and Border Protection and well short of Trump’s initial promise to build a “great wall 1,000 miles long.”
Unable to convince Mexico to pay for the wall construction, as he had famously promised while campaigning, Trump was equally unsuccessful with congress. To get around that, Trump signed a national emergency order that diverted funding from the Department of Defense budget.
Biden’s executive order yesterday canceled that emergency order.
Border wall’s future?
Many activists and lawmakers want the incoming administration to go a step further, proposing that sections of the border wall be torn down to protect natural habitat and animal species that live along that corridor.
“My hope is that not only are they able to stop the wall construction but that we can actually take down the wall,” said Veronica Escobar, a Representative from Texas whose district includes the border city of El Paso. “If we do not take it down, there will be consequences. We have to continue to maintain it, which will become costly going into the future. Damage to natural habitats will grow even more severe”
“And it will continue to erode our image in the world,” she added.
Dynamite blasts have reduced rugged hills to dust and bulldozers have flattened cacti and uprooted ironwood trees to make way for new construction.
To fast-track border wall construction, Trump’s Homeland Security officials waived a series of environmental and historic preservation regulations, ignoring warnings from environmentalists and pushback from tribal leaders.
Laiken Jordahl of the Center for Biological Diversity says tearing down sections of the wall could help reduce some immediate environmental harm, allowing the migration of endangered wildlife and the flow of water.
Jordahl’s organization, along with members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and Mexican conservationists and leaders, have urged the U.S. and Mexican administrations to oppose wall further wall construction, reopen wildlife corridors, and restart cross-border collaboration.
In addition to ecosystems, the border is home to a binational community, with people who work, visit family, go shopping and run errands on both sides of the border, and existing fences have made it more difficult for them to do so. Native communities have crossed the border back and forth for pilgrimages to religious sites or to attend cultural ceremonies, and fence construction has also desecrated cultural sites.
Biden’s proposed border policy
It’s not yet clear how the Biden administration will approach parts of the wall that have already been built. In his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, Biden’s nominee for Homeland Security, Ali Mayorkas, said he hadn’t yet “looked at that specific question” of dismantling existing sections of the wall.
He and his colleagues in the incoming cabinet will have to balance calls for border security with requests to tear down the wall, and are likely going to leave some stakeholders disappointed, says Austin Evers, executive director of the transparency group American Oversight.
But a careful sector-by-sector analysis might produce some reasonable cost, operational and moral justifications for removing at least some parts of the wall, and replacing them with “virtual fencing” and other modern technologies that enjoy bipartisan appeal. “The Biden administration will have to do the moral math problem,” he says.
The Biden-Harris immigration bill would beef up technology at the border, according to a summary released Wednesday, which notes that the government watchdogs would conduct oversight to make sure that this technology “serves legitimate agency purposes.”
Previous policies questioned
The Trump administration also gave out construction contracts on land it doesn’t own, and launched eminent domain lawsuits against private landowners. Hundreds of cases involving thousands of owners are currently open, but not a lot has actually been built on this land yet, says Donatti. The incoming government could simply withdraw those challenges. “You can’t give people two years of their lives back, but you can cancel those cases,” he says.
Some of the effects of the border wall are not easily undone, and they predate the Trump administration. For the more than 25 recognized indigenous tribes who live in the border region, the recent rounds of construction plowed through sacred springs, pilgrimage routes and burial grounds.
“For us, this is no different than [the Department of Homeland Security] building a 30-foot wall through Arlington Cemetery, through the grounds of the National Cathedral, or through George Washington’s Mount Vernon,” Ned Norris, Jr., chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona, told a House panel in early 2020.
Foreigners in their own country
Within the wide swath of land called the “border zone,” the people who live closest to Mexico have the most acute experience of the increasing militarization over the last few decades: Residents in some parts have to cross the border wall on their own land, or traverse it to get to the nearest town.
They are stopped, searched, and interrogated by roving patrols of border agents; they sometimes find that agents have entered their private property without warrants; and their sprawling rural land now comes embedded with tall surveillance towers, drones, helicopters and ground sensors.
“Probably the most important thing the administration has heard from us is that we need to rethink borders.”
Reorienting the rhetoric about the border is something Escobar has been working toward in Congress. What she wants Americans to understand is that the border is not just a pawn in political debates, but “that international communities are a good thing, and that binational regions are areas of opportunity.”
There are policy consequences to changing that mindset: She hopes that lawmakers embrace a regional approach to challenges like Covid-19, and design plans to boost employment opportunities outside the arena of law enforcement so border residents are lifted out of poverty and into the middle class.
Still, Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, worries about the consequences of a rush to increase surveillance of communities that already have drones circling overhead, checkpoints around their blocks, sensors on the ground and a view of concertina wire on the existing border wall.
“I do think that probably the most important thing the administration has heard from us is that we need to rethink borders — this concept of a big, scary border that just creates profit for corporations based on fear,” she says.
“Our so-called deterrence tactics and [border] policies in the last three decades have not solved any problems, only created a situation where we’ve lost our rights.” The type of militarization seen at the Southern border is not “something that would ever be contemplated on the Canadian border, for example, so we have to also understand the issue has racial justice underpinnings,” she says.
Gaubeca envisions a future of the borderlands with fewer boots on the ground and more social workers and trauma-informed specialists to process vulnerable migrants. She hopes that it becomes a place that is safe for everyone, and that U.S. policy doesn’t continue to cause the deaths of migrants who are compelled to cross through rugged terrain.
“Decades worth of misinformation and mythologizing about the border cannot be undone overnight on January 20,” Escobar says. “There’s been so much work put into programming Americans to believe that the border is unsafe — a place to be controlled in a militaristic way.”
“But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ambitiously, aggressively and boldly reshape the image of the border,” she adds.