Trump’s border wall project is a central theme of his campaign for a second term, and the ambitious construction targets have put considerable pressure on Homeland Security officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the contractors building the structure.
The administration’s push to quickly erect border fencing ahead of the November election received a boost this week when a federal appeals court in New Orleans lifted a lower court injunction that had frozen $3.6 billion the White House diverted for the project from military construction funds.
A district court judge in El Paso ruled last month that the administration did not have the authority to spend money allocated by Congress for a different purpose. But the appeals court ruled the administration can use the money — equal to about one third of the $11 billion the administration has obtained so far for the “border wall” — while legal challenges proceed.
The White House celebrated the court’s ruling in a statement Thursday, saying it “lifted an illegitimate nationwide injunction,” and “in doing so has allowed vital border wall construction to move forward using military construction funds.”
“This is a victory for the rule of law,” the statement said. “We are committed to keeping our borders secure, and we will finish the wall.”
In recent weeks, Homeland Security officials have appeared to hedge against Trump’s construction targets. Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told reporters last month that the president’s goal posts likely are out of range.
“Our goal at the end of 2020 was 450 miles,” Morgan said. “It’s hard right now to be able to say whether we’re still going to be able to meet that goal, but I’m confident that we’re going to be close.”
Trump has designated Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, to oversee the project, with a particular focus on the vexing challenges of building new barriers along the Rio Grande in Texas. In addition to the engineering complexities of building a linear structure along a sinuous river and flood delta, the government needs to acquire private land from hundreds of property owners by making aggressive use of its condemnation authority.
Because the pace of construction has lagged in Texas, the administration has accelerated its efforts in western states, where most of the land along the border is already under federal control.
In those areas, crews are installing tall steel bollard fencing, roads and surveillance technology to replace smaller barriers that were designed to stop vehicles. Nearly all of the 100 miles of new fencing completed thus far is labeled “replacement barrier” by CBP, but the White House has asked the agency to stop using that term because it sounds like less of an accomplishment.
The 2020 budget approved by Congress last month included an additional $1.4 billion for border barrier construction. That is the same funding level Democrats agreed to last year but far less than the $5 billion the White House was seeking.
Kushner and other administration officials have discussed the possibility of diverting billions of dollars from military budgets again this year, and the ruling by the appeals court opens a path for the White House to take that course.