Partisan divides emerge over border infrastructure

Ground sensors, drones and other tech could end up in Biden's border infrastructure request. But what about that wall?

The border wall stretches along the U.S.-Mexico border on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The border wall stretches along the U.S.-Mexico border on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 6, 2021 at 6:00am

President Joe Biden is calling for $1.2 billion in border infrastructure spending for the next fiscal year as his administration works to address record-high migration numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Democratic and Republican lawmakers have vastly different ideas of what that funding should look like, teeing up a partisan battle when the narrowly divided Congress considers its annual spending bills.

In a preview of his fiscal 2022 budget request released last month, Biden called for modernization of land ports of entry, investments in modern border security technology, and resources to ensure the safe and humane treatment of migrants in Customs and Border Protection custody — but no new funding for a border wall. A more comprehensive budget request is expected later this month.

"Clearly we need to use better technology," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman and chief sponsor of Biden's comprehensive immigration legislation (S 348). "At the end of the day, we need to have area vehicles, satellite, the ability to interface with Border Patrol and Customs, and so I'm open to whatever it is. We're not building a wall."

Republicans, meanwhile, say Biden's decision to halt border wall construction immediately after his inauguration was a mistake. Many conservative lawmakers contend that the suspension violated federal law against executive branch overreach into congressional funding decisions, a question currently being investigated by the Government Accountability Office.

"I believe we need to, at least, extend the money that we've appropriated to the wall," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., ranking member of the Senate Appropriations homeland security panel.

"I would heavily encourage continuation of technology," Capito added, "and the things that we know are helping stretch our border agents' ability to really deter and to disrupt."

At the border, technology means license plate and document readers and surveillance methods like night vision technology, ground sensors and drones. These kinds of investments typically win bipartisan support.

"In Arizona, we need a secure border, and that includes money for infrastructure technology," said Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.

But the border wall — or lack of it — presents a much thornier debate. During the Trump administration, the border frequently emerged as one of the most contentious issues in debates over annual government spending, with Democrats and Republicans duking it out over the controversial border wall.

The last Homeland Security spending bill (PL 116-260), signed into law in December, provided nearly $1.4 billion for the border wall.

But Biden has taken steps to end a project that most Democrats staunchly oppose. In addition to his initial construction halt, the Pentagon has begun the process of canceling contracts for border wall construction that used funds the Trump administration diverted from other Defense Department projects.

A Biden administration official said last week that to the extent possible, what remains of the more than $14 billion tied up in border wall projects would be restored for use as Congress intended.

Before Trump took office, the wall carried less political baggage: Both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations contributed to its construction.

"It's become politicized," said Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "If you build a wall, you're for border security. If you don't build a wall, you're against border security. I think that's a false choice."

Brown said a border wall should be viewed as just one component of broader border security infrastructure, particularly when many migrants attempting to cross the border are families and children seeking asylum.  

"A wall is not a solution," she said. "It is a part of an integrated system … but particularly when it comes to migration management, it's not that effective."

But Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union representing border patrol agents, said a border wall "allows us to dictate where illegal immigration takes place," allowing agents to direct their resources toward specific places along the border.

"I don't think that $1.2 billion is going to do it," Judd added, calling for more resources to process migrants who arrive at the border.

The historically high migration numbers present a challenge for appropriators, who so far have dismissed the idea of a supplemental appropriations bill to fund the government's response at the border. In order to accommodate thousands of migrant children currently in Department of Health and Human Services care, the Biden administration has set up several new emergency intake sites.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents encountered a migrant at the border more than 172,000 times, including 18,890 unaccompanied minors, the highest number of encounters in a single month in at least a decade.

Brown suggested border infrastructure be updated to reflect the demographic reality of today's migrants: more families fleeing Central America, fewer single adults from Mexico.

"They are facing a situation right now where the traditional Border Patrol facilities and ports of entry are not conducive to the arrival of asylum seekers, particularly vulnerable families and children," she said.

"So, what I would hope is that they are looking at creating new types of facilities along the border, other than just Border Patrol holding facilities, that can be more welcoming and provide better treatment."

Lindsey McPherson and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.