Early this year, Ricky Garza believed a Joe Biden presidency would mean the end of border-wall expansion. He knew—as most today do not—that Biden had served as vice president in an administration that erected more than twice as many miles of entirely new wall than the Donald Trump administration did. But Garza, an attorney with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project who represents clients who are fighting government attempts to seize their land for the wall, was encouraged by Biden’s campaign promise that he would halt those efforts.
Then one day in May, the bulldozers started rumbling again in South Texas. It wasn’t long before eighteen-foot-tall concrete levee walls, with rust-hued bollards that rise an additional six feet, were sprouting up across Hidalgo County, home to McAllen. “It was a betrayal of his promise,” Garza said of Biden’s campaign pledge.
Administration officials see it differently. On Inauguration Day, the administration paused wall expansion. Then, in the spring, Hidalgo County officials grumbled that the abrupt end to construction had been haphazard: contractors had abandoned projects after having blown open Rio Grande flood-control levees to make room for heavy machinery. With gaps in the levee system and hurricane season fast approaching, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told federal officials that if they did not assist him, he would fix the walls and send them the bill. Hidalgo County officials identified four major breaches in need of immediate repair, and those areas were patched up by the end of May.
In June, the Department of Homeland Security formally committed to ending new wall projects to the extent permitted by law, while carving out an exception for “discrete projects” deemed urgent because of immediate physical dangers. Those projects included 13.4 miles of levees in the Valley. According to Rod Kise, the Customs and Border Protection public affairs officer for the Rio Grande Valley, the six-foot bollards atop the walls are guardrails meant for the safety of CBP agents, which distinguishes them from the fifteen-foot bollards that top levee walls the Trump administration built. “This work, which should be completed next spring, is not going to involve any expanding of the border barrier,” Kise told me.
Activists and environmental groups, however, don’t believe that the new construction is intended only to patch breaks in the levees. “They’re trying to pull one over on us, building shorter border walls and pretending they’re something different,” Garza said. “We’re not that stupid.” In late August, I visited the site of one levee-wall project in Mission, near Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park, with Scott Nicol, an environmental activist who opposes border walls. Standing atop the shorn edge of the earthen levee, it was hard to disagree with Garza’s blunt assessment. Half of the original levee had been cut away to make room for sections of concrete wall that were going up at staggered intervals. When complete, the Mexico-facing side of the wall will be a concrete cliff, while the U.S.-facing side will remain an earthen slope. The design is a common one, the result of a compromise between county officials and the Bush administration in the late 2000s, explained Cortez. “The rationale back then was ‘If you’re going to build a wall, why don’t you do it in conjunction with helping us build some flood levees?’ ” he said.
As the construction crew in front of us prepared to pour the concrete foundation for a new section of wall, Nicol called my attention to a backhoe digging into a portion of the earthen levee in the distance. The levee had a thick grass cover. “There’s nothing wrong with this levee,” Nicol said. “It absolutely doesn’t need to be fixed.”
Many local residents, including Garza and Nicol, hoped Biden would end the wall construction altogether. Garza wanted properties the government had seized—which include some of the plots where the levee walls are being built—returned to their original owners. But when a federal judge in April granted the government immediate possession of one family’s property in Mission, Garza began to worry that no policy change had occurred after all.
In July and August, the administration canceled a pair of contracts for 31 miles of wall planned for Laredo, returned land to a few Rio Grande Valley landowners, and dismissed lawsuits to take the land of another. But it has left the fate of about a hundred eminent-domain lawsuits, filed by owners resisting seizure of their land, up in the air. Outlined in its June border wall announcement, the administration said it would have to take a closer look at those suits before deciding how to proceed. In some cases, it might return land to prior owners or it might modify construction plans set in motion during the Trump administration, but it also left open the possibility of building more sections of wall. “They’re continuing to fight these land-condemnation cases,” Garza said. “If they weren’t going to continue building, why would they do that?” (A pair of federal agencies in charge of border-wall projects, CBP and DHS, did not respond to requests for interviews regarding the pending lawsuits, while a third, the Department of Justice, declined to answer questions.)
Pressure from border-security contractors may be keeping proposed wall projects alive, according to Reece Jones, an expert on border barriers. “There is a lot of money in security contracting and a lot of money flowing from Congress towards border security,” said Jones, chair of the department of geography and environment at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. “There is pressure to spend it on infrastructure and not enough political will to say no.” According to the Transnational Institute, a research and advocacy organization in Amsterdam, between 2008 and 2020, the border-security and immigration-detention industry took in $55.1 billion worth of contracts from CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Biden received about $5.3 million in campaign contributions from the industry, more than three times what Trump got.
Jones suggested another explanation for why Biden’s border policies may seem to be at odds with his campaign rhetoric. “The border is the number one issue for the right, so it is a place that Democrats feel vulnerable,” he said. Governor Greg Abbott in particular has made border security a central policy objective, dedicating $250 million of state money and $54 million more in donations to build fences and walls along the border; so far, about 2.3 miles of barrier have gone up 350 miles west of Mission in Val Verde County, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Those on the ground fighting eminent-domain cases, including Garza, said not much has changed since Trump left the White House. Garza is negotiating with the same Justice Department attorneys and awaiting trial in the same federal courts as he and his clients did during the previous administration. The only difference, he said, is that there’s less outrage at new construction—and less support for his cause. “We weren’t fighting Trump because he’s Trump; we were fighting Trump policies,” Garza said. But many of the voices that opposed Trump’s wall have fallen silent with Biden in charge. Garza has been trying to raise the alarm. “Border walls, militarization, deterrence, expelling migrants—all of this stuff harms our communities, regardless of who does it or what you call it,” Garza said.