Joe Biden is building a wall. Though he claims he had no choice and that it won’t work, his administration waived 26 environmental and cultural regulations to speed construction of 20 miles of what it euphemistically calls a “border barrier system” in Starr County, Texas. Biden told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro in August 2020 that “There will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration.” In fact, at least 105,600 feet of wall will be constructed in the Rio Grande Valley on his watch.

Biden also said in 2020 that “a wall will do little to deter criminals and cartels seeking to exploit our border.” Left unsaid was the very real possibility of terrorists infiltrating our borders, a concern that Biden and other Democrats routinely brush aside, despite the obvious threat—a threat now looming much larger in American minds, given Hamas’s carnage in Israel.

The president claims that he had to acquiesce, since Congress had already appropriated money for border-wall construction. He told NPR: “Well, I was told I had no choice, that Congress passes legislation to build something. I can’t say ‘I don’t like it, I’m not going to do it.’”

But experts say Biden could have slow-walked the border wall’s construction. Jonathan Entin, a law and political science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, told the BBC that Biden’s budget argument might be “legally correct,” but the president didn’t have to speed up the wall’s construction by waiving federal laws. Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Texas, agreed. “The Biden administration has managed to drag its feet on a number of issues that have to do with a wall, even if the money was there,” he informed the BBC. “He doesn’t have to spend it, at least not now.”

Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. secretary of homeland security, insists that the Biden administration hasn’t changed its border-wall policy. He also said, however, that “an acute and immediate need” exists for barriers “to prevent unlawful entries into the United States.” His claim that this does not represent a policy change suggests that the administration wants to have it both ways: on one hand, it fears admitting a policy change would infuriate the progressive base; on the other, it knows that allowing the embarrassing tide of migrants to continue unimpeded could cost Democrats the 2024 election. 

Mayorkas has also flip-flopped on Venezuelan migrants. Two weeks ago, the administration granted temporary protected status to nearly 500,000 Venezuelan migrants already here on the grounds that “extraordinary and temporary conditions continue to prevent Venezuelan nationals from returning in safety.” Less than two weeks later, Mayorkas announced that the administration would resume deporting Venezuelans back to their home country. “We have made a determination it is safe to return Venezuelan nationals who arrived in the United States subsequent to July 31 and do not have a legal basis to remain here,” he said.

Nick Miroff, who covers the Department of Homeland Security for the Washington Post, told NPR that the administration’s explanation for its apparent border-wall-policy change doesn’t add up. “Since when has the fear of a lawsuit ever stopped this administration from going forward with the immigration policies it wants to pursue?” he said. “This administration is facing a number of lawsuits over its border and immigration policies in many different places.”

Art Del Cueto, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, told NPR that the president’s move came too late and said the administration must realize that it was wrong on the wall. Polling indicates most Americans agree; a recent Reuters/IPSOS poll put Biden’s immigration approval rating at 28 percent, while a Fox News poll puts it at a marginally better but still poor 35 percent.

The administration’s own data demonstrate that it knows the border is in shambles. As Fox News reporter Bill Melugin pointed out, 1.5 million known “gotaways” (migrants who evaded capture at the border) have entered the U.S since the start of 2021; together, they could fill the Rose Bowl 16 times. Customs and Border Protections officers have arrested 151 suspects on the FBI’s terrorism watch list so far in fiscal year 2023, a 54 percent increase over last year. Those figures include the arrest of an unnamed Afghan national apprehended in the San Diego sector in May.

We obviously have no idea how many terrorists could be included among the gotaways, but it’s worth underscoring that the assault on our borders is far less Latin-centric and much more global than it once was. According to NBC News, the number of apprehended migrants from the Eastern Hemisphere—which includes the Middle East and Africa—more than doubled, from 110,000 in fiscal year 2022 to 228,000 so far in 2023. No doubt most of these people are economic migrants, but the bulk also come from undeveloped countries with poor recordkeeping, so while some migrants don’t have what CBP officers call “hits” in the computer indicating prior arrests—or worse, a match on FBI or other law enforcement databases—that doesn’t mean that we can be confident that said migrants from Somalia or Mauritania or Yemen are harmless.

Twenty miles of wall is a good start and a symbolic victory for sanity, but 20 miles on a 1,954-mile border won’t be transformative, and it’s unclear how long construction will take. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador candidly summarized the situation last Friday after a visit from a delegation of U.S. cabinet officials. “It’s pure publicity,” he said. “They don’t want to [build more sections of the wall]. That’s what they told us.” 

Other wall critics aren’t taking it so well. The fact that the administration is waiving the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, among others, has enraged a coalition of left-wing groups, according to the Guardian and other news outlets. Juan Mancias, chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe, accuses Biden of “furthering a genocide” against his people. Environmental groups complain that the construction will endanger ocelots, a spotted wildcat, and two plants, the Zapata bladderpod and the prostrate milkweed.

You can tell more about an administration’s priorities by what it does right after an election, not when facing reelection. The administration’s moves in Biden’s first year in office signaled to the world that the border was opening, a message heard from the streets of Port au Prince to Pristina and beyond. As Andrew Arthur, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, pointed out in a New York Post column, one of Biden’s first actions as president was to suspend border-wall construction, though Congress had already appropriated billions for it.

Biden’s “not one foot” pledge will likely be remembered alongside other important broken presidential promises, such as George H. W. Bush’s no-new-taxes promise, Barack Obama’s “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” Obamacare fib, Jimmy Carter’s promise to solve the energy crisis, and Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson’s pledges to keep us out of the First World War and the Vietnam War, respectively. Still, the optimistic take is that, even if Biden himself isn’t admitting it, at least some key administration officials have come around to reality on border security. We’ll see how Biden explains it to voters when campaign season begins. 

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next