We’re 3 weeks into the Biden administration. What’s happening with Trump’s border wall? How much got built? How much did it cost? How much is left unspent? How can we go about taking this down, or at least taking the most harmful parts down?
Here’s a new analysis at wola.org that shares answers to all these questions, to the best of my current knowledge based on a lot of document-digging and coalition work. Not to mention the diligent editing, presentation improvements, and communications support from the great team at WOLA.
Here’s a brief excerpt of the boring, numbers-filled part, plus a great infographic that our communications team designed. But do read the whole thing at WOLA’s website.
What got built, and what funds remain
The Trump administration managed to build 455 miles of wall along the border before January 20, leaving 703 of the U.S.-Mexico border’s 1,970 miles fenced off in some way. From past U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) updates we estimate that, of those 455 miles:
- 49 miles were built where no fencing existed before;
- 158 replaced existing, shorter pedestrian fencing;
- 193 replaced existing vehicle barrier; and
- 55 miles are new or replacement secondary fencing.
In all, then, the Trump administration built about 242 miles of fencing in places where it had previously been possible to walk across the border. The vast majority of the 455 miles are in Arizona and New Mexico.
The full amount of funding devoted to construction has totaled $16.45 billion between fiscal years 2017 and 2021. It was to build about 794 miles of wall. (That would be $20.7 million per mile.) Congress specifically approved only about one third of that amount ($5.8 billion). Trump wrested the remaining two-thirds from the budgets of the Defense and Treasury Departments.
Of that $16.45 billion, the amount that remains unspent—or that could be clawed back by canceling construction contracts—remains unclear. It’s one of the main things the new administration is trying to find out.
In-depth: Where the money for the wall came from
- $3.6 billion were taken in February 2019 from the Defense Department’s military construction funds. This was to build about 175 miles of border wall, of which about 87 had been completed as of January 8.
- In late 2018 and early 2019, Donald Trump allowed parts of the federal government to shut down for 35 days rather than sign a 2019 budget bill that didn’t meet his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding. Trump finally gave in, but shortly afterward—on February 15, 2019—he declared a “national emergency” that, he alleged, gave him the authority to transfer money from the Defense budget to build border barriers.
- The Pentagon saw $3.6 billion of its military construction plans cancelled or delayed as funds were transferred to the Homeland Security Department to build fencing.
- Though both houses of Congress twice voted to disapprove this “emergency,” they could not muster the two-thirds vote necessary to override Trump’s vetoes of their disapprovals.
- A challenge to this emergency continues to work its way through the courts, but the Supreme Court allowed building to continue while this happens.
- Because these funds were not appropriated by Congress, President Biden is not required to keep spending this money—and his January 20 proclamation, notified to Congress on February 10, rescinds Trump’s emergency declaration.
- $6.331 billion ($2.5 billion in 2019 and $3.831 billion in 2020) were transferred from elsewhere in the Defense Department budget into the Department’s counter-drug account. To do so, Trump used a recurring authority in the Defense Appropriations law (Section 8005), which allows the president to move up to $4 billion each year between Defense budget accounts to respond to “unforeseen” requirements. This maneuver was to provide funds to build about 291 miles of border wall, of which about 256 had been completed as of January 8.
- The Defense budget can be used to build walls, as long as the Department can claim there’s a counter-drug reason for doing so. Section 284(b)(7) of Title 10, U.S. Code, a piece of drug-war legislation that first passed a Democratic-majority Congress in 1990, allows the Defense Department to use its budget for “construction of roads and fences and installation of lighting to block drug smuggling corridors across international boundaries of the United States.”
- The Trump administration filled up the Defense counter-drug account with wall-building money by transferring it, in 2019 (here and here) and 2020, from many other defense priorities, ranging from equipment to aircraft procurement and much else.
- A challenge to this “unforeseen” transfer continues to work its way through the courts, but the Supreme Court allowed building to continue while this happens.
- Because these funds were not appropriated by Congress, President Biden is not required to keep spending this money.
- $601 million were taken in 2019 from the Treasury Department’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, the proceeds from assets seized from accused criminals or terrorists. It’s not clear how many miles of wall this has built or may build, as CBP’s reporting lumps this money together with congressionally appropriated money for 2019 discussed in the fourth category.
- Congress appropriated $5.841 billion in the Homeland Security components of the federal budgets for 2017 ($341 million) and 2018-2021 ($1.375 billion each). These appropriated funds, plus the Treasury funds in category three, were to pay for about 328 miles of wall (extrapolating from CBP’s most recent update and a January 20 Washington Post estimate), of which 110 miles have been built.
- Nearly all of what remains unbuilt from this category is in Texas, where most land abutting the border is privately owned.
- Because these funds were appropriated by Congress to build a “barrier system” at the border, the Biden administration needs to figure out how to avoid spending them on Trump’s border wall. These provisions, the Washington Post reported, “would potentially oblige the Biden administration to complete up to 227 additional miles of border wall.”
The four categories of border wall funding all add up to $16.373 billion (about $77 million short of the amount that a Senate staffer cited to the Associated Press on January 22). It would pay for 794 miles of wall, of which 455 were built.