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Defense Department slams brakes on border wall as it reviews Biden order

The Defense Department will pause construction of the wall along the US-Mexico border as it reviews President Joe Biden’s executive order calling for construction to grind to a halt.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which provides direction and oversight of border projects, “will take the appropriate actions in accordance with the (executive order),” said Raini Brunson, a spokesperson for the agency, later adding that contractors involved in construction have been told not to install any additional physical barriers.

“Only construction activity that is necessary to safely prepare each site for a suspension of work will occur over the next few days,” Brunson said.

Biden took an immediate shot at one of his predecessor’s key legacies Wednesday evening when he signed a proclamation calling for border wall construction to come to an end.

“It shall be the policy of my Administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall,” Biden’s proclamation reads.

Over the last four years, billions of dollars had been put aside for additional barriers on the US-Mexico border, prompting a slew of lawsuits and pushback from environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers. Days from the end of his term, former President Donald Trump paid the wall a visit, citing it as an accomplishment of his administration.

The majority of the roughly 455 miles constructed during Trump’s presidency replaced old, dilapidated barriers with a new enhanced wall system, a marked difference from the fencing previously constructed in some regions. Forty-nine miles have gone up where no barriers previously existed, according to the latest figures from US Customs and Border Protection.

“(Wednesday’s) proclamation will likely result in what’s called a suspension of work on the border wall,” said Travis Sharp, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “During the suspension of work, the contractor must keep track of any additional expenses caused by the delay, so that the government can potentially reimburse those expenses later.”

A federal judge in California has already directed the administration to provide an update on how the new executive order affects an ongoing border wall case.

The government has a long-standing authority to terminate contracts, though such actions can come with their own challenges and at a cost, according to contracting experts. There are costs incurred before construction starts, such as planning costs, land acquisitions and manufacturing expenses and pre-positioning equipment. If contracts are terminated, there may also be the need to pay costs associated with cleanup, demobilization and potentially restoration of land for safety and environmental reasons. The costs will ultimately depend on the size of the contract and how much of the project has been completed so far.

Former acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan acknowledged those challenges as the administration moved to strike additional contracts. “They could terminate those contracts if they want to, but that’s going to be a very lengthy, messy process,” Morgan said late last year.

Part of the obstacles facing the Biden administration has to do with cases seeking to seize private land for wall construction. To that end, Ricky Garza, a staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, a legal advocacy group representing landowners in land seizure cases, called the proclamation “disappointing.”

“Biden as a candidate pledged not to build another foot, dismiss lawsuits. That’s what a lot of us were counting on,” Garza said. “There haven’t been any new lawsuits, but in the 200-plus that exist, there’s been a steady drumbeat that things are moving. … It’s as if nothing has changed.”

In December, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas sent a letter to Biden, along with other lawmakers, urging his team to immediately prioritize ending the national emergency declaration, dismissing land seizure lawsuits, terminating wall contracts and rescinding environmental waivers.

Cuellar expressed confidence in the proclamation released by the Biden White House Wednesday.

“That executive order is very important because it terminates the national emergency declaration that allowed Trump to grab money from other departments,” Cuellar told CNN. “The President definitely has met my expectations and I’m very, very happy about that.”

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