Building Walls, Breaking Promises: Revisiting the US-Mexico Border under Biden


On October 5, 2023, the Biden administration announced a change to its approach towards the US-Mexico border wall that began construction under the previous Trump administration. The administration said it would build up to 20 miles of border barriers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, a confusing move given that, during his bid for the presidency, President Biden swore to never build another foot of the wall. 

This isn’t the first time Biden has gone back on his promise, as the administration has already completed some other smaller sections of the border wall. However, this would be the first major segment to begin construction on Biden’s watch and is particularly notable since the administration fast-tracked this process by waiving environmental and conservation laws for the first time to install new segments to the wall. When pressed by a reporter about whether he thinks the wall is an effective tool for stopping unauthorized migration, Biden said simply “No.” So why did the administration decide to move forward on this now?

The Biden administration’s explanation was that Congress appropriated money for these border wall segments in 2019 as part of the deal to end the last government shutdown, and although they tried to reprogram those funds, their attempt was rejected by lawmakers. The deadline to spend the already allocated money was September 30, which forced the administration to fast-track the process to move forward with the construction given there was not enough time to negotiate a new deal. The new segments will cost about $140 million to complete, and among the 26 environmental and cultural protections the administration waived are the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), on the other hand, took a different tune. According to the DHS, the number of migrants crossing the US.-Mexico border has risen steadily since the start of September. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said there is “an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States.” This rise comes partially because of new policies put in place by the Biden administration in May 2023, which initially kept the numbers of border crossings low. In May, the administration announced new policy changes that would make it harder for migrants to seek asylum at the US-Mexico border but easier for them to seek lawful entry to the US from their home countries. Some of these new policies include expanding the parole process for Nicaraguans, Haitians, and Cubans and increasing the cap on refugee resettlement to between 35,000 and 50,000 from the previous 15,000 for refugees from Latin American and Caribbean countries. Despite these new policy changes, the flow of people crossing the border has steadily increased since the end of the summer, ranging between 8,000 to 9,000 people crossing per day.

In a written statement to the Tufts Observer, sociology professor Adrian Cruz said, “A primary misconception/misunderstanding is that a border wall is effective in terms of curbing undocumented entry into the country.” Understanding the driving forces behind migration, however, provides insight into why border wall policy is as ineffective as it is harmful. “Most migration of folks into the US from a country, such as Mexico, is more so a reflection of conditions in the receiving country than anything else. So, labor market dynamics in the United States frequently drive the infusion of people into the country.”

The extension of the border wall will likely do little to stop this flow. In fact, it might exacerbate the already high loss of life at the border. According to a study conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the southern US-Mexico border saw 686 deaths in 2022, which the study described as an undercount. There have also been reports of dozens of migrants being killed and hospitalized after falling from the structure, often with spinal trauma and broken legs. These added barriers also force migrants who are seeking asylum towards more remote desert areas in search of easier routes, which may contribute to even more deaths from heat stroke and exposure. 

The border wall also has a substantial environmental toll. It has essentially cut the habitat of animal species in half and in some places will completely cut off access to water sources and grazing areas. Trail cameras set up by researchers have shown pumas, bobcats, and other large mammals blocked while trying to navigate across the border wall. Additionally, new construction will affect areas where the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe and other tribes source peyote, a cactus plant native to Mexico and southwestern Texas, for sacramental use. 

“Border walls may strike some Americans out there as ‘good immigration policy,’ but border walls are actually counterproductive and hurt both the US and Mexico,” said Cruz.

Biden’s 180-degree action shift on the border wall policy most likely will not go over well with some Democrats in the upcoming 2024 election, particularly amongst young voters. Like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York pointed out, the Biden administration did not have to waive the environmental laws to expedite the border wall construction. His administration could have taken a stalling approach instead of expediting the process, which further demonstrates the hypocrisy on part of his administration. 

“It’s hard to know how President Biden will be affected in a 2024 presidential campaign, but if his opponent is Donald Trump, then we already know part of the answer to this question. For Donald Trump, bigoted rhetoric in regard to migrants at the border is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Cruz.“A staple Trumpian tactic is to stoke the flames of racist xenophobia. And Biden will have to confront this problem once again [in 2024].”

These changes come on the heels of many states like Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts asking for help from the Biden administration in addressing the recent migrant influx. In Chicago, the mayor’s office said that they have had to open new shelters every six days to keep up with the increasing demand. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams moved to challenge the legal agreement that requires the city to provide emergency housing to anyone who asks for it; at the same time, he embarked on a four-day trip through Latin America where he discouraged people from coming to New York, saying that the city’s shelter system is at capacity and cannot accommodate them. 

“Besides President Biden’s reversal of his campaign promise to not extend the border wall, Democratic mayors and governors declaring migratory crises across the country will only add controversy to this migratory issue [in 2024],” said Latin American Committee member and junior Justin Perez in a written statement to the Tufts Observer. 

In Massachusetts, the migrant crisis has become so acute that on August 8, Governor Maura Healey declared a state of emergency that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had planned a visit to Boston to assess the situation on October 10 and 11. The itinerary for the trip was not made public, and state and federal officials have yet to disclose specific details and the conclusion of the DHS visit. As of Thursday, October 12, more than 6,900 newly arrived immigrant families were staying in emergency shelters. 3,171 of these families are living in hotels, 3,626 are living in traditional shelters, and 108 are living at Joint Base Cape Cod and a Quincy College dorm.

Although states like Massachusetts have a reputation for being more “immigrant friendly,” there are not enough resources “especially in regard to accessible healthcare, affordable housing, and food insecurity,” which means “many immigrant families have been left without proper shelter or enough food to eat,” said senior Megan Starses, who was an intern at the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing over the summer and who was a firsthand witness to the impacts of the influx of migrants into Massachusetts. “This has not only put excess strain on immigrant-focused nonprofits to try and solve this housing crisis, but it has also caused much unneeded difficulty for the migrant community they are trying to serve.”

The fact that states are feeling overwhelmed in their capacity to help newly-arrived immigrant families while the federal government is utilizing tax dollars to continue to build the wall illustrates that “our immigration system is definitely flawed and was built on the exclusionary premise that only some immigrants are desirable,” said Starses. How, then, do we go about addressing the recent influx of migrants into the United States? To some, policy actions addressing the situation must include a reckoning with America’s role in the international system. Given that the US is nicknamed the world’s “melting pot,” it’s important to recognize that “the United States has long been the destination of migrants seeking a better life or refugees escaping persecution,” said Perez. “Reactionary xenophobic and nativist ideologies that schematically arise upon migration movements into the US can no longer be accepted. Americans must erase anti-migrant rhetoric and realize the importance of migration in maintaining economic and population growth.” 

“[We] have an obligation to newly arrived immigrants,” said Starses, as “access to basic needs like food, shelter, and linguistically and culturally appropriate healthcare shouldn’t even be a question.” The answer, then, seems to lie partially in addressing the misconceptions that fuel policy decisions like the continuation of the border wall construction and stir up feelings of xenophobia amongst Americans. 

“Americans must come to terms with our neighbors to the south and embrace a productive relationship with them,” said Cruz. “We must understand that if things get bad for them, then they get bad for us. If conditions improve for them, conditions improve for us. We are tethered to each other, and we must accept that and operate with that reality in mind.”