WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is seeking new authority to acquire land near the Southern border with Mexico as part of its plan to quickly build immigration barriers, angering activists who said it would violate liberties and endanger the environment as a cost of fulfilling the president’s campaign promise.
The proposed changes are outlined in a border security budget document that was prepared by an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. It was delivered to Congress last week in a funding request asking for $33 billion for border security over the next decade, including $18 billion for a nearly 1,000-mile wall on the Mexican border that President Donald Trump has made a top priority to combat illegal immigration.
The department already has sweeping authority exempting it from a wide range of federal regulations that would otherwise limit its ability to build border fencing and access roads, or add sensors and cameras on land. It is unclear why the requested changes are needed, and a Customs and Border Security spokesman declined to discuss the proposal, “as a matter of policy.”
The budget document said the proposal would “clarify and expand” the Homeland Security secretary’s authority to waive federal laws to quickly build border walls. It also is asking Congress for permission to no longer have to work with other federal agencies, such as the National Park Service, to use lands for security purposes.
The document said the change in the department’s authority would allow a “more expedited acquisition” of land and “eliminate certain geography limitations.” The current system, the document said, “can hamper or delay border security activities.”
Democrats have already cast doubt the budget proposal will be approved, describing it as unrealistic.
Civil rights and environmental groups called the proposal outrageous, noting the department already has nearly unlimited authority to waive federal regulations governing land use. Among the laws that the Homeland Security secretary can waive are the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Eagle Protection Act.
“They already have the broadest authority given to an agency by Congress and they want to expand it?” said Efrén C. Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project in Alamo, Texas. The group has represented landowners opposed to a border wall. “This should set off all kinds of red flags.”
Environmental groups said the border walls would not only militarize the Southern border and violate the civil liberties of communities there, but also jeopardize wildlife and endangered species in the region.
“The administration will stop at nothing to fulfill a political promise to build a border wall that won’t stop drugs or migration,” said Brian Segee, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the Trump administration in April over border wall prototypes in San Diego.
Previous Homeland Security secretaries have repeatedly used the department’s existing authorities to waive regulations, including to build border barriers.
Michael Chertoff, who served that role under President George W. Bush, exempted the department five times between 2005 and 2008, waiving at least 36 federal laws to build most of the nearly 700 miles of border walls that are still in use.
More recently, John Kelly, who was Trump’s Homeland Security secretary before becoming the White House chief of staff, waived environmental and other laws last year to build prototype border walls, access roads and replacement fencing in the San Diego area.
In its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego, the Center for Biological Diversity argued that the Trump administration had failed to study the environmental impact of wall prototypes before gearing up for their construction.
The lawsuit challenges Homeland Security’s authority to waive more than 30 environmental laws. It said the waiver used to build the prototypes is unconstitutional and oversteps the executive branch’s reach.
Eight border wall prototypes were completed last October. Homeland Security officials said the prototypes would be tested over the next few months to determine which worked best in curbing illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
On Monday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus filed an amicus brief in support of the Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuit against the Trump administration’s border wall and prototype projects near San Diego.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a similar constitutional challenge by environmental groups and members of Congress to the Homeland Security Department’s waiver authority.