After pledging not to build up Trump's border wall, Biden's intentions remain unclear
Landowners at the border are getting mixed messages as a political storm brews.
For years, Nora Garza and her husband Delfino have fought with the Justice Department and Army Corps of Engineers over 30 acres of land near the U.S.-Mexico border in Rio Grande City, Texas -- a parcel sought by the Trump administration for construction of the border wall.
But they stopped hearing from the government "right before the election," Garza told ABC News.
After running for office vowing not to build "another foot" of Donald Trump's wall, President Joe Biden signed an order on Inauguration Day ending the national emergency at the border and launching a 60-day review of the project, pausing all construction and calling for a plan to redirect unspent funds.
Nearly a month after that 60-day mark, the wall's future remains in limbo and the review continues, according to a White House official, as the Biden administration struggles to address competing pressures over Trump's signature project meant to prevent the very flow of illegal migration Biden is now working to contain. The issue, together with Biden's recent wavering on the number of refugees allowed into the United States, is another example of the administration's ongoing struggle to chart its immigration policies.
"The 60-day window has come and gone," said Luke Ellis, a Texas attorney representing border landowners in court. "The most recent update we have from the lawyers for the government ... is that they still don't know what is going to happen."
From Arizona to Texas, construction on sections of the border wall continued up until Biden took office on Jan. 20. In some places, materials and equipment were abandoned abruptly. Isolated 30-foot steel bollards stand on the border in between large gaps in the wall, as ABC News recently saw on reporting trips to the border in southern Texas.
The Biden administration froze all ongoing work in its review, and has sought to slow legal proceedings in court, where, in Texas, there are more than 140 active eminent domain cases, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project.
"The President has been very clear on the record that he's committed to no longer confiscating land," said Laura Peña, an attorney with the nonprofit group, which has called on Biden to keep his campaign pledge to "withdraw" the lawsuits and return property to landowners. "From our perspective, this has felt like a major betrayal."
Last week, a judge allowed the government to seize 6 acres of land from the Cavazos family, in Mission, Texas, property on the Rio Grande River the family has rented out to tenants for decades.
Jose "Fred" Cavazos, a 71-year-old member of the family, told ABC News he is disappointed by the judge's ruling, and the Biden administration's continued pursuit of his land.
"It's like he's making a U-turn," Cavazos said of Biden. "Why say 'no more walls' if he doesn't mean it?"
A Justice Department official told ABC News the Biden administration has moved to delay the court cases started under the previous administration for the duration of the ongoing review, and that the motion for possession granted last week was filed in 2020, not by the Biden administration.
"DOJ sought continuances in pending cases, including in this case, in which the government had previously filed motions for possession of land on the southwest border, in light of President Biden's Proclamation terminating the national emergency at the southern border of the United States and directing 'a careful review of all resources appropriated or redirected to construct a southern border wall,'" the official said.
Adding to the mixed messages to landowners, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently told agency employees that construction may resume to plug some of the "gaps" along the wall, according to the Washington Times. Agency spokespeople did not respond to questions about the secretary's reported comments and about areas where construction is continuing.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently distanced the president from the project but did not affirm Biden's campaign trail promise.
"There are some components of the wall that had already been allocated, the funding, to continue building by Congress. So we are working within what is allowable, but our focus is not -- we do not believe the wall is in answer," Psaki told ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega.
"There is some limited construction that has been funded and allocated for, but it is otherwise paused," Psaki said.
Biden's first budget proposal to Congress requested "no additional funding" for the wall and asked lawmakers to cancel any unspent funds at the end of 2021.
With a growing number of migrants seeking to enter the U.S. from the southwest border, some Democrats want Biden to tear Trump's wall down, while others suggest that he should at least complete some of the unfinished work -- leaving the Biden administration in a difficult situation as it seeks to focus on the COVID-19 response and Biden's major infrastructure plan push on Capitol Hill.
Republicans have seized on the rising number of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border and the scenes of overcrowded government processing centers to criticize Biden's approach to immigration -- and push back on his border wall pledge.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who visited the border in southern Texas with 17 other GOP colleagues, told ABC News that border security officials told lawmakers migrants were taking advantage of the gaps in the wall around the McAllen, Texas area.
Senate Republicans have called on the Government Accountability Office to assess whether the Biden administration violated the Impoundment Control Act - a 1974 law at the heart of the first impeachment case against Trump, that limits a president's power to withhold funds.
While Democrats and Republicans agree Biden can redirect billions Trump diverted from the Pentagon to fund the project, Republicans argue that unspent wall funds approved by Congress can only be used for their original purpose.
A spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget said Biden's actions were consistent with appropriations law.
Push to abandon the wall
With little clarity as to the status of the wall or timetable for an announcement, Democrats and activists are intent on keeping Biden to his campaign commitment to stop construction.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a leading House progressive, has called on Biden to tear down the entire project.
"The wall is a monument of xenophobia and hatred that does nothing to address the root causes of migration and asylum claims -- violence and unrest in the countries of origin that the United States has often exacerbated," Omar, a former refugee from Somalia, said in a statement.
On the other side of the party, border Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said Biden should determine whether to tear down or continue building portions of the wall on a "case-by-case basis."
He said the administration should redirect wall funds to technology and other border infrastructure and warned that Democrats could be punished by voters in the 2022 midterms for not taking a tougher position on border security in light of the migrant crisis and ongoing GOP attacks.
More than 172,000 migrants were taken into government custody at the southwest border in March, according to Customs and Border Protection, the largest single-month total in nearly two decades.
Garza, the vineyard owner whose husband's family has owned their parcel of land for hundreds of years, called on the Biden administration to stop the wall project and return land that had already been seized.
"They should just cease and desist. No more walls. People are going to get over it anyway. You've seen them drop the babies," she said.
Regardless of what Biden decides to do with the wall, Ellis, the Texas attorney representing landowners in court, anticipated that it would take "quite a while" for his administration to disentangle itself from Trump's wall.
"It's not as easy as the government saying we're picking up stakes, we're done," he said. "There will still be more litigation over some of the negative consequences of what they've done to property owners."
ABC News' Quinn Owen and Luke Barr contributed to this report.