LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
OK. With Joe Biden on his way to the White House, what's to become of Donald Trump's controversial wall along the U.S.-Mexico border? Biden said this when I interviewed him last August.
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PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN: There will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it is not his administration yet. And as NPR's John Burnett reports, the Trump administration is going full steam ahead.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: By all accounts, Trump's border wall builders are hurrying to get as many miles completed before the next president could cancel their contracts. In Guadalupe Canyon and the Coronado National Memorial in southern Arizona, work crews are dynamiting the sides of pristine mountains and bulldozing access roads in this stunning landscape.
LAIKEN JORDAHL: And every single day, the Department of Homeland Security continues to dynamite, to blow up, these rugged mountains in order to clear a path for a wall that, in all likelihood, will never be built.
BURNETT: Laiken Jordahl is with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.
JORDAHL: So now it's just destruction for destruction's sake.
BURNETT: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the wall project, said it expects contractors to continue work and, quote, "it will not speculate on actions the administration may or may not take." Trump has beat back nearly every court challenge to his signature border wall. Currently, 11 different contractors are at work on 27 separate construction contracts, including the ones in Arizona. Fifteen billion dollars has been set aside for the gargantuan project, more than the price tag for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Cranes and concrete trucks are erecting steel panels from the subtropics of the Texas Gulf all the way to the Pacific hills of San Diego. Last month, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf stood beside the wall in the Rio Grande Valley to announce the completion of nearly 400 miles.
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CHAD WOLF: And while this is an important milestone, we're building even more wall. Currently, we have nearly 210 more miles under construction and expect to complete 450 miles by the end of this calendar year.
BURNETT: And the pace is quickening even after the election. Roberto Lopez is with the Texas Civil Rights Project that represents landowners fighting the government. He says federal lawyers are now filing what's called a motion for immediate possession to aggressively seize land for the border wall.
ROBERTO LOPEZ: We're still seeing filings. We're still seeing this happen. And the government isn't stopping or slowing. It seems like they're trying to speed up.
BURNETT: A case in point, the Salineno Reserve (ph) in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Scott Nicol is a longtime conservation activist in the region.
SCOTT NICOL: The Salineno Preserve in Starr County, which is 2 1/2 acres of some of the best bird habitat, brings in birders from all over the country and all over the world, has been acquired by the Army Corps of Engineers and is set to be destroyed for the border wall.
BURNETT: After a public outcry, the owners of the preserve decided to cancel the whole deal and fight the government to keep out the bulldozers. A spokesman with Customs and Border Protection said they have no plans to stop construction of the border wall because of Biden's election. Quote, "these barriers have proved to be a critical component in gaining operational control of the border." Immigration hawks want President Biden to keep building Trump's border wall. They want Biden to do the same thing that President Obama did when he allowed border fence contracts signed under President Bush to be completed.
DAVID AGUILAR: It should not be a, hey, I made a political commitment. And therefore, on January 20 at 12:01, I'm shutting this down. I would have to say that's irresponsible.
BURNETT: David Aguilar was chief of the Border Patrol when Obama came in.
AGUILAR: What needs to happen is take a step back, take a look at what is in place and what the appropriate path forward should be.
BURNETT: But Representative Henry Cuellar needs Biden to stand by his pledge not to build another foot of border wall. The Laredo Democrat says this is what he'll ask of the incoming administration.
HENRY CUELLAR: One, tell the Department of Justice to stop all the condemnation suits. And the second thing is send another instruction to the Army Corps of Engineers to tell all those contractors to stop the construction of the wall.
BURNETT: In Texas, where most of the border lands are in private hands, the wall's progress has been slowed down by a tedious legal condemnation process. The government has contracted 121 miles of wall in the Laredo region, but they haven't acquired a single acre to put it on. Lots of landowners fought the government in court, and the delay tactics worked, says Tricia Cortez with the local No Border Wall Coalition.
TRICIA CORTEZ: Our coalition feels confident that the wall is dead and that nothing more will happen between now and the inauguration.
BURNETT: That comes as a huge relief to Sacred Heart Children's Home, which is situated right on the Rio Grande. The giant barrier, with its hundred-foot-wide enforcement zone, would have plowed right through the riverside campus of the Catholic orphanage. Tomas Rodriguez Jr., a board member, says Biden's election is the answer to a prayer.
TOMAS RODRIGUEZ: I'm very happy for that. The wall, it seems, will not be built. And that would help our cause 'cause we would not lose any property. And we would be able to help young boys and young girls.
BURNETT: That is, if Joe Biden follows through on his promise to stop Donald Trump's wall and abandon the unfinished project in the borderlands.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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