A judge stopped short of barring President Donald Trump from diverting billions of dollars in the federal budget to pay for his promised border wall, but ruled that plans to build sections of the barrier can't go forward without his review.
The injunction specifically prohibits the administration from starting work at two sites where contracts have been awarded, in Arizona and Texas. The two projects would replace 51 miles of border wall. Parties have been asked to appear again before U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam in Oakland, Calif., on June 5 to argue the merits for a more comprehensive injunction and a possible trial, according to the judge's order.
Gilliam ruled in response to lawsuits lodged by the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
Trump declared a national emergency in February after the Democratic-led House refused to fully pay for the border wall. The impasse led to a 35-day government shutdown. As a compromise on border and immigration enforcement, Congress set aside $1.375 billion to extend or replace existing barriers in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.
Trump grudgingly accepted the money, but he declared the emergency to siphon money from other government accounts because he wanted to spend $8 billion on wall construction. The funds include $3.6 billion from military construction funds, $2.5 billion from Defense Department counterdrug activities and $600 million from the Treasury Department's asset forfeiture fund.
Central to the Justice Department's argument was the idea that since Congress had not explicitly told Trump not to divert the funds from the 2019 budget, he was entitled to use his presidential powers to reallocate the money he needs to build sections of the wall. Gilliam rejected the argument.
This "does not square with fundamental separation of powers principles dating back to the earliest days of our Republic," Gilliam said in his 56-page opinion issued late Friday. "Congress's 'absolute' control over federal expenditures -- even when that control may frustrate the desires of the Executive Branch regarding initiatives it views as important -- is not a bug in our constitutional system."
"We welcome the court's decision to block Trump's attempts to sidestep Congress to build deadly walls that would hurt communities living at the border, endanger wildlife, and have damaging impacts on the environment," said Andrea Guerrero, a member of the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
The administration said Trump was protecting national security as unprecedented numbers of Central American asylum-seeking families arrive at the U.S. border.
The number of people attempting to cross the southwestern border has surged as violence, economic turmoil and climate change trigger crises in Mexico and its Central American neighbors, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. More than 109,000 people tried to cross in April, with 90% skirting official ports of entry, according to government data.
Trump has been unable to reach a consensus with a divided Congress on new immigration policies, and his latest plan for a comprehensive overhaul is getting a cold reception even within the ranks of Republican lawmakers.
The courtroom showdowns come during a flurry of activity to accelerate wall construction.
The Defense Department transferred $1 billion to border wall coffers in March and another $1.5 billion earlier this month. Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, is expected to decide soon whether to transfer an additional $3.6 billion.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently announced several large contracts with Pentagon funding. Last month, SLSCO Ltd. of Galveston, Texas, won a $789 million award to replace 46 miles of barrier in New Mexico.
Last week, Southwest Valley Constructors of Albuquerque, N.M., won a $646 million award to replace 63 miles in the Border Patrol's Tucson, Ariz., sector. Barnard Construction Co. of Bozeman, Mont., won a $141.8 million contract to replace 5 miles in Yuma and 15 miles in El Centro, Calif.
The administration has planned to use $601 million in Treasury Department money to extend barriers in the Rio Grande Valley.
The funds earmarked for reallocation are primarily coming from drug interdiction and enforcement activities. Court records show that the role of the military in construction of the wall is still under discussion.
Gilliam is likely to evaluate the legality of the funding for each project as it's proposed rather than issue the sweeping injunction sought by opponents of the wall, including the Sierra Club and a coalition of about 20 state attorneys general, among others.
The American Civil Liberties Union and 16 state attorneys general led the attack against the president's emergency declaration. The ACLU called Friday's order a win for checks and balances.
"The court blocked all the wall projects currently slated for immediate construction," said Dror Ladin, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project. "If the administration begins illegally diverting additional military funds, we'll be back in court to block that as well."
Information for this article was contributed by Kartikay Mehrotra of Bloomberg News; by Daisy Nguyen of The Associated Press; and by Fred Barbash of The Washington Post.
A Section on 05/25/2019
Print Headline: Judge blocks parts of border-wall plan but not siphoning of funds