From 2017 through January 2021, federal agencies built about 450 miles of barriers along the U.S. Southwest border. To expedite construction, they waived federal environmental and other laws.
The construction harmed some cultural and natural resources, for example, by blasting at a tribal burial site and altering water flows.
Before building, the Department of Homeland Security assessed some potential effects of the construction. But federal officials and stakeholders said they didn't get enough information from DHS to give meaningful input.
Our recommendations include evaluating lessons learned from this process to inform any future work.
What GAO Found
The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Defense (DOD) installed about 458 miles of border barrier panels across the southwest border from January 2017 through January 2021. Most (81 percent) of the miles of panels replaced existing barriers. The agencies installed over 62 percent of barrier miles on federal lands, including on those managed by the Department of the Interior. Interior and CBP officials, as well as federally recognized Tribes and stakeholders, noted that the barriers led to various impacts, including to cultural resources, water sources, and endangered species, and from erosion.
Examples of Natural Resource Impacts from Barrier Construction (May 2022)
Since the administration paused border barrier construction in January 2021, CBP has prioritized efforts to address safety hazards left at incomplete project sites, such as removing exposed rebar. In addition, CBP and Interior have worked together to identify actions to mitigate the impacts on federal lands. As the agencies are both involved in addressing these impacts, they could benefit from clearly defining their roles and responsibilities for doing so and jointly identifying the costs and time frames to complete all of the identified mitigation actions, consistent with collaboration leading practices. Documenting a joint strategy that includes these inputs could help CBP and Interior better ensure that key resource impacts of border barrier construction are mitigated and that decision makers have the information needed to allocate resources.
Before proceeding with barrier construction from 2017 to 2021, CBP took steps to assess the potential impacts of such construction, while relying on waivers of cultural and natural resource-related laws to expedite construction. For example, CBP solicited input from land management agencies, Tribes, and the public. Interior and tribal officials and stakeholders told GAO that CBP's information was not sufficiently detailed to facilitate meaningful input. They provided suggestions to GAO for improving CBP's assessments. CBP has not evaluated lessons learned from its assessments. Doing so could help the agency better identify potential impacts of any future projects.
Why GAO Did This Study
To help address illegal cross-border activity, the federal government has constructed hundreds of miles of physical barriers along the southwest border. This included federal lands managed by Interior where important cultural and natural resources are located. DHS and DOD used legal authorities to waive various cultural and natural resource-related laws in constructing border barriers from January 2017 through January 2021. A presidential proclamation paused construction in January 2021.
GAO was asked to review border barrier impacts to cultural and natural resources. This report reviews (1) border barrier construction from January 2017 through January 2021 and associated impacts, (2) actions taken since January 2021 to address impacts, and (3) CBP and DOD assessments of potential impacts from construction conducted from 2017 to 2021. GAO analyzed CBP data and reviewed CBP and DOD assessments and plans. GAO also interviewed officials from federal agencies, Tribes, and stakeholders selected because of their proximity to, or expertise with, resource protection along the border.
GAO is making three recommendations, including that CBP and Interior document a joint strategy to mitigate resource impacts from barrier construction and that CBP evaluate lessons learned from its assessments of potential cultural and natural resource impacts. The agencies agreed with these recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|United States Customs and Border Protection||The Commissioner of CBP should document, jointly with Interior, a strategy to mitigate cultural and natural resource impacts from border barrier construction that defines agency roles and responsibilities for undertaking specific mitigation actions; identifies the costs, associated funding sources, and time frames necessary to implement them; and specifies when agencies are to consult with Tribes. (Recommendation 1)|
|Department of the Interior||The Secretary of the Interior should document, jointly with CBP, a strategy to mitigate cultural and natural resource impacts from border barrier construction that defines agency roles and responsibilities for undertaking specific mitigation actions; identifies the costs, associated funding sources, and time frames necessary to implement them; and specifies when agencies are to consult with Tribes. (Recommendation 2)|
|United States Customs and Border Protection||The Commissioner of CBP, with input from Interior, DOD, Tribes, and stakeholders, should evaluate lessons learned from its prior assessments of potential impacts. (Recommendation 3)|