HOUSTON -- With construction of what President Donald Trump calls the first 40 miles of new border wall already underway across the nation's southern boundary, federal officials have announced this week they're waiving nearly 30 environmental laws in Texas to expedite additional building in the interest of homeland security.
Opponents called the waivers "catastrophic."
"Waiving laws meant to protect border residents and ecosystems shows the Trump administration's contempt for the rule of law," said Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club's Borderlands Team.
Environmental groups anticipated the waivers, and are expected to sue to block them in federal court as they have before -- so far, unsuccessfully -- citing irreparable damage to local wildlife refuges, home to hundreds of migrating birds and butterflies, and several endangered species.
The Trump administration had already issued waivers of the Clean Air, Water and Endangered Species acts, among others, to make way for portions of the wall now under construction in California and New Mexico.
The latest waivers concern stretches of planned border wall and gates in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the most heavily trafficked illegal border crossing in the country, where 137,000 immigrants were caught last fiscal year, the Department of Homeland Security noted in an announcement. Officials have said they plan to begin building 25 miles of border barriers there in February.
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The waivers came as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., planned to introduce legislation this week to fully fund the $23 billion border wall, a proposal condemned by congressional Democrats including Rio Grande Valley Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who called it wasteful spending on an "archaic, ineffective solution" to border security.
In waiving environmental protections in Texas, authorities cited the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 allowing construction of barriers that "deter illegal crossings in areas of high illegal entry into the United States."
In California and New Mexico, officials had invoked the Real ID Act of 2005, passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which includes a provision allowing them to waive regulations to build border barriers without congressional oversight. Legal experts said the reasoning under both laws is similar.
The waivers are not unprecedented: In 2008, the Bush administration issued five waivers under the Real ID Act to allow construction -- over the objections of environmental groups -- of more than 250 miles of fence along the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.