Fact Check | Hard to pin down growing cost of unused border materials

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said in a May newsletter that millions of Americans’ tax dollars are being spent on unused border wall materials at the U.S.-Mexico border. The total amount of money has not been independently verified.

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Nina Baker, PolitiFact Reporter


U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said in a May newsletter that millions of Americans’ tax dollars are being spent on unused border wall materials at the U.S.-Mexico border. The total amount of money has not been independently verified.

If your time is short:

  • U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said in a May newsletter that Americans’ tax dollars are being spent on unused border wall materials since President Biden terminated U.S.-Mexico border wall construction.
  • Most estimates place the value of the unused materials at $265 million.
  • A July 2021 Republican-authored report estimated that $3 million per day was being spent, at the time of publication, by the Defense Department to guard these unused materials. But a nonpartisan government agency said reliable numbers aren’t available to assess Defense costs. 
  • Some of the materials are being repurposed for other infrastructure or for state border wall projects.

Republicans, including members of Congress from Iowa, continue to criticize President Biden for how he is handling the U.S.-Mexican border. Rep. Ashley Hinson, went to the border as June started to bring attention to her opposition to Biden’s handling of border security. Sen. Chuck Grassley says he too is fighting Biden’s border policies.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has been especially active on border policies, writing in a May 28 newsletter: “Well here’s something you may not know your tax dollars are being spent on: unused border wall materials.”

This has been happening since Biden terminated construction of President Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border on Jan. 20, 2021, Ernst wrote. Grassley said he agrees with her assessment. 

Ernst’s claim raises questions about responsible federal spending, so we took a look at it. The claim, which her office said comes from a 2021 Senate Republican staff report criticizing spending on unused materials at the border, made the rounds in conservative media in conjunction with Ernst introducing the BUILD IT Act in May. That act would terminate contracts relating to building the border wall and transfer unused fence material to Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas state government on the southwest border.

In total, Trump had planned to spend $16.5 billion on the border wall: $10 billion from funds diverted from the Defense Department, $5.8 billion from a congressional appropriation and $600 million from forfeitures collected by the Treasury Department, a May 2021 Congressional Research Service report stated.

In the days before Biden was inaugurated in 2021, Trump ramped up construction of the border wall by extending for one year a national emergency he had declared in February 2019 to build the wall. Biden suspended all construction on his first day in office, leaving unused steel panels and piping at construction sites along the border.

Most estimates place the value of surplus material at $265 million, with some estimates as high as $350 million.

Some of the material intended for the border wall is being used elsewhere. In February 2022, more than 1,700 unused panels were donated by the federal government to Texas to help build Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s state-funded border wall. A Defense Department spokesman said the total value of all the donated panels was $6 million, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

The Daily Star reported that federal agencies receiving materials include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But representatives from neither agency responded to questions about how much material was received. The Interior Department also received nearly $1 million in bulk packaging and miscellaneous construction materials.

Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security authorized in December 2021 use of some of the remaining materials to close breaches in a Texas levee along the Rio Grande River and to backfill erosion in San Diego. The Biden Administration said wall construction created these problems. A Department of Homeland Security press release said other clean-up projects at construction sites have been approved, including road repair and installing drainage systems. Ernst wrote in her newsletter that guarding these materials costs “millions of dollars per day.” 

Her staff cited for PolitiFact Iowa the Interim Minority Report issued in July 2021 from the Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management. That Republican report states that, at the time of publication, the Defense Department continued to spend $3 million per day “to guard steel, concrete, and other materials in the desert.”

The estimate of $3 million in costs per day has not been confirmed independently.

The Republican report stated that the cost was determined through communications with the Defense Department and the Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management. The Republicans’ 2021 congressional report does not state if the costs for clean-up projects is included in the $3 million daily figure.

Canceled contracts still cost taxpayers because the Defense Department has to negotiate its withdrawal from seven remaining contracts, the Republican report states. Department estimates show the federal government could spend at least $798 million and $1.048 billion by the end of 2022 on leaving contracts for the seven projects, the report states.

A February 2021 U.S. Government Accountability Office report said the Defense Department spent about $1 billion helping at the border in fiscal years 2018 through 2020. But, the report stated, the department was late in providing more accurate costs for that time period and was not tracking internal costs.

Military personnel at the border may only support Homeland Security officers and cannot make arrests. Homeland Security officials wanted the military to stay in the region three to five years, the 2021 report stated, but reliable cost estimates for doing so were not available. 

About $5.3 billion of the Defense Department’s diverted funding had been spent on wall construction and about $4.75 billion remained committed when Biden took office, the May 2021 non-partisan Congressional Research Service report stated. News reports in June 2021 said Biden returned the last batch of diverted funds – more than $2 billion – to the Defense Department.

Defense Department leaders estimated it would cost the federal government around $1.4 billion to suspend and terminate contracts, pending negotiations with contractors to cancel them, an internal department memo stated.

We asked Ernst’s Senate staff whether or not the costs of these clean-up projects are accounted for in $3 million daily costs. Staff responded in an email that these are projects “that the Biden administration is currently spending taxpayer money on as a result of President Biden’s decision to cancel the border wall, which was already under construction.” 

Ernst’s office also did not answer if the $3 million per day cost has changed since last July.

 

Our ruling

Ernst’s May 28 newsletter claims that unused materials remain at construction sites, and that taxpayers are footing the bill to guard these materials. How much waste exists is a judgment call but Ernst is correct that around $265 million dollars in manufacturing materials, including panels, electrical supplies and light poles, were left at construction sites along the southern border with Mexico after Biden halted border wall construction.

However, some of these materials are being used to repair gaps at insecure points in the barrier, while others have been sent to other government agencies, including the state of Texas for wall construction. No independent source has confirmed the $3 million daily cost that Ernst cites, and a nonpartisan government agency says reliable cost estimates for Defense Department work at the border are lacking or late. News organizations still are waiting to learn actual costs. We rate the claim to be Half True.

Editor/Reporter Lyle Muller contributed to this story.

 

Our Sources

 Joni Ernst newsletter, May 28, 2022

Joni Ernst news release, May 24, 2022; column June 2, 2022

Email exchanges between PolitiFact Iowa and Brendan Conley, Joni Ernst’s Iowa communications director, June 3 and June 13, 2022

Ashley Hinson tweet, June 1, 2022

Chuck Grassley tweet, June 7, 2022, and statement, May 24, 2022

Government Operations and Border Management Interim Minority Report – “President Biden is Wasting Billions by Not Building the Border Wall

The White House, “A Letter to the Speaker Of The House And President Of The Senate Regarding the Termination of the National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border,” Feb. 10, 2021

The Texas Tribune, To build Abbott’s border barrier, Texas will use surplus wall panels from the federal government,” by Uriel J. Garcia, Feb. 15, 2022

The Washington Post, Where Trump’s border wall left deep scars and open gaps, Biden plans repair job,” by Nick Miroff, Feb. 19, 2022

CBS News, U.S. to use border wall funds to close gaps and clean up Trump-era construction sites,” by Camilo Montoya-Galvez, Dec. 20, 2021

U.S. News and World Report, Biden to Return $2.2 Billion in Diverted Border Wall Funds to Defense Department,” by Claire Hansen, June 11, 2021

U.S. News and World Report, Government Donates Leftover Border Wall Materials to Texas,” by Danyelle Khmara, Feb. 20, 2022

The Washington Times, DHS has spent $72 million to avoid building more border wall,” by Stephen Dinan, April 27, 2022

U.S. Government Accountability Office, “SOUTHWEST BORDER SECURITY Actions Are Needed to Address the Cost and Readiness Implications of Continued DOD Support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection” report, February 2021

American Military News, “National Guard on US-Mexico border extended through 2022,” by Liz George, July 8, 2021

Bipartisan Policy Center, “Fact sheet: Military on the Border,” April 12, 2018

Congressional Research Service, “An Update on Military Funding for the Border Wall,” May 21, 2021

Department of Defense April 27, 2021 action memo, from Robert Salesses, assistant secretary of defense (U.S. Supreme Court filing)

Department of Defense press release, April 30, 2021

Tuscon.com, U.S. donates leftover border wall materials, including to Texas for its own wall,” by Danyelle Khmara, Feb. 16, 2022

The Atlantic, Trump’s Big Border Wall is Now a Pile of Rusting Steel,” by John B. Washington, Dec. 20, 2021

AP, Biden halts border wall building after Trump’s final surge,” by Elliott Spagat, Jan. 22, 2021. 

White House Press Release, “Text of a Notice on the Continuation of the National Emergency With Respect to the Southern Border of the United States,” Jan. 16, 2021

Department of Homeland Security Press Release, “DHS to Address Life, Safety, Environmental, and Remediation Requirements for Border Barrier Projects Previously Undertaken by DoD,” Dec. 20, 2021

Department of Homeland Security Press Release, “DHS Releases Plan for Use of Border Barrier Funds,” June 11, 2021

CBS News, “Biden returns $2 billion in funds Trump had diverted from Pentagon to use for border wall,” Camilo Montoya-Galvez and Nicole Sganga, June 11, 2021

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