By Zachary Stieber
The wall at the U.S.–Mexico border is effective in curbing illegal immigration, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be Air Force undersecretary told lawmakers this week.
“I believe a border barrier can help mitigate the flow,” Melissa Dalton, the current assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs, told senators in Washington on Jan. 23.
President Biden had told reporters the opposite in the fall of 2023.
A wall works as “part of a system of border security management,” Ms. Dalton said this week, as she faced questioning from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Under President Donald Trump, the United States built hundreds of miles of the border wall at the southern border. The construction was halted by President Biden and his administration after he took office in January 2021.
“There will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration,” President Biden said while campaigning. “I’m going to make sure that we have border protection, but it’s going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it.”
Proponents argue that the border wall deters illegal immigrants by forcing them to spend more time finding a way across the border. Critics say there are more effective measures to put into place.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2020 said that the wall led to a drop in illegal crossings, human smuggling, and drug smuggling. The head of the department now opposes the wall, although the Border Patrol union still supports it.
“A border wall is not the answer,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said recently.
Despite opposition to the wall from Mr. Mayorkas and President Biden, the Biden administration oversaw the construction of 20 miles of barrier last year. President Biden and the White House said they were forced to use the money for the wall because it was allocated for that purpose under the president’s predecessor.
Some documents, though, have suggested otherwise.
“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States,” Mr. Mayorkas said in the notice for the construction, as he waived laws so the wall sections could be built.
Grilled on Sale
Ms. Dalton appeared on Capitol Hill for her nomination hearing.
During the questioning, she was pressed about how the Pentagon sold off millions of dollars of border wall materials after members of Congress drafted legislation that would compel defense officials to use the materials or give them to states.
The sales were “a clear effort to circumvent emerging congressional intent,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Lawmakers later discovered that, in some cases, materials were sold for a fraction of what the government had spent on them—about 3 cents on the dollar. Some buyers are now reselling these materials for 10 times the amount they paid the government.
Ms. Dalton told lawmakers in an Aug. 1 letter that the Pentagon was considering selling off the materials, but lawmakers have come to learn that a decision had already been made at that time.
“Do you concede that the statement you made in your letter about a decision ‘will be made’ was inaccurate?” Mr. Wicker asked.
Ms. Dalton said her answer was “based on the information collected from other components across the Department of Defense, and it was the best available information” they had at the time.
Ms. Dalton also said later she didn’t write the descriptions for the products that were sold off after it was noted the descriptions didn’t mention the wall, President Trump, or Mexico.
“So I would have to defer to those” who wrote the descriptions, Ms. Dalton said.
Senators said the answer illustrated why Ms. Dalton isn’t fit for the Air Force post to which she has been appointed.
“Your unwillingness to sort of account for this and take responsibility to me is a much bigger issue,” Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) said. “Because there’s going to be something that happens, where this committee and the United States Senate or Congress has to rely on you being forthcoming.
“You’ve shown that you won’t take responsibility … And you were charged with a very important job that had to do with our southern border. And your response time and time again was, ‘I have no responsibilities here whatsoever.’”
A discharge of the nomination to the full Senate requires a majority of the panel, which has more Democrats than Republicans because Democrats are in control of the upper chamber.