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The Biden administration is building a controversial part of the border wall in Texas

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Biden administration is moving forward with a controversial plan to build a new section of the border wall in Texas. It's waiving more than two dozen federal environmental laws to add 20 miles to the barrier. And that's even though President Biden previously pledged he would not add another foot of border wall. The White House made the decision while another surge of migrants comes across the southern border. Angela Kocherga with member station KTEP joins us from El Paso, one of the border cities seeing a spike in asylum-seekers. Angela, good morning.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So tell us, what's the situation where you are along the border right now?

KOCHERGA: Well, after a very sharp decline in people crossing the southern border - that started in May - we're seeing a record number of migrants again, about 200,000 in September alone. There are large groups riding on top of rail cars through Mexico to reach the border city, Juarez, which is just across the border from El Paso. And the migrants are mostly from Venezuela. Once they reach this area, they camp right at the border fence, where there's actually a gate, and they turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents, asking for asylum. Nonprofit groups and the city of El Paso have been helping shelter thousands of migrants in recent weeks after those migrants are released to await immigration court hearings.

RASCOE: So President Trump - or so then-President Trump built 450 miles of border walls. Now President Biden is adding another 20 miles. Do these barriers actually reduce undocumented immigration?

KOCHERGA: Well, it depends. There's very little impact on those who are seeking asylum, which is a legal process, because those migrants are not sneaking in, but they're turning themselves in, as we said, to Border Patrol agents. Now, the barriers might deter some people, but mostly those walls or fences divert them to other areas. And those who are determined go around, go under and climb over the towering fences. Here in El Paso, we routinely see that people use ladders or other tools, and some fall, resulting in serious injuries and even death. Now, Border Patrol does see the wall or fence as one tool to slow migration, but increasingly, they are relying on technology to detect illegal crossings and apprehend people - ground sensors, autonomous tower cameras that use AI and drones.

RASCOE: So President Biden says he's not changing his policy, that basically, he had to spend this money because it was already appropriated. But, Angela, plenty of people are objecting to this move, and they are criticizing it. Tell us about them.

KOCHERGA: President Biden's supporters are not happy - advocates, immigrant advocates, and the opposition to the wall includes El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who says the money can be better spent on technology and modern equipment to secure the border. And another Texas congressman, Henry Cuellar, said, in his words, a border wall is a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. Environmental groups are very concerned that the wall construction is happening in South Texas, in an area that is home to several endangered species, including the ocelot, which is a small, spotted wildcat. They say the barrier will stop cross-border migration, which is really critical. And the Center for Biological Diversity describes it as a horrifying step backwards for the borderlands.

RASCOE: That's reporter Angela Kocherga with member station KTEP in El Paso, Texas. Thank you so much for joining us.

KOCHERGA: Thank you.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Angela Kocherga