By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. federal appeals court on Wednesday put on hold a lower court ruling that blocked President Donald Trump’s administration from using $3.6 billion in military construction funds to build a wall on the country’s border with Mexico.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay pending the Trump administration’s appeal of a Dec. 10 decision by a federal judge that barred the funding transfer.
In a 2-1 ruling, the panel noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had stayed an injunction in a similar border wall case from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court also said there was a “substantial likelihood” that the parties challenging the funding transfer – the county of El Paso, Texas, and the Border Network for Human Rights – lacked standing to sue the Trump administration.
Trump has made stemming illegal immigration a major theme of his presidency and re-election campaign. The $3.6 billion amounts to a third of the approximately $10 billion that Trump has obtained for border wall construction during his presidency, a total that comes from congressional appropriations and redirected Defense Department and Treasury Department funds.
Trump contends the wall will stem illegal crossings and narcotics trafficking. Congressional Democrats have portrayed the president’s signature project as divisive and a waste of resources. Congress has approved funding for wall construction in recent years, but at levels below Trump administration requests.
Frustrated by Congress, Trump declared illegal immigration to be a national emergency in February 2019 as part of a plan to access billions of dollars in Pentagon and Treasury funds to build the wall.
Trump administration officials have pledged to build 450 miles (724 km) of new and replacement barriers along the border by November 2020, when Trump will face re-election. But a number of obstacles, including legal challenges and resistance from private landowners, have threatened that objective.
Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said in December that the administration may fall short of the 450-mile mark. Morgan specifically cited the federal court injunction blocking the $3.6 billion funding transfer as an obstacle to construction.
The Trump administration has erected 96 miles (155 km) of border wall since the president took office in January 2017, according to CBP statistics current to late December. All of those structures replaced existing barriers, but border wall construction in new areas is under way, the agency said.
Trump vowed during his 2016 presidential campaign to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and force Mexico to pay for it. The Mexican government, however, has refused to fund the project.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Peter Cooney)