Construction crews installing border wall sections near Tijuana, Mexico, this year. The acting defense secretary, Patrick M. Shanahan, said the Pentagon had secured funds to begin constructing border barriers, with about half a mile built each day.CreditCreditGregory Bull/Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has redirected enough money to build 256 miles of barriers along the southwestern border, including 63 miles within six months, the acting defense secretary told lawmakers on Wednesday.
The remarks by the secretary, Patrick M. Shanahan, were a major step in President Trump’s effort to build his border wall without congressional authorization since he declared a national emergency and took other measures to redirect funds in February. They came the same day immigration officials reported that illegal border crossings continued to surge in April, with the highest number of monthly arrests since 2007.
Mr. Trump’s efforts to divert funds to build the barriers are facing challenges in court, and have met fierce resistance from Democrats and some Republicans in Congress. Democrats have also expressed skepticism about a White House request for billions of dollars more in enforcement efforts at the border.
But Mr. Shanahan, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, vowed to push ahead. He said about half a mile of barrier would be built each day, using money that includes funds reallocated from the Department of Homeland Security and Treasury forfeiture assets.
“How you will see this materialize in the next six months is that about 63 additional new miles of wall will come online,” Mr. Shanahan said.
Mr. Shanahan, who said there are also now 4,364 National Guard and active-duty troops along the border, has already authorized the first transfer of Defense Department funds to fencing construction.
Democrats, particularly in the House majority, have continued to push back against Mr. Trump’s wall plans. In a spending bill passed this month by the House Appropriations subcommittee focused on military construction and veterans affairs, lawmakers made a point of denying the administration’s request for money to replace the reallocated funds and for future installments of wall funding.
“The committee believes that Congress must assert its role as a coequal branch of the federal government and insist upon the regular appropriation of funds,” wrote the committee, led by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida. “The committee believes that military construction dollars should be used only for the purpose they are provided.”
The White House’s request for $4.5 billion in money for enforcement efforts at the border — an emergency supplemental package on top of the billions available under Mr. Trump’s national emergency declaration — has also met some skepticism from Democrats on both sides of the Capitol, especially amid a push to combine the request with a second emergency disaster package.
Mr. Shanahan lobbied lawmakers to approve the disaster aid package, citing a number of military bases damaged by hurricanes last year. Mr. Trump spent time on Wednesday visiting Tyndall Air Force Base in northern Florida, which is still recovering from Hurricane Michael, but did not address the debate over disaster aid.
House Democrats are still examining the request for more border funding, which would provide money for both humanitarian necessities and more beds to hold migrants in custody, according to an aide.
But immigration officials, in separate testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued that congressional action was needed to counter what Carla L. Provost, the chief of the Border Patrol, called “off the charts” numbers of people detained.
In April, immigration officials said, 109,144 migrants were detained crossing the border without permission, bringing the total number of unauthorized crossings this year to 460,294. More than half of the monthly arrests were people in families.
“It’s like holding a bucket under a faucet,” Ms. Provost said. “It doesn’t matter how many buckets you give me if we can’t turn off the flow.”
“Our nation cannot solve today’s crisis with yesterday’s framework,” she added.
Like other immigration officials pressed on the administration’s budgetary requests in recent weeks, Ms. Provost and other officials described an overwhelmed immigration system, short-staffed and unprepared to deal with not only a high number of migrants, but also young children and families at facilities intended for single adults.
“I don’t really care how you label it,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said at the hearing. “The entire system is breaking, and it’s unsustainable.”
Democratic lawmakers on the committee focused on the Trump administration’s policies, which Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said “made our border less secure and many times undermined our American values.”