People watch as US border patrol agents patrol across the border where the border wall that separates the US and Mexico meets the Pacific Ocean in Tijuana, Mexico. Picture:  Getty
People watch as US border patrol agents patrol across the border where the border wall that separates the US and Mexico meets the Pacific Ocean in Tijuana, Mexico. Picture: Getty

US military approves cash for border wall

DEFENSE Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday approved the use of $US3.6 billion ($A5.3 billion) in funding from military construction projects to build 282 kilometres of President Donald Trump's wall along the Mexican border.

Pentagon officials would not say which 127 projects will be affected, but said details will be available Wednesday after members of Congress are notified. They said half the money will come from military projects in the US, and the rest will come from projects in other countries.

Esper's decision fuels what has been a persistent controversy between the Trump administration and Congress over immigration policies and the funding of the border wall. And it sets up a difficult debate for lawmakers who refused earlier this year to approve nearly $US6 billion for the wall, but now must decide if they will refund the projects that are being used to provide the money.

Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon comptroller, said the now-unfunded projects are not being cancelled. Instead, the Pentagon is saying the military projects are being "deferred." The Defense Department, however, has no guarantee from Congress that any of the money will be replaced, and a number of lawmakers made it clear during the debate earlier this year that they would not fall for budget trickery and sleight of hand to build the wall.

"It is a slap in the face to the members of the Armed Forces who serve our country that President Trump is willing to cannibalise already allocated military funding to boost his own ego and for a wall he promised Mexico would pay to build," said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. He said the funding shift will affect the US Military Academy at West Point.

Trump declared a national emergency in February in order to use military construction and other federal funds to build the wall after Congress provided only a portion of the $US5.7 billion he wanted.

The Pentagon reviewed the list of military projects and said none that provided housing or critical infrastructure for troops would be affected, in the wake of recent scandals over poor living quarters for service members in several parts of the country. Defense officials also said they would focus on projects set to begin in 2020 and beyond, with the hope that the money could eventually be restored by Congress.

"Cancelling military construction projects at home and abroad will undermine our national security and the quality of life and morale of our troops, making America less secure," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

According to the Pentagon, the money will be used to build 11 border projects and will involve either replacing existing barriers or adding secondary fencing in key areas. The projects involve border sections on Defense Department land, federal land and private property.

One of the first projects will likely be construction of barriers at the Barry M Goldwater Air Force Range in Arizona, because the land is already owned and controlled by the Pentagon.