Keeping an Eye on “National Emergencies”

02.19.21 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Last month, in the final days of his Administration, President Trump moved to renew the “national emergency” along the US-Mexico border that he had declared in 2019.

“The ongoing border security and humanitarian crisis at the southern border of the United States continues to threaten our national security, including by exacerbating the effect of the pandemic caused by COVID–19,” he told Congress on January 15.

On his first day in office, President Biden terminated that emergency, which he said had been a mistake all along.

“I have determined that the declaration of a national emergency at our southern border was unwarranted. I have also announced that it shall be the policy of my Administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall, and that I am directing a careful review of all resources appropriated or redirected to that end,” he wrote on February 10.

But President Biden declared a new national emergency arising from the February 1 military coup in Burma. The situation in that country poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” he said.

Biden also renewed a 2011 declaration of national emergency concerning Libya. “We need to protect against the diversion of assets or other abuse by persons hindering Libyan national reconciliation,” he wrote on February 11.

There are 38 “national emergencies” currently in effect. They typically entail blocking property and restrictions on financial activity of targeted persons. The history and scope of such emergencies were discussed by the Congressional Research Service in a report that was updated this week. See National Emergency Powers, February 16, 2021.

Although climate change is an emerging challenge and threat, it would be a mistake for the President to declare it this kind of a “national emergency,” argued Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center. See “Declaring climate change an ’emergency’ won’t help Biden fight it,” Washington Post, January 29. See also “Why President Biden Should Not Declare a Climate Emergency” by Soren Dayton and Kristy Parker, Just Security, February 10, 2021.