A US federal judge dealt a blow Friday to President Donald Trump's signature wall project, issuing a temporary injunction against using Defense Department funds to pay for barriers on the border with Mexico.
Trump declared an emergency in a bid to bypass Congress to obtain money for border wall construction after a standoff over funding for the project led to the longest government shutdown in US history.
About 20 states, including Democratic strongholds New York and California, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), environmental groups and border communities are involved in suits that claim the emergency declaration violates the constitution.
Trump administration officials "are enjoined from taking any action to construct a border barrier in the areas defendants have identified as Yuma Sector Project 1 and El Paso Sector Project 1 using funds reprogrammed by DoD," Judge Haywood Gilliam ordered, referring to the Department of Defense.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan approved the diversion of funds from the department's counter-narcotics budget for ultimate use in the construction of barriers in those areas -- a move that was in turn funded by the diversion of $1 billion from army personnel funds, according to Gilliam's order.
The judge granted the preliminary injunction because plaintiffs are likely to show that Trump administration officials "exceeded their statutory authority, and that irreparable harm will result from those actions."
- 'Unlawful power grabs' -
"Congress's 'absolute' control over federal expenditures -- even when that control may frustrate the desires of the Executive Branch regarding initiatives it views as important -- is not a bug in our constitutional system," Gilliam wrote.
"It is a feature of that system, and an essential one."
The case -- which was brought by plaintiffs including the Sierra Club environmental group -- names Trump as well as Shanahan, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as defendants.
"We applaud the court's decision to protect our Constitution, communities, and the environment today," Sierra Club managing attorney Gloria Smith said in a statement.
"We've seen the damage that the ever-expanding border wall has inflicted on communities and the environment for decades. Walls divide neighborhoods, worsen dangerous flooding, destroy lands and wildlife, and waste resources that should instead be used on the infrastructure these communities truly need," Smith said.
"Yet again, the American people have had to look to our courts for a check on President Trump's unlawful power grabs."
Trump made the construction of a wall to stem illegal immigration from Latin America central to his successful 2016 campaign for the presidency.
But despite saying Mexico would pay for the barrier, he has had to ask Congress for money to make the project happen, and the tug-of-war over funding for the barrier caused a record 35-day federal government shutdown beginning on December 22, 2018.