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Texas governor puts $250 million down payment on a border wall

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in Austin on Wednesday.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in Austin on Wednesday. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman/AP)
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AUSTIN — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday he was putting a $250 million down payment on a state-led project to build "hundreds of miles" of border wall as part of a security plan he said was made necessary by the federal government's neglect of communities along the state's international river boundary with Mexico.

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) and more than two dozen cheering Texas lawmakers, Abbott (R) signed documents authorizing several actions to address the “tidal wave” of immigration that is overwhelming border law enforcement and stoking acrimony in some communities.

Abbott, who is seeking a third term in 2022 and was recently endorsed by former president Donald Trump, opened his remarks by crediting the previous administration’s policies for slowing migration and tying his state’s perceived woes to the Biden administration’s dismantling of those programs. Trump announced Tuesday that he had accepted Abbott’s invitation to visit the border this month.

Abbott painted a bleak picture of border cities as victims of an “open border” policy he blames for the large numbers of migrants “wreaking havoc” and “carnage” on both populous and remote communities along the Rio Grande.

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“Remember that the border was far more under control under the Trump administration until President Biden came,” Abbott said, drawing a dubious comparison between the 2020 migrant apprehension numbers, which were lower during the coronavirus pandemic, to 2021 figures. “But the biggest difference between the two administrations is a difference in commitment.”

Abbott authorized state officials to begin the search for a program manager for the border wall, opened a donation portal for the project and called on landowners willing to volunteer their properties for construction. He also signed a letter to be sent to President Biden demanding land taken by the federal government for border wall construction under Trump be returned to landowners.

But there were few details about other parts of Abbott’s plan. The governor is encouraging local law enforcement and state troopers to begin arresting and charging migrants with trespassing, vandalism and other misdemeanors. He promised to build jail capacity in small communities, many of which can barely manage to handle the number of inmates they already have, much less the hundreds who cross the Rio Grande every day.

Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe issued a disaster declaration for his county on April 21, more than a month before Abbott issued a statewide declaration.

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“We were just seeing ungodly numbers of people,” said Coe, whose county has 16 miles of river border. “It’s an invasion. We are to the point to where, what do we do? I’m getting calls every day from the local ranchers whose properties are being destroyed and groups of 15, 20 trespassing across their land. I’ve never seen it like this before.”

Coe worked with his county attorney to devise a plan to start arresting adults caught on private property with criminal trespassing, but was soon out of space in a county jail that holds 14. His six deputies are using discretion to lock up those migrants they deem a priority either because they have violent criminal records or represent an acute danger.

Abbott said he asked the state’s jail standards commission to find more space and determined they have about 1,000 extra beds within the state. But to carry out the governor’s stated goals, border law enforcers interviewed say the state would have to ease capacity restrictions locally and the potential for human rights violations worries them.

Border officials say they welcome the attention and additional state resources to help bolster things such as their 911 communications systems and hire more deputies and attorneys to jail and prosecute offenders. Others wonder whether the effort is worth it.

“I don’t know if it’s practical or feasible, but I know it’s expensive,” said LaSalle County Judge Joel Rodriguez, whose county more than 60 miles north of the river has seen a dramatic uptick in vehicle pursuits and crashes involving human smugglers.

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The pandemic has created a budget deficit of more than $1 million as the county awaits state or federal reimbursement for its expenses, Rodriguez said. The county increased the sheriff’s budget by thousands, but Rodriguez worries about his overtaxed officers.

“I don’t know if there is an easy solution, but the governor is trying,” he said.

In Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley, where the bulk of river crossings occur, Judge Richard Cortez is as frustrated as many of his neighbors with the federal response to the increasing immigration, but he has questions about Abbott’s plan.

“You don’t put more resources into a policy that’s failed us,” Cortez said. “Arresting people isn’t going to solve the issue of people coming in the first place. All it does is delay the ultimate inevitability of release. You spend six months in jail, now what? We are back to where we were.”

Migrants charged with state crimes would be entitled to a hearing, bond, an attorney and a variety of resources that Cortez said could bog down the judicial systems of large metropolitan areas such as his.

“We all have the same goals, but it’s the how to do it that concerns me,” he said. “What will we accomplish?”

Sheriff Joe Martinez’s Val Verde County hosted a border summit Abbott held last week and the private meetings the governor had with ranchers and landowners, who represent a vocal and influential group of border residents but do not speak for all.

They gave detailed accounts of fences being damaged, burglarized houses, stolen vehicles and general fear of groups of strangers on their property.

“It’s one thing to hear about this on the news, but when you sit in a room and listen to 150 people tell it, that’s something,” said Russell Boening of the Texas Farm Bureau, which has been documenting the experiences of ranchers in border communities. “It’s not really a partisan issue. It’s a safety [issue], it’s a humanitarian issue.”

But when the governor asked which of them would volunteer their land for border fence or wall construction, not one hand went up, according to two people who attended the summit. Abbott said later, during Wednesday’s news conference, that state agencies were already engaged in helping border ranchers fence their properties.

The border wall was not a hugely popular idea among landowners during the Trump era. Many fought in court to negotiate or delay the federal government’s land-taking over concerns a wall would cut them off from the river their ranches depend on for water, irrigation and recreation.

Abbott said border barriers “slow the incredible inflow” and create “no-trespass zones” to facilitate a greater number of arrests. State-owned land would be included in the border wall construction.

“It is my belief based upon conversations that I’ve already had is that the combination of state land and volunteer land will yield hundreds of miles to build a border wall in Texas,” he said.

Sheriffs in the borderlands worry that the numbers could increase further once Title 42, which expels most apprehended adults back to Mexico and others countries, is lifted, something Abbott mentioned Wednesday would happen soon based on indications from federal officials.

Martinez said Abbott was right. The border communities need help and it hasn’t come quickly enough from the federal government. The sheriff has asked the state for six additional deputies and a boat to help recover bodies — they have come across nine since Jan. 18 — in a timely manner. He also needs more jail space.

The local magistrate holds hearings for about 30 or 40 people a week during normal times. With 400 to 500 people crossing the border daily in Val Verde County, under the governor’s plan, Martinez estimated that about 100 people a day would have to be processed in court.

“That’s a lot of people,” Martinez said. “Look, I think we are on our own out here to deal with it. Now, the governor is stepping up. We’ll see how that turns out. Something has to be done because we can’t sustain it forever. I don’t know if it’s the right or wrong thing but it’s something.”