Texas Senate leaders signal intent to spend big on border security

Texas lawmakers signaled a willingness to keep up considerable spending in the state budget for immigration enforcement efforts on the states southern border. (Verónica G. Cárdenas For Propublica/The Texas Tribune, Verónica G. Cárdenas For Propublica/The Texas Tribune)

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Faulting the federal government for lax border enforcement, leaders in the Texas Senate signaled they would continue to spend significant portions of the state budget on efforts to curb immigration.

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The state allocated more than $4 billion on the issue in the last two years, including $40 million in ongoing efforts to bus migrants from Texas border towns to Democrat-led cities across the country and $163 million on a state-funded border wall. Lawmakers appear eager to re-up that kind of funding.

“In our base budget, the House and the Senate [have] projected that we would continue the investment in the wall,” said Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who leads the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, during a hearing Friday. “The federal government does not appear to be taking this extremely serious problem seriously at all, and so the state has felt an obligation to continue with this financial commitment.”

Sarah Hicks, budget director for Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, said the state has entered into contracts for border barriers totaling more than $900 million. That includes the state-funded border wall, as well as fencing along private lands and concertina wire to deter migrants from crossing into the country outside normal ports of entry. That funding came from about $1 billion in state money appropriated to the governor’s office in 2021 for border security efforts, as well as $55 million raised in private donations — mostly from one billionaire in Wyoming.

Hicks said the governor’s office has heard concerns that the state is moving too slowly to build the wall but added that much of that delay has come from the Texas Facilities Commission, which is in charge of the process of negotiating with private landowners for use of their land. Now, she said, the commission has identified the land for the project and could move to build faster if the Legislature approves additional funding.

“If the Legislature funds a next installment, they are working ahead to hit the ground running on that in the next biennium,” Hicks said.

Senate budget leaders also praised Abbott’s efforts to bus migrants who had been released by federal immigration authorities into border towns after being processed. Those migrants are sometimes stuck in those cities before they can find the money to travel to another city or can secure transportation from nonprofit organizations who help migrants. Last April, Abbott began busing migrants to Democrat-led cities he said were magnets for migrants. The program, which is voluntary, now sends buses to New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia.

The busing program was criticized by immigrant rights activists because it was unclear in Abbott’s announcement that it would be voluntary. Abbott has also been criticized for not communicating with elected officials in the destination cities. (Nonprofits have taken the lead in coordinating the program.)

Still, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, praised the program as “one of the best public policy decisions” Abbott has made in response to a record number of migrants attempting to cross the U.S. southern border last year.

“That has probably singularly focused the American public on the problems of border states,” Bettencourt said. “Clearly the border states are doing everything above and beyond the call of duty to do their job because the federal government has defaulted on almost every responsibility.”

Abbott’s border security efforts, which have include a deployment of thousands of Department of Public Safety troopers and National Guard service members to the border, have come at a high cost to the state. In 2021, state lawmakers allocated about $3 billion to immigration enforcement efforts — a record sum. But even that amount was not enough.

In 2022, the state had to transfer more than $1 billion to keep the effort going, particularly to fund the deployment of thousands of National Guard service members to the border on an unusually long deployment for those troops, who serve part-time and typically are sent on short missions that last just a few weeks. Involuntary call-ups, poor living conditions, lack of pay and missing equipment contributed to a lack of morale among troops in late 2021 and early 2022. Since then, many service members have been allowed to go home, and conditions have improved, but the funding challenge for lawmakers has continued.

This year, the governor’s office has reduced its request for grant programs in the next two years by $1.8 billion. Instead, it is asking for $1.2 billion of the funds its office previously received from the budget’s general revenue to go directly to the Texas Military Department, which struggled to finance its border security mission last year and had to ask for multiple infusions of cash from other state agencies. The remaining funds will now be allocated specifically as border security efforts to the governor’s office.

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