Gov. Greg Abbott shared new details Wednesday about his plan to take over former President Donald Trump’s border wall project given an increase in border crossings from Mexico that Republicans blame on President Joe Biden’s less stringent immigration policies, including a formal request that concerned supporters help pay for it through direct donations.
“In the federal government’s absence, Texas is stepping up to get the job done,” Abbott said. “We will build the wall, we will secure the border, and most importantly, we will restore safety to the citizens who live in the Lone Star State.”
Flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan and several other Republican state lawmakers, Abbott signed three documents he said signaled the official start of Texas’ effort to build a wall along the Texas-Mexico border.
First, he ordered the Texas Facilities Commission to hire a project manager who will be responsible for the wall project. He then signed a letter to Biden demanding that the federal government give back land it took from Texas landowners during the Trump administration to build the wall so that Abbott’s administration could then negotiate with them about building a new wall on their property.
Within just hours, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, a firm Trump and wall supporter, said he was issuing an emergency authorization on state lands "to expedite the completion of the barrier needed to protect Texans from smuggling, crime and trafficking."
Along with Phelan, Patrick, state Rep. Greg Bonnen and state Sen. Jane Nelson, Abbott also signed a letter authorizing $250 million in state dollars to be transferred into a “disaster account” managed by the facilities commission to be “a down-payment” on the wall project. The lawmakers and Abbott insisted this type of transfer was legal due to Abbott’s recent declaration of a disaster along the border, but didn’t give any details on where exactly the money was coming from.
Abbott also unveiled a website through which supporters of the Texas border wall can make donations to a fund managed by the Texas Department of Emergency Management and the governor’s office that he promised would go toward building the wall once the yet-to-be-hired project manager figures out where it’ll go, what it’ll look like and how much it’ll cost. Abbott isn’t just asking for donations from Texans; anyone can pitch in no matter where they live, he said, and the tech-averse can even mail in checks to the state Capitol.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a Texas politics expert and a professor at the University of Houston, said he saw the choice to crowd-fund a new border wall as evidence Abbott might be more concerned with the optics of acting tough on the border than actually getting a wall built.
“I think it’s very risky for the governor to short-circuit the legislative process on a massive infrastructure project,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s odd, which makes me believe that it’s more about theater than it is about public policy.”
Abbott first declared his administration would pick up where Trump left off and begin construction of a new border barrier last week at a border “crisis” summit he hosted in Del Rio. In an interview with conservative podcast Ruthless earlier this week, Abbott previewed his plan to solicit donations to fund the project.
On Wednesday, Abbott touted the $1 billion in funding for border security included in the recently-passed state budget (though not specifically for a wall) and requested that law enforcement officials at the border start arresting and jailing immigrants for trespassing on private property once they enter Texas, a strategy similar to one Arizona tried to employ in 2012 before being blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Abbott said state officials are already talking with border landowners about building a “stop-gap” fence on their property while the wall plans get figured out. He explained that an upcoming additional disaster order he plans to issue will make crimes like trespassing and vandalism along the border jailable offenses. That shift, Abbott argued, would give law enforcement officials within Texas the authority to arrest and detain any immigrant who bypasses this new fence or who damages it in any way.
“Them being arrested for state law violations, not federal law violations, means we don’t have to turn them over to the federal government. We turn them over to a jail cell,’ Abbott said, adding that he's already instructed the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to start figuring out how to add capacity for more inmates at jails along the border.
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told the Houston Press he thinks it’s absurd that Abbott is so focused on the border when the state has plenty of other crises worth addressing, like a beleaguered power grid regulators fear could lead to power issues during the blistering summer heat.
“If we have a billion dollars to spend, shouldn’t we spend it on keeping the lights on in the winter and the summer instead of building a 13th century defense which people can go under or above? The vast majority of immigrants actually go to the bridge [and] turn themselves in, and the other 50 percent fly on legal visas and overstay,” Garcia claimed.
“The border does nothing to stop illegal immigration. It’s just a bullshit lie from Trump and now Abbott,” Garcia said.
Speaking of the power grid, Abbott claimed Wednesday that people were blowing out of proportion the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ request Monday that Texans conserve energy this week due to an unusual number of downed power generators that could possibly cause power outages.
“Everyone who’s been trying to make a big deal out of the power grid over the past few days, I’ve found, were the exact same people who called me a Neanderthal after I opened up Texas 100 percent. They were hoping there would be a power failure,” Abbott said.
He claimed that reforms to the grid he signed into law that would require power generators to prepare for extreme weather, both hot and cold, wouldn’t go into effect until September as is typical for most newly-signed legislation, and argued that despite ERCOT’s unprecedented request that Texans turn up their thermostats months before the hottest weather of the summer, “I can tell you for a fact that as we’re sitting here today, the energy grid in Texas is better today than it’s ever been.”
Rottinghaus believes Abbott’s hardcore rhetoric on the border since Biden took office is more about endearing himself to conservatives across the country than winning support in his home state.
“I think he’s thinking nationally,” Rottinghaus said. “I think he’s thinking more about where he is vis-à-vis other Republican governors of Republican leaning states and where he fits into the national conversation.”
In recent interviews, Abbott has said he’s focused primarily on winning reelection in 2022. To do so, he’ll have to secure enough conservative support to fend-off challengers for the Republican nomination for governor, like ultra-conservative GOP candidate Don Huffines. That said, Abbott hasn’t denied that he’s considering running for president in 2024. Garcia believes Abbott’s border posturing looks like an attempt to cover both of those bases.
“He’s trying to secure his right flank, and then I think he’s looking at running for president in 2024 and being the Trump heir to that whole divisive, corrupt politics that we saw there during the Trump administration,” Garcia said.
When asked Wednesday if all this tough border talk was just for show, Abbott pounced. “Anyone who thinks this is politics doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Anyone who thinks this is politics doesn’t care about American citizens or Texas residents,” Abbott fumed.
But Garcia still isn’t convinced Abbott is being sincere.
“If Abbott had a Pinocchio nose, it would be so long that it would be a wall by itself,” Garcia said.
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