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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's border plan comes with high costs and challenges to federal authority

Abbott has taken the idea of Texan independence and confrontation with the federal government to new levels during his tenure.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks before former President Donald Trump arrives
Posted at 5:59 PM, Jul 10, 2024

Border politics are a pivotal issue in the 2024 presidential campaign, and Texas is the epicenter.

Texas' Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was an early endorser of former President Donald Trump for president in 2024. The Lone Star State has been a political thorn in the side of a White House controlled by a Democrat, mainly through its challenging of federal authority by launching scores of lawsuit and spending billions on a state border security program that frequently challenges federal primacy on the mandate of who controls the border and who controls the flow of immigration.

Texas Republican policies are causing ripples in the river that forms the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Namely, Operation Lone Star has erected new miles of border wall and much concertina wire on the riverbanks. In the summer of 2023, Gov. Abbott ordered the placement of buoys to block migrant river crossings along a 1,000 foot stretch of the Rio Grande, south of Eagle Pass.

"What's really happening here is that the buoys going directly in the channel are going to cause water to slow down," said river scientist and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville professor Adriana Martinez.

RELATED STORY | Surge of migrants causing strain on border resources

Martinez, who also grew up in the modestly-sized border city, studies the environmental effects of walls and barriers next to or in the river. She told Scripps News her research proves those barriers are collecting silt and creating land.

"Making Texas bigger sounds great, but it's actually a violation of several international treaties," Martinez said. "We're not allowed to change the flow in any significant way because of those treaties with Mexico."

As part of his efforts to put a Texas-sized brand on border security, Gov. Abbott has convinced lawmakers to authorize about $11 billion over a four-year period. The spending has deployed thousands of Texas National Guard soldiers to the border and moved hundreds of Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to patrol the region. It covers the logistics and overtime to pay for the long hours of patrol along with hotel stays for out-of-town staff.

The plan has moved domestic emergency response into a role in which the DPS arrests migrants alongside local law enforcement from El Paso to Brownsville — the entire scope of Texas.

It has also resulted in the state seizure of Eagle Pass' public park that sits along the river. For most of the day, it is difficult for locals to access the river to boat or fish. One way to access the park is pay for a tee-time to play golf along the Rio Grande.

Operation Lone Star, which began in earnest in 2021 shortly after President Joe Biden assumed office, also unfurled miles of concertina wire close to and between official ports of entry. It has placed miles of fence line along the river.

It has created a busing program that moves migrants from smaller, less well-resourced border cities to so-called "sanctuary" cities in Democratic Party strongholds, like New York City, Washington, D.C., often without notice or coordination with the recipient cities.

The buoys, despite a federal district court order to withdraw them, still sit in the Rio Grande, on hold until their fate is decided by higher courts.

"The reality is that they've basically made it a dead zone for anyone to attend the river on the American side in Eagle Pass, Texas," said Jessie Fuentes, a canoe and kayak outfitter who runs a small business called Epi's Canoe and Kayak Team. He believes Operation Lone Star blocks the public from a shared international natural resource.

"To request my services, they have to send an email to the Texas Military Department," said Fuentes. Often, that results in myriad phone calls to various agencies, which he added is not a guarantee his client can access the river.

Fuentes and a chorus of other locals have been vocal about their weariness of what they say is the militarization of their hometown.

Alfonso "Poncho" Nevarez, who served as a state representative for Eagle Pass from 2013-2021, believes in more robust border security, but thinks locals have been left out of the problem-solving process.

"The governor has seen fit to spend all this money on stuff that doesn't work, but has he ever offered to put up pop-up ERs or more EMTs, or giving you more ambulances, or the ability to have more overtime for your first responders?" Nevarez said.

But travel 45 minutes to Bracketville, and the Kinney County Sheriff's office heartily endorses the governor's border spending.

"Along with Operation Lone Star, we have, we are able to get more personnel," said Kinney County Sheriff's Deputy Liz Aguirre.

Aguirre and her fellow colleagues patrol about 1,360 square miles of Kinney County, some of which abuts the U.S.-Mexico border. Operation Lone Star pumped millions in grants to cover equipment costs, new personnel hires, overtime costs, jail costs and costs associated with prosecuting migrants for trespassing on private ranch land

That's a big help right there in itself ... having that manpower is a big, big difference," Aguirre added.

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So that troopers and sheriff's deputies have the authority to arrest migrants for being on ranch land, landowners have to sign a memorandum of understanding. So far around 140 ranchers have signed over their rights to allow law enforcement at any time deemed necessary.

"I think that we really, help the Border Patrol be able to do their job better also. I mean, every agency's helped the other one to do their their job in a better manner," said Sgt. Manuel Peña, Kinney Co. Sheriff's Office ranch liaison.

So far, year-over-year migrant crossing are down along the Southwest border.

Gov. Abbott and his Republican supporters argue his tough, hands-on approach works. But observers argue multiple factors are at play, including the Mexican government pushing migrants farther away from Texas, hot weather and tougher policies enacted by the Biden administration.

Some of Texas' efforts — including giving all state and local police officers authority to arrest people suspected of crossing illegally into the United States, and the placement of the river buoys — are being held up in federal courts as stepping on executive authority over the border.

"They fail to ask locals what's going on, what would be the most useful thing to do," said Professor Martinez. She believes cooperation would assuage local anxieties.

The governor's office, the Texas Military Department, and the Department of Public Safety all declined requests for interviews.

Regardless if the program nets tangible results, border security is good politics for a Republican governor from Texas seeking to challenge a Democrat in the White House.