Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border plan comes with steep costs

Border policy is a central issue in the 2024 presidential campaign, and Texas is at its epicenter.

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was an early endorser of former President Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential bid. The Lone Star State has been a political thorn in the side of a Democratic-controlled White House, largely by defying federal authority by launching dozens of lawsuits and spending billions on a state border security program that frequently challenges federal primacy over who controls the border and who controls the flow of immigration.

Texas Republican politics are causing turmoil in the river that forms the U.S.-Mexico border. Operation Lone Star has erected miles of new border wall and concertina wire along the river banks. In the summer of 2023, Governor Abbott ordered buoys to block migrant crossings along a 1,000-foot stretch of the Rio Grande south of Eagle Pass.

“What’s really happening here is that buoys placed directly in the channel are going to cause the water to slow down,” said Adriana Martinez, a river scientist and professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.

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Martinez, who also grew up in the modest border town, studies the environmental effects of walls and barriers near or in the river. She told Scripps News that her research shows that these barriers accumulate silt and create soil.

“Expanding Texas sounds like a good idea, but it actually violates several international treaties,” Martinez said. “We’re not allowed to change the flow in any meaningful way because of those treaties with Mexico.”

As part of his push to make border security more Texas-wide, Gov. Abbott convinced lawmakers to authorize about $11 billion over four years. That spending has helped deploy thousands of Texas National Guard troops to the border and relocate hundreds of Texas Department of Public Safety troops to patrol the region. It covers logistics and overtime to pay for long patrol hours and hotel stays for out-of-town personnel.

The plan transformed the national emergency response into a role in which DPS arrests migrants alongside local law enforcement from El Paso to Brownsville, across Texas.

The state also confiscated Eagle Pass State Park, which sits along the river. For most of the day, it is difficult for residents to access the river for boating or fishing. One way to access the park is to 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 took office, also deployed miles of barbed wire near and between official ports of entry. It also installed miles of fencing along the river.

He created a busing program that moves migrants from smaller, less-resourced border cities to so-called “sanctuary” cities in Democratic Party strongholds like New York and Washington, D.C., often without notice or coordination with the destination cities.

The buoys, despite a federal court order to remove them, still sit in the Rio Grande, awaiting their fate until higher courts decide.

“They’ve basically turned the river into a no-go zone for anyone going to the U.S. side of the Eagle Pass River in Texas,” said Jessie Fuentes, a canoe and kayak tour operator who runs a small business called Epi’s Canoe and Kayak Team. He believes Operation Lone Star is preventing the public from accessing an internationally shared natural resource.

“To request my services, they have to send an email to the Texas Military Department,” Fuentes said. Often, that results in a flurry of phone calls to various agencies, which he said doesn’t guarantee his client will be able to access the river.

Fuentes and a number of other residents have spoken out about their weariness with what they call the militarization of their hometown.

Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, who served as state representative for Eagle Pass from 2013 to 2021, believes in stronger border security but believes locals have been left out of the process of resolving issues.

“The governor has seen fit to spend all this money on things that don’t work, but has he ever offered to put in place temporary emergency services or more paramedics, or give you more ambulances, or the ability to have more overtime for your first responders?” Nevarez asked.

But travel 45 minutes to Bracketville, and the Kinney County Sheriff’s Office warmly endorses the governor’s border spending.

“Thanks to Operation Lone Star, we are able to get more personnel,” said Kinney County Deputy Sheriff Liz Aguirre.

Aguirre and his colleagues patrol about 1,200 square miles of Kinney County, part of which borders the U.S.-Mexico border. Operation Lone Star has pumped millions of dollars in grants into the effort to cover equipment costs, hiring new employees, overtime costs, incarceration costs and the costs associated with prosecuting migrants who trespass on private land.

That’s a big help in itself… having that workforce makes a big, big difference,” Aguirre added.

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In order for police and sheriff’s deputies to have the authority to arrest migrants on ranch land, landowners must sign a memorandum of understanding. So far, about 140 ranchers have signed a memorandum of understanding to allow law enforcement to intervene at any time if deemed necessary.

“I think we’re really helping the Border Patrol do their job better. I mean each agency has helped the other do their job better,” said Sergeant Manuel Peña, ranch liaison for the Kinney County Sheriff’s Office.

So far, the number of migrants crossing the southwest border has been declining year over year.

Governor Abbott and his Republican supporters believe his tough, pragmatic approach is working. But observers say many factors are at play, including the Mexican government pushing migrants further away from Texas, the heat and stricter policies adopted by the Biden administration.

Some of Texas’ efforts — including granting all state and local police officers the power to arrest people suspected of illegally crossing the border into the United States and placing river buoys — are being blocked by federal courts as an infringement on executive authority over the border.

“They don’t ask residents what’s going on or what would be the most helpful thing to do,” Martinez said. She believes cooperation would ease local concerns.

The governor’s office, the Texas Military Department and the Department of Public Safety all declined interview requests.

Regardless of whether the program produces tangible results, border security is good policy for a Republican governor of Texas seeking to challenge a Democrat for the White House.