AUSTIN, Texas — Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott said that Texas will build a border wall along the state’s boundary with Mexico, but provided no further details.
Abbott plans to release those plans this week. He also approved a $1 billion allocation to boost resources for border security.
"The border crisis is bigger than the state of Texas; it affects the entire country," Abbott said, before going on to call on other states to help provide law enforcement resources to further secure the border.
There are a lot of questions about how the State would build its own border wall.
KVUE Political Anchor Ashley Goudeau, KVUE Defender Erica Proffer and Tony Payan, Director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, broke down some of those obstacles.
Ashley Goudeau: "Mr. Payan, we'll start with you. Gov. Greg Abbott is painting a pretty bleak picture about what's happening at the border with the number of people unlawfully entering the country through Texas and the amount of drugs coming in. Can you first give us some perspective on the numbers of people who are coming into the country?"
Tony Payan: "Yes, well, the very first thing that we have to begin with, even if we disagree with the governor's solution is to give him the credit, the benefit of the doubt. The governor is correct with the numbers – 180,000 encounters at the U.S. Mexico border just in the month of May 2021. I think there were some initial errors, mistakes made by the Biden administration that made those numbers climb through February, through March, April and of course, in May. They're flattening out now, but I think they are still very, very high. In that sense, the governor is correct. The number of individuals that are coming through, though they're not necessarily trying to breach the border between ports of entry, most of them are presenting themselves to the U.S. authorities seeking asylum at ports of entry. So how many of them are actually breaching the border between ports of entry, I think that's a question that remains to be answered. And I don't think the governor's referring to all the encounters that are happening throughout the border, just those in Texas, but we have to make sure there is that distinction. In regards to drugs, of course, fentanyl is the number one worry today in the U.S. and the governor is correct. But at the same time, I think that this has been a 50-year enterprise of fighting a war on drugs with very few, if any, results. Trillions of dollars spent, thousands of lives, tens of thousands of Americans dying every single year. Lots of investment on that and no progress, no results. So I think while the governor is correct that the situation is dire, it has been so for a very long time."
Goudeau: "We want to point to our Erica Proffer. Erica, you worked as a journalist along the border for six-and-a-half years, so you're very familiar with the area. And you pointed out the number of people being arrested, some of the statistics the governor throwing out is relative to enforcement. Talk to us about that."
Erica Proffer: "Yeah, when I was talking to a colleague down along the border, I asked her and then a couple of people who live there, work there, work in politics there as well on both sides, both Democrat and Republican, and I asked them sort of how was the law enforcement amount, the presence that was there. And they said it fluctuates throughout the years and it tends to go along with the rise that we see in busts of human smuggling and of drug trafficking. Essentially to use the phrase that, that is is used probably too much, the 'boots on the ground;' the more you have there, the more you're going to catch."
Goudeau: "And so we are seeing more boots on the ground, if you will. Let's talk about the actual feat of building a border wall. Erica, to say it's going to be a challenge is a bit of an understatement."
Proffer: "Yeah, so there's a couple of things that we have to look at when it comes to how a structure is built and how it's maintained and what it looks like. And when it comes to Texas, where I spent most of my time was in the Rio Grande Valley. The Rio Grande Valley itself has different topography on all throughout it. But the two main things is one – a structure can't go in the water. The water is the international boundary line here in Texas. And you can't put it actually in the river. The river is governed by the International Boundary and Water Commission. It's to both of our countries. And it can't be, you can't change the way it flows. Not to mention it's built right there – or the Rio Grande Valley itself is a floodplain. So you also have to take that into consideration. Any structure that you do build, you can't impact the lives there. Now, with that said, it's still possible, right because there are pieces of the Rio Grande Valley that has the wall. The other thing that you have to consider is the activity that's along the border. And when I say activity, there's a lot. You have parks, there's a park that you look over and you see Mexico's park on one side – the U.S. has a park on the other. You have businesses. There's an RV park, a winter Texan RV park that's there along the water. There are riverboat tours. There's a restaurant along the water. And then and then you also have schools. One of the things is a pumphouse. The Rio Grande Valley, its drinking water, the farming water, it all comes from the river and so the water is pumped into these pump houses and then it gets pushed on into the communities. And so the way when you're looking at it from like a Google Earth is you'll see the fence, the border wall, you'll see the border wall here and then in between, you'll see the channel that goes up to the pump house. So you have that too. Federal wildlife lands. There's a lot of things that we have to consider whenever we build some sort of structure and whether it's a wall, whether it's some sort of fencing material, where it goes, it may not be directly at the border like one may think."
Goudeau: "Interesting. Mr. Payan I would imagine also that you have to think about the parties. You have people who are not going to want to give up their land. Obviously, you have a lot of federal land there, that would present challenges in building an actual wall."
Payan: "That is correct. I think the governor underestimates how much of the border wall is going to cost. It cost the Trump administration about $15 billion to repair and rebuild about 450 miles of wall. And we're not necessarily talking about wall in Texas, which is a very complicated terrain, as just mentioned. We're talking about border walls in California, Arizona, parts of New Mexico. That is a very costly thing. That means that Texans would have to dole out billions and billions of dollars to build a wall that would be very questionable and of course, built probably five, 10 miles north of the river, as the area is very complicated. The other thing is that, as just mentioned, there is a great diversity of land ownership in Texas, which you do not find in New Mexico or Arizona or even in California. In Texas, you have a lot of ranches, a lot of private property, a lot of rural, semirural and urban areas. And you have to cut through the backyards of individuals and the land of ranchers and so on. So the governor should expect a lot of resistance as there has been resistance against the federal government. So in terms of feasibility and money and the lawsuits that we have to expect, I wonder if it's completely worth it or if the governor really does not have any other motives, i.e. political, electoral motives, as the wall is also nearly useless when it comes to stopping drugs and of course, immigrants who come at ports of entry asking for asylum."
Goudeau: "You talk about a wall being useless. We've seen people, video, pictures of people coming into the country regardless of walls. Even that heart-wrenching video of those two young girls being dropped over the side of the existing wall. Do these types of structures, these barriers to keep people out, do they even work?"
Payan: "They do not. You can see people that are trying to climb over the wall. They tunnel under the wall. They cut through the wall with specialized tools. You can see people rappelling down the walls with ladders and ropes and so on. So it doesn't stop anything. Most of the drugs that come into Texas come at ports of entry. And of course, most of the immigrants today are presenting themselves at ports of entry. And no wall is going to stop these individuals asking for asylum, whether it be because of economic reasons or security reasons in their countries. And that is the case for most of them. So I suspect that is a solution, for what the governor says the wall would be, a solution is probably not realistic."
Proffer: "And playing off of that, you know, you mentioned the ports of entry – when it comes to border enforcement, my experience there along the border is it goes hand in hand also with catching corruption. The drugs and the humans that may be getting through the borders, through the bridges and even through the checkpoints inland, when you're headed out of the Rio Grande Valley or other parts of Texas, the corruption on that level goes hand in hand. One of the examples is when I was in the Valley, a whole drug unit went down. The sheriff's son is now doing prison time for helping run drugs through the Rio Grande Valley, is what he was convicted of. And so that's, that's something that we have to consider as well. And then as far as what I have seen on the enforcement side with the existing barriers that we have, the tall metal structures that you see right now, right, the fence or the wall, whatever you want to call it, when I was there, I talked to Border Patrol about it and they said, you know, there are these gaps along the fencing now. And it's for several reasons. One, like I said, you got to get through. You got farmland on one side, you get the pump houses, things like that. Right. But the other thing is, it was used as a way to funnel people and then that way they could try to catch people as they are being funneled through. If that worked, you know, you would know better than I do. But I know that was part of the intention when it was built then."
Goudeau: "You know, regardless, I think Texas has put forth a lot of money in border security. If we look at the budget that the legislature just passed, they are including $1 billion for border security in this biennium. That's up from $800 million in the last biennium. And there's kind of been this mindset with Texas lawmakers and Texas leaders where they say, 'OK, even though this is a federal responsibility, they're not meeting that responsibility. So we're going to fund border security and then just bill the federal government.' Well, we know that Texas has not been getting its money back from the federal government. They are not seemingly taking these bills Texas is sending them seriously. And so it is quite expensive. And yet we see people, particularly Republican voters, say they want to see this money spent this way. Mr. Payan, your thoughts on the money aspect of all of this?"
Payan: "I think Texas, the Texas legislature just passed a budget of around $250 billion. About $1 billion of that money was allocated to DPS, the Texas Department of Public Safety. And that was the case in 2015 and 2017 and 2019. So Texans have spent roughly close to $4 billion, $3.5 billion now on border security with very few results. Every single immigrant that you catch, every single kilogram of fentanyl that your catch is costing Texans a lot of their taxpayers' money. I think it's kind of unrealistic. Look, I suggest that the governor would be better off talking to the Texas business community, to the Texas NGOs, establish a cross-party dialog to see how to deal with this issue and of course, reach out to Washington, D.C., to see what they have planned and how Texas can magnify that effort by the federal government and how they can coordinate these efforts. Because the way it is being proposed right now, it is really up and against the federal government, which has many more resources than Texas can actually throw at this particular problem. But that's not what the governor is doing. I think it's going to be an over, a huge burden over Texas taxpayers, and it's going to have very little impact on anything that happens on the border."
Proffer: "Yeah, you know, with that, Ashley, I think our work is cut out for us. You know, one of our jobs is to make sure that the taxpayer money is well spent. And if we're enhancing border security, well then let's make sure that it goes to border security and not just people sitting around not doing anything. And I think that's where we all have to be watchdogs in that aspect, to see whatever shakes out of this, that it's being used to the way voters want it and to the way that it was projected to us."
Payan: "And of course, I want to add that the governor is currently proposing also that Texas detain immigrants and deport them. I'm not sure that jurisdictionally that corresponds to the state government. But then he is also doubling down and saying that individuals caught a second, third, fourth time would have to spend time in Texas jails. That also costs a lot of money. And I'm not sure the governor can get that kind of money. I'm not even sure the governor has the authority to allocate the $1 billion in the 2021 budget that was given to DPS for the border wall construction. So he doesn't have the money even to keep these people in jail in Texas. So it seems to me that the governor is really talking about something else or perhaps has other worries than actual border security. He doesn't have the money. He doesn't have the jurisdiction. He's not been allocated the money. And yet he's making these kinds of promises that cannot, very likely, not keep."
Ashley: "You know, we want to talk about the role that politics plays in this because politics plays a role in everything – and whether we like it or not. Consistently, the messaging that we are seeing poll after poll with Republican voters is that border security is a top concern for them. An April UT/Texas Tribune poll found that 72% percent of Republican voters say immigrants who come into the country illegally should be immediately deported. In February of this year, the same poll, another poll rather by UT and The Texas Tribune, found that Republican voters say border security and immigration are among the highest-ranking problems the state faces. We know that we are coming up on an election year and that Gov. Greg Abbott does have primary challengers who are [focusing on] the border. We also know that the Republican Party in and of itself is targeting south Texas. They believe that they can flip six statehouse seats in this next election. They want to have a big impact and they want to attract and seem attractive to these voters there that are along the border and perhaps some of the policy that they want to see or fixing some of the problems that they see they have. Mr. Payan, your thoughts on the politics of all of this?"
Payan: "That is correct. I think you've pointed out to something very important, which is the Valley of Texas went for the Republican Party in the 2020 elections. They voted for Donald Trump quite heavily, some of the counties in the South, in South Texas. And I think the Republicans see an opportunity there and they think they can offer Hispanics in South Texas, I guess, security and public safety and certain things to reassure them that they are welcome in the Republican Party. I'm not sure that this was not just a blip in the 2020 election and then there will be a correction back to the Democratic Party. But I think the governor is investing some of that discourse and some of that narrative in south Texas. That is, that it's going to be key. And of course, the governor is facing a challenge, certainly from an even more radical candidate than the governor himself, [Don] Huffines from Texas, who is coming from the right. And, of course, the governor wants to fend that challenger off. And then that's an election in 2022. And I think the governor may have some intentions for a run in 2024 at the national level. And, of course, that means appealing to Trump's base because the Republican Party today is really Trump's political party. And so the governor understands the politics within the Republican Party and understands the politics in South Texas and is trying to play this game, even if it means that he's making a promise that is really questionable in terms of its actual effectiveness."
Goudeau: "You know, we've talked a lot about Texas, a lot about the U.S. We haven't talked so much about Mexico. My last question for you is, what do Mexican leaders make of all of this?
Speaker 3: "Yeah, that's a very good question. Obviously, [President] Lopez Obrador, who just went through a midterm election in which he didn't fare very well, had found a modus vivendi with Mr. Trump. He gave Mr. Trump what he wanted on immigration, which is essentially stemming the flow of immigrants from Central America by using the military and the National Guard, and that worked a little bit. This was after 2019 when the numbers went really, really high, even though right now in the month of May, you had 180,000 people. We have to remember that in 2019, President Trump also saw a surge about 120 to 130,000. And so that was an important peak. And he pressed on Mr. Lopez Obrador, who cooperated with Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden has a different approach. He sent the vice president, Kamala Harris, to Mexico City to try some carrots and, of course, some promises for Mexico and for Central America. I think they're right in addressing the need for the push forces that you see in Central America and of course, in some areas in Mexico, because we do have to remember almost half of all those detained, all those encounters at the border with Mexico are not Mexican citizens. This comes to reverse a trend three, four years ago, we're talking about zero Mexican migration or even negative Mexican migration. Mexicans are migrating again. The situation in Mexico is not very good. And so I think Biden's correct. But it is a long, long-term approach. You're not going to develop rural Mexico and Central America in a year or two or even one administration. And so they have to deal with both the border now and development further south as soon as they can to set the foundations for a longer-term plan."
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