Despite Texas lawmakers’ urgent calls to secure the border and fill in gaps they say the federal government has left wide open, a key effort Gov. Greg Abbott deemed a priority in 2015 isn’t off the ground yet.
And it's looking like money to get the project going will come from that same federal government after state lawmakers decided against funding the task themselves.
During the 84th Legislature, Abbott included on his list of border security items a state effort to rid the banks of the Rio Grande of Carrizo cane, an invasive species that provides a natural cover for dope smugglers and illegal crossers and impedes law enforcement officers’ line of sight.
Abbott asked the Legislature for $9.8 million to start wiping out cane along the border, but a Senate bill that directed the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board to develop an eradication plan was never funded. Money for the program wasn't included in a sweeping $800 million package of legislation for border security efforts.
A subsequent plan to transfer $500,000 from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was also scrapped after Abbott’s office told the agency it found another source of funding.
On Tuesday, Abbott’s office said it will use about $190,000 — less than 2 percent of what was originally proposed — in funds from a federal justice assistance grant.
A spokesperson in Abbott’s office said the same amount will be available next year, but the money isn’t likely to make a huge dent in the problem. The money will fund the eradication of about 700 acres, but there are tens of thousands more along the banks of the river, said Aaron Wendt, a natural resources policy analyst with the conservation board.
“We’re not going to call it a demonstration project because it’s not, but that’s what it will look like,” he said. “We’ve got interest in quite a few areas and quite a few counties. Our estimates that people have given us is anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 acres of cane.”
Wendt said the amount requested was so small because it was what remained of the grant and needed to be used.
“It’s old money in the grant, so it has to be spent,” he said.
Abbott’s office said the Carrizo eradication is another step toward the governor’s goal of securing the border and follows efforts that have already been funded.
“With Governor Abbott having already signed into law the toughest border security plan in the nation, the additional funding from the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division to eliminate Carrizo cane will remove another obstacle to allow border officials to better detect illegal and criminal activity,” spokesman John Wittman said in an email. Wittman added that the funding will increase to $500,000 over the current biennium, which ends next summer.
The Texas Border Coalition, an advocacy group composed of elected officials and community and business leaders from the Texas-Mexico border, has been following the state’s effort and contends more needs to be done.
Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chairwoman of the coalition's immigration and border security subcommittee, praised the state’s efforts but said officials needed to communicate with their federal counterparts to find a permanent fix.
“It’s pretty mind-boggling that there isn’t a solution that can be easily done,” she said. “It’s kind of sad that 10 years later, we’re talking about the same thing.”
She said part of the solution could be educating people who aren’t from the border that there is more to security than equipment and more guns.
“When you talk about giving line of sight to Border Patrol, no gun can do that,” she said.
Wendt said even with the allotment, it would still be months before the project begins.
“We’re going to have to go out for a public bid for contractors to actually do the work on the landowners’ property,” he said.