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A state House committee approved a $1.5 billion proposal Monday that would allow Gov. Greg Abbott to continue his efforts to build border barriers along different parts of the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border.
The state House Appropriations Committee voted 14-9 in favor of House Bill 6.
State Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, the bill’s sponsor, said there is a dire need for Texas to build more border barriers because of the historically high number of migrants crossing.
“I believe that voters today are more than eager to see this border secured and wouldn't have issue with $1.5 billion being spent towards a border wall,” he said.
The money would be on top of at least $1.5 billion in contracts the state has issued since September 2021 to build about 40 miles of border barrier. As of August, Texas had erected 10 miles of steel bollard barrier in different parts of the Texas-Mexico border, including in Starr, Cameron, Val Verde and Webb counties.
The one-page bill says the state would appropriate $1.5 billion to continue paying five contractors to erect an additional 50 miles of border barriers and to maintain the currently planned 40 miles of barrier, according to testimony provided by officials with the governor’s office.
U.S. Border Patrol agents have had a historically high number of encounters with migrants on the southern border in recent years: 1.7 million in fiscal year 2021, a record topped the next year when agents recorded 2.2 million encounters. In fiscal year 2023, which ended Sept. 30, the number dropped slightly to 2 million encounters.
But Democratic lawmakers on the committee said the bill is too expensive and there’s nothing in the proposal that shows a barrier will be effective.
“What I'm trying to figure out here is there a strategic plan that's going to take us to this goal? Is there a plan that shows we need to do this X, Y and Z over this period of time?” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “And that we're going to be assessing that along the way to determine the effectiveness of what we're putting in place?”
Mike Banks, who the governor’s office hired in January as its border czar, said that the plan could change depending on what the federal government does on immigration policy and how drug cartels, which have controlled immigration routes, react to a border barrier.
“I can tell you that everywhere the U.S. government has put a wall and everywhere we have put up infrastructure, it has moved that traffic,” Banks said. “The intent is to make Texas the least desirable place to cross illegally.”
If the bill is approved, the state could have about 100 miles of border barrier by September 2026 — on top of barriers built by the federal government. However, the state would still need to secure easements to access privately-owned land to erect the barriers.
Jetton, the bill’s author, said the state would not use eminent domain to take land away from owners. The agreements between the state and landowners would be voluntary, he said.
John Raff, a deputy executive director for the Texas Facilities Commission, the state agency in charge of overseeing the construction of the barrier, told the committee that once a landowner signs an agreement with the state, they would not be able to back out later.
David Stout, an El Paso County commissioner and the chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, a nonprofit organization made up of elected officials and business leaders from El Paso to Brownsville, said the additional $1.5 billion for barriers being debated by lawmakers could be spent on other things that border residents need such as better roads, health care and public education.
“I think building more walls is just going to be wasting taxpayer money, and then they don't work,” he said. “If it did work, then we wouldn't be seeing the large number of migrants coming across.”
Mark Morgan, former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the Trump administration and visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., said a wall works if it’s complemented with more law enforcement officers on the border and technology to assist them.
He added that a wall alone will not stop people from attempting to enter the country illegally but it can slow them down, giving agents time to apprehend them. It also encourages people who want to seek asylum to go to a port of entry.
“The wall is not meant to be perfect but it does give us a fighting chance,“ said Morgan, who was also the Border Patrol’s chief during the Obama administration. “It puts us in the driver’s seat and increases our response to more effectively interdict bad things and bad people from coming into the U.S.”
Immigration agents don’t always process migrants seeking asylum at a port of entry without an appointment, which are limited.
Meanwhile, the federal government has made moves to build more border barriers as well. Despite President Joe Biden’s campaign promises that “there will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration,” some barrier construction has continued.
Earlier this month, his administration said it plans to waive 26 environmental laws and regulations in order to “take immediate action” to build a few miles of new barrier in Starr County. Biden told reporters that he was required by law to continue certain wall construction because Congress appropriated money for it. That appropriation occurred in 2019, before Biden took office.
“I tried to get … them to reappropriate it, to redirect that money,” he said. “They didn’t. They wouldn’t. And in the meantime, there’s nothing under the law other than they have to use the money for what it was appropriated. I can’t stop that.”
Still, Biden said, he doesn’t believe walls are a solution to illegal immigration.
Generally, there has been bipartisan support to erect barriers along the border in recent decades. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act that led to the construction of 654 miles of fencing over nine years along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In recent years, more countries have built walls, fences or other types of barriers on their borders, according to a March 2022 report by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Washington, D.C.
“There were only a dozen border walls at the end of the Cold War, but the number has since more than sextupled,” the report says.
Élisabeth Vallet, the report’s author, said walls do not solve the underlying reasons for why people migrate, and they get “circumvented and breached,” which she says serves as evidence to wall supporters that they are necessary.
“Walls do not achieve the objectives for which they are said to be erected; they have limited effects in stemming insurgencies and do not block unwanted [migrant] flows, but rather lead to a re-routing of migrants to other paths,” Vallet wrote.
Reece Jones, an associate professor of geography at the University of Hawaii and the author of “White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall,” said border barriers may not stop the movement of migrants, “but are powerful nationalist symbols.”
Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana, an assistant professor in the Black and Latino Studies Department at Baruch College in New York City, said that if the intent of border barriers is to force people to take dangerous routes to enter the U.S., then they are working.
But like other experts, she said they don’t stop people from crossing the southern border and serve more as a monument for people who want to stop illegal immigration.
“It serves to send a message,” she said. “And that message is not a welcoming one.”