AUSTIN, Texas – The approval by Texas lawmakers this month of $ 788 million to build a barrier along the Texas-Mexico border, as well as $ 54 million raised in private donations to achieve this goal would appear to be major victories for Governor Greg Abbott, who had been pushing for tighter border security.
But federalism, landowner rights and environmental concerns could block Abbott’s vision before the first spade hits land, analysts and legal scholars have said.
Republican governor proposes wall and backs other conservative issues – such as eliminating abortion in Texas and tightening voting restrictions – ahead of governor’s re-election next year and possible candidacy in the 2024 presidential election, said Mark Jones, a politician at Rice University. scientist.
“Being strong at the border is a winning question in Texas, as long as you play well,” he said.
Abbott announced plans to build a wall in Texas in June as the number of Southwest border arrests by federal agents continued to rise. U.S. customs and border patrol officers encountered 212,672 people trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in July, up from 188,9934 in June. That’s the most they’ve seen in nearly two decades, according to border patrol statistics.
Immigration analysts said migrants were fleeing poverty, violence and devastation from natural disasters in their home countries, hoping to take advantage of President Joe Biden’s softened approach to immigration. Days after taking office in January, Biden rescinded many of former President Trump’s immigration policies. Biden’s rules allow undocumented children to enter the United States; eliminate the “Remain in Mexico” program, which required most migrants to stay in Mexico to await their immigration hearings; and stop the construction of the border wall.
Almost a third of those who arrived at the border this summer – about 27% – were repeat offenders, statistics show.
Abbott pointed out that Biden’s immigration policies were the main motivations for building the wall. The state is seeking to build about 733 miles of barrier – more than half of the state’s 1,254-mile border with Mexico – to stem the flow of undocumented migrants, Abbott’s press secretary said , Renae Eze, in an email response to questions posed by USA TODAY. .
Abbott announced plans for a border wall after calling a border security summit in Del Rio, Texas in June that brought together law enforcement, city and county officials and landlords. local land, according to press releases.
Earlier this month, Texas lawmakers approved a $ 1.8 billion border security bill, including $ 788 million for border gates. Abbott also launched a private donation campaign to raise money for the wall which racked up $ 54 million in August alone.
“The Biden administration has abandoned its responsibilities to secure the border and Texans are suffering,” Abbott said in a statement in June announcing plans for the wall. “Texas is doing more than any state to protect the border, but clearly more is needed.”
But the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that border security is a federal responsibility, which could be used to derail Abbott’s efforts in court, said Carlos Evaristo Flores, an attorney for Laredo who has represented landowners across the country. Texas near the border in lawsuits against the federal government.
Additionally, the federal rules allow the federal government to bypass environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, to initiate construction along environmentally sensitive sections of the border, Flores said. But state officials are not entitled to these exceptions, he said.
Ultimately, Abbott’s office will have to acquire private land to build a wall in Texas, as most of Texas’ border with Mexico is in private hands. The federal government has been engaged for decades in lawsuits with Texas landowners to acquire land and build border fences.
Abbott administration officials have said they plan to erect the wall only on land where the owners voluntarily allow construction. More than 90 landowners have agreed to place temporary fences on their property, while the state is hiring a program manager to lead the planning and execution of the border wall project, Eze said.
“Border security is not a red or blue issue – it’s a public safety issue,” she said.
But Flores sees it more as a political issue: Like Trump before him, Abbott’s wall proposal is a way to use the border to gain political points, he said.
“It has become fashionable to identify a problem at the border, let’s say the problem is the border, so that an elected official can run for office,” Flores said. “It’s not based on reality.”
Even if the state erects sections of the border wall on the lands of willing Texans, how it manages or engages in the enforcement of the structure should raise serious legal and constitutional issues, said Denise Gilman, clinical professor. at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and co-director of the UT Immigration Clinic.
“It is starting to look a lot like the state government enforcing immigration, which it cannot do under constitutional law,” she said.
All of this is taking place as Abbott’s re-election to the primary and general election looms next year. Abbott’s approval ratings fell after a difficult year in which a winter storm cut power to 4.5 million homes and killed more than 200 people and the coronavirus returned, infecting nearly 20,000 people per day. Nearly 60,000 Texans have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
A poll released last week by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin showed 50% of Texans disapprove of Abbott’s actions and 41% approve – the lowest six-term approval rating. years of Abbott.
“It’s been a very bad summer in Texas, and it’s been a very difficult year,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project. Texas Republicans “responded to this by doubling down on their conservative policies.”
Abbott’s name has also been mentioned by pundits as a potential Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential election, alongside Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Unlike DeSantis, however, Abbott could capitalize on the border security debate, a key debate for Conservative voters, Jones said.
“He may or may not have presidential aspirations,” he said. “But politically, it benefits him to have his name in the mix… even if he decides he doesn’t want to.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.