Analysis: Abbott’s border initiative is expensive, ineffective and not as tough as it sounds

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw speaks at a press conference with Gov. Greg Abbott in Weslaco on April 6, 2022. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

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Unconventional Wisdom - April 8, 2022

Caring more about politics than about people is apparently easy, once you get the hang of it.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to bus undocumented immigrants to Washington, D.C., to display his opposition to the Biden administration’s immigration policies, to win some attention in an election year and to turn conversation away from the thin results of the state’s expensive border security efforts.

Abbott’s proposal for caravans to the U.S. Capitol won’t do anything for the migrants or remedy the mess on the border, but they’re just collateral in a debate where too many people in power are trying harder to get political points than to get solutions. The migrants are getting a foot in the back from the state’s top politicians, who have also targeted transgender kids in public schools, college professors and public school leaders.

They’re vilifying and bullying people instead of solving problems.

This week’s announcement got Abbott some attention on TV — especially before his staff clarified that only migrants who “volunteer” would be transported. In his blustery announcement on Wednesday, Abbott made it sound like he was announcing a bold poke at the feds, planning to ship thousands of migrants on as many as 900 buses.

The Texas Tribune’s James Barragán reported that the stern proposal was weakened considerably in the fine print, which said that only “volunteers” who had been processed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would be sent to Washington.

Abbott is grabbing headlines in an election year, and this performance momentarily raised an issue Abbott wants to talk about and to put his name in the same sentence with President Joe Biden’s.

The governor had a political purpose, too: diverting voters’ eyes from the disappointing results of the state’s showy $3 billion border security efforts. Those results were detailed by Lomi Kriel and Perla Trevizo of The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, and Andrew Rodriguez Calderón and Keri Blakinger of The Marshall Project.

The operation has also produced piles of ticky-tacky misdemeanor trespassing charges against thousands of undocumented immigrants and few of the kinds of smuggling and drug trafficking arrests touted as the reason for the spending, as reported by The Texas Tribune’s Jolie McCullough.

Within hours after announcing the government plan, Abbott’s campaign was using it in a fundraising appeal to supporters.

“Governor Greg Abbott JUST ANNOUNCED that Texas is going to use charter buses to DROP OFF BIDEN’S ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS in Washington, DC,” read the appeal on Abbott’s campaign website. “We want to MAKE SURE that Biden knows JUST HOW REAL this crisis is.”

While Abbott’s border program is already costing the state billions of dollars, Texas Military Department officials told legislators this week they need another $531 million to keep operating past May. National Guard troops deployed on the border by the governor have complained about their living and work conditions and pay.

What began as a broad attack on the Biden administration’s border policies and immigration enforcement won favor last year with Texas lawmakers, who approved billions in spending when Abbott asked. Months later, the troops and the state police were at the border, along with some wall builders, but the results have been meager. More importantly, the state’s work doesn’t seem to have much effect on the numbers of people crossing or trying to cross into the U.S.

The administration now wants to end “Title 42,” which started during the pandemic and allows immigration officials to turn people away at the border. Abbott’s proposals to ship migrants to the nation’s capital, to step up inspections of commercial vehicles coming into Texas, and to put boat blockades and concertina wire at some cross points on the Rio Grande are all responses to ending Title 42.

How does all of that add up?

What sounded in the governor’s words like a forced transport of migrants from Texas to Washington will be “voluntary.”

The National Guard troops on the Texas-Mexico border are running out of money and asking the state for more.

The governor’s Operation Lone Star isn’t producing the kinds of law enforcement results that would burnish the governor’s reputation — or anyone else’s.

The politics of Operation Lone Star might turn out better than the actual endeavor. The elections are in November.

And Texas legislators will be back in January to look at all of it, to write a new state budget and to decide whether Abbott’s $3 billion border adventure deserves any more of the taxpayers’ money.

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