The Texas Senate on Tuesday passed legislation that funds more than $1.5 billion for construction of state-built border walls and other barriers on the southern border. The Senate bill would also provide an additional $40 million to the Texas Department of Public Safety and, if passed, would add to the $5.1 billion in border-security funding that lawmakers appropriated earlier this year.
Gov. Greg Abbott ordered lawmakers to address additional funding and other border and immigration legislation during the current special session of the Texas Legislature, the third this year.
Debate came a day after the Senate Finance Committee heard from the Texas Facilities Commission, the state agency overseeing construction of the border wall, that the state is spending between $25 million and $30 million for every mile of the wall. To date, the state has only built about 12 miles of wall after Abbott initiated the state project more than two years ago.
Republicans were unfazed at the costs, however, and cited the record level of unauthorized crossings into Texas under the Biden administration as justification for the spending.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, authored the bill and said the allocation was necessary despite the border funding that has already been set aside in the two-year budget. She said the $5.1 billion came after budget workshops that began about a year ago. Since that time, she added, the Texas Facilities Commission has accelerated its land acquisition necessary to continue construction.
"They've done a lot better in acquiring these landowner agreements, the dam sort of broke, and they had an opportunity to speed up the process," she said. Huffman conceded that a wall isn't failsafe, but that something needs to be done to address the "crisis" at the border.
"Is this a perfect solution? No, it's just a tool. The experts tell us that walls work. Again, they're not perfect [but] they act as a deterrent," she said.
After the vote, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick admonished the Biden administration while taking credit for the state's effort to construct its own barrier.
"In January of 2019, I was the first person to suggest that Texas should build the wall to secure our southern border, and now, the Texas Senate has passed SB 6, which appropriates $1.54 billion to continue building the border wall in addition to the over $5 billion appropriated in our budget to continue funding Operation Lone Star," he said.
Opponents of state-based border enforcement point to the fact that Texas has spent billions of dollars in taxpayer money on such efforts, but the number of crossings continues to swell. And asylum seekers can be behind the wall but north of the Rio Grande and still be able to seek asylum, as many of the unauthorized immigrants crossing the border have done.
"Most of us who live on the border do not want militarization and from experience, we scoff at physical walls," state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said during closing remarks. "For we know too well that for every wall, there is a taller ladder, an underground tunnel, and a wrecking ball."
The bill now heads to the Texas House, which has already passed its own border security funding bill. House Bill 6 allots about the same amount and has been referred to a Senate committee for further consideration. Either version could head to Abbott's desk for his signature. The current special session ends next week.
Colony Ridge ... Again.
Earlier Tuesday, a panel of lawmakers heard testimony about a development in southeast Texas called Colony Ridge. It marked the second time in two weeks the developer of the neighborhood told lawmakers it wasn't the haven for gangs and undocumented immigrants that some far-right media and representatives alleged it was. And for the second time in two weeks, his claims were backed up by local and state law enforcement.
The Texas Senate Committee on Local Government convened to hear invited testimony about the development in Liberty County that lawmakers set in their sights after an article published in May from by the Center for Immigration Studies, a far-right organization that advocates for limited immigration.
The story led Patrick to take an aerial tour of the development and release a statement that said, in part: "Some reports claim Colony Ridge may have become a magnet for people from around the world who are not U.S. citizens. With the Biden administration allowing millions of people to cross the Texas border, many ask if this community is going to become its own enclave with a population bigger than a mid-size city inside the state of Texas."
Gov. Abbott also tasked lawmakers with investigating the community during the current special session of the Legislature, though legislation affecting the community has not been filed.
John Harris, the CEO of the Colony Ridge, told state senators that the attention Colony Ridge has garnered in the past months came as a surprise.
"We've heard a lot of outlandish stories and as I think a lot of people are coming to realize, most of them weren't true," he said.
Harris said the development was created after he and his partners saw a business opportunity to buy and develop land and sell it. In the process, he added, he was able to offer housing opportunities to people who had been passed over.
"We did really well with it because there are a lot of people that have kind of been cut out of the opportunities that most of us have in this country," he said. "And we were shocked at how fast this happened."
Like he did during a House committee hearing on Oct. 19, Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers that the area hasn't seen more crime than other neighborhoods of comparable size, including specific portions of Travis County that include Austin.
"We've been in operations in Austin, working with our partners in APD, so we can compare apples and apples," he said. "And of course, there is a dramatic difference: the crime was substantially lower in the Colony Ridge area."
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, said the issue was initiated by the state's GOP leadership based on social media posts by far-right groups and lawmakers.
"Let's be clear here – there's nothing out of the ordinary about Colony Ridge. It is a community with lower crime rates than surrounding areas that is being dog-piled on by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General's Office because of a MAGA conspiracy theory," he said. "Republicans would rather take up a witch-hunt against this community than make Texans' lives better in all these special sessions."
Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at email@example.com.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar. KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.