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El Paso state Democrats want more oversight on border-security spending

Members of the Texas National Guard stop asylum-seeking migrants attempting to cross the border into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 21, 2022.
Jim Urquhart for NPR
Members of the Texas National Guard stop asylum-seeking migrants attempting to cross the border into the United States in El Paso, Texas, U.S., December 21, 2022.

The lawmakers say that despite billions spent, the state’s border efforts aren’t working.

Outnumbered as they prepare to gavel in for the upcoming Texas legislative session, El Paso Democrats know that the Republican majority will again make immigration and border-security spending a priority in Austin. They also know they lack the numbers to hold sway over some of the GOP’s priorities.

But border Democrats are hopeful that some Republicans will join them in demanding more oversight on how money for border security is spent.

Since its inception in March 2021, Operation Lone Star — a state-led border-security effort initiated by Gov. Greg Abbott — billions in taxpayer money have been spent on equipment and a surge of Texas Department of Public Safety officers and state National Guard units to the border.

State Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, said the operation hasn’t yielded the desired results and instead has turned into a spending spree for Abbott and other Republicans. But he said the recent attention that’s been paid to El Paso — where migrant crossings numbered thousands per day last month — could be used as a catalyst to justify more spending.

“What we’ve been doing in terms of border security spending, as long as I’ve been in the Legislature, it’s not worked,” he said. “So, I think we’ve got to rethink the strategy. This is something that myself and the Democratic state senators along the Texas-Mexico border have been talking about for quite some time.”

Despite the state’s efforts, which have included arresting undocumented immigrants on trespassing charges, setting up razor wire and empty cargo trailers on the border, and building portions of a so-called border wall in parts of South Texas, unauthorized crossings continue at record levels.

To fuel the effort Abbott took nearly $500 million of state funds from several agencies in April 2022 and transferred them to Operation Lone Star. That included money from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, ($53.6 million); the Texas Department of Public Safety ($159.2 million); the Texas Health and Human Services Commission ($210.6 million); the Texas Department of State Health Services ($36 million); the Texas Alcoholic and Beverage Commission TABC ($4.3 million); and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department ($31 million).

“This additional funding ensures the Lone Star State is fully equipped to provide Texans the border security strategy they demand and deserve," Abbott said in a press release at the time.

State Rep. Claudia Ordaz-Perez, an El Paso Democrat who will serve her second term in the Texas House this year, said those kinds of budgetary moves need to be scrutinized.

“The issue that I have with that is that there's really no sense of accountability when it comes to the appropriation process,” she said. “The governor has pretty much allocated funding towards this without any sort of input from the Legislature.”

Blanco said he’s discussed the issue with Republicans who agree the state needs to be more transparent on how the billions are being spent — and whether the effort is worth the cost.

“If they are truly fiscal conservatives, they need to be asking these questions. What are we getting for our money?” he said. “And it seems to me that there is a shift, at least with some Republicans, that that those questions are starting to be asked.”

But Blanco also acknowledged that Republicans will likely eye the state’s current surplus as money that’s available for more border security spending.

“We're going to go into this session with this large surplus of $27 billion,” he said. “I think it's pretty safe to assume that the Republicans are going to want to spend more state dollars on border security, which you and I and everybody knows — including Republicans — it is a federal responsibility.”

Ordaz said aside from keying in on oversight, the delegation will urge lawmakers to look beyond immigration when debating border policies.

“This has become such a political issue. We are used in El Paso as a political football at times, which is really unfortunate,” she said. “We always hear about border security, when the border is so much more than just that. So, for me, it's always trying to insert the other aspects about the potential the border has when it comes to our workforce, when it comes to economic development, when it comes to job creation.”

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.