Greg Abbott via Twitter

Greg Abbott’s Jankety Border ‘Wall’

A flawed idea and political symbol grows ever more slapdash.

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The Texas border wall has never been a terribly smart idea. Up front, it costs tens of millions of dollars per mile to erect, only to require millions more in perpetuity as migrants and smugglers climb, cut, and tunnel their way through anyway. It entangles federal lawyers in years-long court battles to wrench private land from deeply rooted Texas families, and it presents flood mitigation headaches along the Rio Grande. All for what amounts to a tall speed bump for border-crossers, many of whom are simply exercising their legal right to request asylum.

Leave it to Republican Governor Greg Abbott, though, who’s attempting to take over the wall-building crusade after President Biden halted Trump’s plans, to make a dumb idea dumber. The term “border wall” has long carried some semantic ambiguity: In practice it has referred to tall steel border fencing, sometimes placed atop a concrete wall. Now, Abbott’s stretched the term past breaking, using “steel wall” to designate both a line of state trooper vehicles in Del Rio and, as of this week, a row of shipping containers placed along the riverbank in Eagle Pass. Elsewhere, the state has erected chain link fencing, in the hopes of prosecuting fence-cutters or jumpers for criminal trespass. 

In either an admiring reference to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive line or a 2005 military operation in Iraq—if not a nostalgic homage to a divided Europe—the state is referring to the governor’s xenophobic Jenga tower as Operation Steel Curtain. In a state too austere to expand Medicaid, fund water infrastructure, or air condition its prisons, the governor has a cool billion in taxpayer dollars to spend on his ersatz walls. That’s not to mention the roughly half billion a year the Legislature has dedicated to border security, essentially a federal responsibility, since 2016. 

In mid-November, the Laredo City Council unanimously rejected an offer by the state Department of Public Safety to erect a border fence on city land at no cost to the city. “We want to say no, thank you but no thank you, to Governor Abbott. … We’ve been against a border wall,” said Council Member Mercurio Martinez before the vote. Earlier this year, the Biden Administration called off federal plans to build a Laredo border wall, which had drawn fierce and prolonged community opposition. 

In Roma, a border city of about 11,000 in Starr County, the administration has also reversed course on Trump’s border wall plans. The Justice Department has finally returned some land to the City of Roma that was first seized by President Bush in 2008. But, according to Assistant City Manager Freddy Guerra, Texas is now pushing for a fence along the river in Roma, too. “The state has become fairly aggressive in their attempts to build an alternative type of structure. … It’s a little sad that after 12, 13 years, we get the property revested and the same week we have DPS, National Guard measuring for the fence ,” said Guerra in a November 12 phone call, noting that Roma’s city council would decide what happens with the city’s riverside property. 

The federal government’s far sturdier border fencing is routinely defeated by smugglers using household tools available at your local hardware store. So it’s hard to imagine Abbott’s jury-rigged structures faring better long-term. But the governor’s barrier-building bonanza is fundamentally a political project; he has primary challengers, after all, and a Democratic president to rail against. 

Over and over, a presidential administration is faced with our hemispheric and global refugee crisis. The exact migration patterns shift, as do the specific tales of horror and courage, but the broad trends persist and are set to deepen with climate change. Another seeming constant: The Texas governor will see not people but a chance for political gain and media spectacle, another chance to talk tough, fuel the fires of white supremacy, and, of course, make sure the photographers get his good side.