The Border Debate is Changing at the Capitol. With Newfound Influence, Can Democrats Go Beyond Playing Defense?

With more than a dozen new Democrats in the Legislature, opponents of Trump’s wall and the state’s long-running border surge want to focus on facts, not warped rhetoric.

State Representative Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.
State Representative Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. Sam Degrave

In between singing Texas’ economic praises and listing his emergency items for this legislative session, Governor Greg Abbott named another pet priority during his State of the State address last week: fully funding security at the Texas-Mexico border, to the tune of $800 million.

Where his calls to prioritize school finance, property tax reform and mental health services prompted standing ovations, the topic of border security drew muted applause. State Representative Gene Wu, D-Houston, noted on Twitter that only one lawmaker stood in support of the governor’s appeal.

Abbott’s almost cursory treatment of the issue stood in contrast to the battle cries of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who recently offered Texas’ help in building the wall and said he wants Trump to declare a national emergency to get it done.

Abbott’s reluctance to grandstand on border security and immigration signals a changing mood at the Capitol, said state Representative Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass: “There’s not a lot of appetite for [the Republican brand of border security]. I think we’ve seen enough of that.”

border everywhere
A Border Patrol air boat patrols the Rio Grande near Laredo.  Donna Burton/Flickr

This session, Texas Democrats believe they’re in a better position to push back against anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. First, Democrats picked up more than a dozen legislative seats in midterm elections, during which Texas Republicans fared poorly. Second, two important Texas House committees are now chaired by Democrats; Nevárez is chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, and state Representative Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, is chairing the House International Relations and Economic Development Committee for the third time. Then there’s the broader political context, namely an unpopular president set on keeping what seems to be a losing issue for the GOP in the national spotlight.

Anchía, who leads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC), said he and Nevárez plan to hold joint committee hearings to get the message out that there is no crisis at the border.

“[The wall] is a boondoggle wrapped in a travesty wrapped in some absurdity,” Nevárez said. “And I feel sorry for people that think somehow this is going to make their life better. It’s not.”

Democrats have filed proposals to push back against Trump’s border wall and challenge the Department of Public Safety’s long-running border security surge. That includes bills calling for a study by state agencies to find whether construction of a wall would have harmful environmental effects; resolutions that would urge Congress to oppose wall construction at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park; and a bill that would require DPS to report its crime statistics more accurately.

Protesters at demonstration against the border wall in McAllen in 2018.  Gus Bova

Nevárez said he expects legislators this session to discuss DPS’ faulty border-crime statistics, which have been used to justify dramatic increases in state funding. For the third time since 2015, both the House and Senate budget proposals include almost $800 million for border security efforts, the vast majority of which will fund DPS. Since 2008, the state has granted at least $2.4 billion for border security, 90 percent of which has gone to the agency.

Yet a 2018 review by the Sunset Advisory Commission called DPS’ reporting of its border security metrics “insufficient.” An Austin American-Statesman investigation also showed that nearly 30 percent of DPS’ “border arrests” actually occurred more than 100 miles from the border, and the agency had padded its drug seizure stats by including Border Patrol numbers.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw  www.txdps.state.tx.us

During a House Appropriations Committee hearing last week, Houston Democrats Armando Walle and Jarvis Johnson pressed DPS Director Steven McCraw on whether increased investments on the border have been worth it. Because drug seizures and apprehensions at the border are defined by other agencies’ data, McCraw couldn’t give a clear answer: “We don’t really know, because we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Nevárez said that border spending should be directed to areas where “these drugs and gangs are making a real dent. They’re not making that dent on the border.”

But with Republicans still controlling the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, Democrats  remain likely to be on the defense. It’s hard to see how legislation will slip past Abbott or Patrick.

The uptick in Democrats in the statehouse “doesn’t change some of the political realities that still exist in the state of Texas,” said state Representative Mary González, a Clint Democrat who serves as vice chair of MALC. “It’s a marathon trying to fight for social justice.”

With property tax and school finance reform taking priority so far this session, GOP state lawmakers have largely stayed quiet about the wall and supposed crisis in the borderlands — though two tea party lawmakers in the House are now floating the idea of tapping the state’s savings account to pay for a border wall.

Republicans have filed bills to tackle private companies’ use of eminent domain to snatch property from landowners, and state leaders in the interim railed against the federal government’s attempts to seize private land along the Texas-Oklahoma border. Yet federal use of eminent domain to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall — affecting, so far, the historic La Lomita chapel, the National Butterfly Center and private farmland, among others — has not raised the same furor among purported liberty-minded Republicans.

State Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, filed legislation to provide for greater oversight of companies that use eminent domain, including measures that would protect landowners from being rushed into accepting lowball offers for their land.

Asked about her stance on the condemnation of land for the border wall, Kolkhorst said her bill is limited to for-profit entities and does not address federal use of eminent domain. But she hinted, somewhat vaguely, at the possibility of expanding her legislation.

“With what we’re seeing along the border, if the federal government was going to go in and use that, well, I wish this would be a broader bill,” she said. “There may be amendments to that, you never know.” Kolkhorst has not responded to requests to elaborate.

Vicky Camarillo is a legislative fellow at the Texas Observer and a master's candidate in the journalism program at the University of Texas at Austin.

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