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Texas DPS makes its case for more border security funding

Migrants trudge along the border fence to a waiting bus after turning themselves in to the Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas.
John Burnett
Migrants trudge along the border fence to a waiting bus after turning themselves in to the Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas.

The director of the Texas Department of Public Safety made his pitch to Senate budget writers Thursday, asking them to continue funding a state-based border security operation for the next two years.

The request by DPS Director Steve McCraw comes as the House and Senate have prioritized billions to continue Operation Lone Star, a controversial state-led effort that includes surging DPS and Texas National Guard troops to the border. Gov. Greg Abbott launched the program nearly two years ago in response to what he said was President Biden’s “open-border” policies.

The Texas House and Senate versions of the proposed 2024-2025 state budget call for an estimated $4.6 billion for border security, which includes Operation Lone Star. The bulk of that — $2.25 billion — would go to the Texas Military Department, while about $1.2 billion would go to the DPS, according to the proposed budgets filed by the House and Senate.

The DPS budget would include more than $75 million for salary adjustments and $151 million that was added to previous budget estimates, Darren Albrecht with the Legislative Budget Board told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

But one veteran lawmaker asked Director McCraw if the state police force has morphed into a border agency and deprioritized other duties, including highway patrol and crime fighting in counties that don’t border Mexico.

“I've talked to DPS officer around the Capitol. It's usually not about how many DWIs you pull over last month. [It’s] how much time did you spend at the border,” state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told McCraw. “The border is serious, but do you ever sometimes think you're more of a Border Patrol or an [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agency instead?”

McCraw responded that his agency is understaffed and must focus resources on what the state currently has designated most important.

“Our mission is to protect and serve Texas. And the threats change, priorities change,” McCraw said, adding that the U.S. Border Patrol doesn’t have the resources to stop the current increase in unauthorized migration.

“What we've been asked to do it by the legislation, the leadership, is that we got to plug that gap [in the border],” he said. “We've got to provide some level of capability so that transnational crime and human smuggling and drug trafficking. All those things that are happening — we can at least have an impact in those areas of operation.”

McCraw also touted the operation’s success in seizing fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid that’s become a major source of income for border drug smugglers. That was in response to Sen. Whitmire asking how the DPS quantifies whether its missions have the intended effect.

“The idea that — since March of 2021 — that DPS officers have seized enough fentanyl to kill every man, woman and child in the United States is staggering,” he said.

But Whitmire hinted that even though so much has been seized, there is still a large amount coming across the border because the street value of fentanyl hasn’t increased.

“We must be getting a small amount of it because the price of the stuff. After all, the interdiction does not rise,” he said.

Before committee members, the Texas Civil Rights Project criticized the budget request as a political stunt that hasn’t improved the lives of border residents.

“The Texas Legislature should be considering how to give Texans on the border the practical support they need, not how to throw an additional $4.6 billion in taxpayer money at the Governor’s political pet project,” said Roberto Lopez, a senior advocacy manager of the Beyond Borders Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“Over the course of almost two years, Operation Lone Star has already wasted over $4.4 billion on tactics that have only worsened conditions at the border,” added Lopez. “DPS’s high-speed pursuits have caused more migrant deaths in a year than all Border Patrol across the entire U.S.-Mexico border.”

The TCRP also took to social media during the committee hearing, continuing its criticism of Operation Lone Star. That included a link to an October report by the Washington Post that found the majority of fentanyl seizures occur at legal ports of entry, and most of the alleged smugglers are U.S. citizens.

“Let’s be clear: The overwhelming majority of fentanyl that enters the U.S. is from U.S. citizens. Blaming people fleeing persecution & seeking safety at our border is a lie,” the Texas Civil Rights Project tweeted.

It’s unclear what the final biennial budget for the next two years will look like. The Senate Finance Committee has hearings scheduled through at least Feb. 21, and the full chamber will take up the finance bill sometime afterward. House budget writers will also hear testimony from various agencies when they take up their version of the budget later this legislative session.

Committee assignments in the Texas House were announced this week and as of Thursday, there were no committee hearings scheduled.

Budget writers from both chambers will need to hash out the differences from their respective budget proposals once the House and Senate budgets are approved, which will happen in the following months. The Texas fiscal year runs from September to August of each year.

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

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Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom