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Gov. Abbott doubles down on border security as he makes case for billions more in funding

Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his State of the State address on February 16, 2023 from Noveon Magnetics, a manufacturer of earth magnets based in San Marcos.
Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his State of the State address on February 16, 2023 from Noveon Magnetics, a manufacturer of earth magnets based in San Marcos.

Abbott included border security funding and increased penalties for migrant smugglers on his list of emergency items during Thursday’s State of the State address. He also ordered lawmakers to address the fentanyl crisis as he continued to rail against President Biden’s border policies.

Gov. Greg Abbott continued attacking what he calls President Joe Biden’s open-border policies during the biennial State of the State address Thursday as he instructed lawmakers to push state-led border legislation.

Abbott dedicated a large portion of his roughly 30-minute speech to rehash was he’s been saying since Biden took office more than two years ago.

“Guns, drugs, cartel gangs. All kinds of illegal activity are assailing our border, all while Washington has abandoned its duty. Texans are furious about the lawlessness caused by Biden’s open border policies, and they should be,” he said during a televised speech where only invited guests were allowed to attend. “During the prior administration, we had the lowest illegal crossings in decades, but this past year, the United States set an all-time record high for the most illegal crossings ever.”

Abbott then touted the success of the state’s Operation Lone Star, which has sent thousands of Texas National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety officers to the border since its inception two years ago. The operation has cost billions, prompted Democrats to ask federal authorities to investigate its funding, and included the bussing of thousands of migrants who crossed the border into Texas to faraway “sanctuary cities,” including Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

Abbott insisted Operation Lone Star has helped secure the state’s 1,254-mile border with Mexico.

“Working with Lieutenant Governor [Dan] Patrick and Speaker [Dade Phelan], Texas has done more than any state ever to secure our border,” Abbott said. “We deployed the National Guard to turn back illegal immigrants. The Texas Department of Public Safety has arrested more than 24,000 criminals and seized enough fentanyl to kill every man, woman, and child in the United States.”

The issue made the list of Abbott’s emergency items, which allows lawmakers to address related legislation earlier than usual. Under the Texas Constitution bills can’t be passed within the first 60 days of the Texas Legislature unless they are declared emergency items. The list includes approving an additional $4.6 billion in state funds for border security, which the Texas House and Senate include in their respective budget proposals. The bulk of that money — $2.25 billion — would go to the Texas Military Department, while about $1.2 billion would go to the DPS. But Abbott’s office has requested about $1 billion, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

Abbott also wants lawmakers to pass legislation that would increase the penalty for operating a stash house to a third-degree felony, and legislation that would make human smuggling a crime with at least a 10-year prison sentence, according to a statement from his office.

Abbott also again tied the border to the increase in Texas of deaths caused by fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid. To that end, he’s urged lawmakers to increase penalties for fentanyl suppliers and make a medication commonly used to treat opioid overdoses more available.

“To end cartel killings of Texans, we must do two things: call fentanyl deaths what they are — poisonings — and prosecute them as murders. We must also increase the supply of lifesaving NARCAN, so that we can save more Texans who are ambushed by fentanyl,” he said.

In the Democrats’ response to Abbott’s address, which was relayed in a 10-minutevideo after the speech, the party relied on members of the U.S. Congress instead of state lawmakers. They included U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo and Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who touted what they said were the Biden administration’s efforts to work with border communities.

“We’re also working everyday here in Washington for sensible, bipartisan solutions to secure our border and honor our legacy as a nation of laws built by immigrants,” Cuellar said. Escobar added that Texas Democrats were working with the Biden administration to “deplore historic resources and support to our border communities” who take the brunt of the costs associated with housing and transporting migrants.

David Donatti, attorney for Texas American Civil Liberties Union, told Texas Public Radio after Abbott’s speech that the border efforts, which include Operation Lone Star, have instead been more of a drain on taxpayers that has only led to over-policing in border communities.

“The governor is painting a picture of a problem that is not the experience of our communities on the border,” he said. “His response to the problem that he's painting is to divest border communities of their liberties. He's tried to that to the tune of over $4 billion annually without any transparency or record keeping as to how this program is effective at any of the goals the governor’s articulated.”

Other were more blunt. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, who has been a harsh critic of Abbott’s gun policies and the state law enforcement response to the massacre last year in Uvalde, invoked the tragedy to bash Abbott’s border security mission.

“Abbott sends thousands of officers down to the border - nothing is solved, traffic tickets skyrocket - and all of Abbott’s troopers cower outside the school as children bleed out,” he said.

Texas Public Radio's Carolina Cuellar contributed to this report.