Gov. Greg Abbott has promised to use state money and donations to build additional barriers along the Texas-Mexico border, such as the portion of an unfinished wall seen here in Del Rio on July 22, 2021. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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A Texas House committee on Tuesday advanced a funding bill that would appropriate nearly $2 billion to beef up Gov. Greg Abbott’s crackdown on immigration at the Texas-Mexico border.

After seven hours of testimony from sheriffs, Texas Department of Public Safety officials, an adviser for Abbott and immigrant advocates, the House Appropriations Committee approved House Bill 9 on a 14-8 vote, with five members absent.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, would pay for prosecuting migrants for trespassing, building border barriers such as fencing and dispatching state troopers to the border to arrest migrants.

Abbott has blamed the Biden administration for the high number of Border Patrol encounters with migrants, saying the president’s border policies have created a crisis. He has rolled out a set of state initiatives aimed at curbing the number of immigrants attempting to cross the border.

Abbott’s office has solicited donations from the public to continue building barriers at the Texas-Mexico border. He has sent roughly 1,000 state troopers to arrest migrants on state charges such as trespassing and turned a state prison into an immigrant-only detention center. On Tuesday, he announced that the National Guard, which he’s deployed to the border in increasing numbers, now has the authority to arrest migrants.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has recorded 1.3 million encounters with migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border since Oct. 1.

During Tuesday’s testimony, four border-area sheriffs and Department of Public Safety director Steven McCraw urged lawmakers to approve the bill, saying they don’t have enough resources to deal with the number of people crossing the border. They described some parts of the border in bleak terms, claiming deputies and troopers have arrested immigrants with a history of violent crime.

Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez said some landowners are afraid of immigrants passing through their property and have asked him, “When can I shoot?”

McCraw said in some cases troopers have encountered women who have been raped by their smugglers or by drug cartel members preying on vulnerable people.

“The ugly part of this thing is that, yes, there’s criminal immigrants that are trying to get here,” McCraw said.

Of the 489 people who have been arrested and prosecuted by local authorities since late July in Val Verde and Kinney counties, nearly all have been misdemeanor trespassing cases. One person has been charged with human smuggling, according to statistics provided to the panel.

State Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, pointed out that so far, law enforcement officials have not been arresting violent criminals as part of the governor’s crackdown at the border.

“The rhetoric that we’re hearing is that people are fearful, they want to know when to shoot. They’re afraid of being raped or murdered or anything else,” she said, “These are nonviolent, nonpersonal offenses. It’s literally walking across somebody’s property.”

Some immigrant advocates told the panel that the state would be wasting money if the measure passes and would not actually make anyone safer because it has diverted law enforcement from more serious crimes to address a humanitarian issue.

“Passing this bill would be irresponsible, it would be shirking your duty to act as a check on executive power and it would be sponsoring fearmongering and race baiting and it would do nothing to keep your community safer,” said Amanda Wood, executive director for the Texas Fair Defense Project.

The bill can now be scheduled for a vote on the House floor.

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