AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Governor Greg Abbott led two high-profile delegations to Eagle Pass, Texas in the past week, highlighting the ongoing tension between the state and the federal government over immigration enforcement along the border.
“We are dealing with the biggest border crisis since American had borders,” said Abbott during a news conference in Shelby Park.
Texas National Guard troops and Department of Public Safety troopers have blocked off the park, preventing the public and Border Patrol agents from accessing the area along the Rio Grande.
Abbott hosted a February 4 briefing with more than a dozen Republican governors from across the country. He thanked the governors for supporting Texas in its ongoing dispute with the Biden administration over the state’s authority at the border.
The event was met with a counter-protest organized by progressive faith leaders and Eagle Pass locals.
“They’re using the people of Eagle Pass as pawns in a political game,” said Eagle Pass activist Amerika Garcia Grewal. “I really don’t like this political theater that is using my hometown for its own purposes.”
On Thursday, Abbott was back in Eagle Pass with a delegation of Texas State Representatives. Most of the lawmakers represent districts far from south Texas, but they say the people they represent know the importance of stopping illegal immigration goes far beyond the border.
“This is the number one issue not just to my district, not just to this state, but to Americans across the country,” said State Rep. Ellen Troxclair, R-Lakeway, during Thursday’s news conference.
Troxclair, like most of the other representatives who attended, faces challengers in the upcoming primary elections. All of the lawmakers who participated had previously been endorsed by Abbott for reelection.
Abbott did not announce new border policy plans at Thursday’s event. However, he did give credit to the lawmakers with him for supporting the funding that makes Operation Lone Star possible.
The Governor argued that the state’s efforts have led to a sharp drop in migrants crossing into Texas. Numbers from Customs and Border Protection do show spikes in crossings into Arizona and California in the last few months of 2023. Most sectors in Texas show declines during the same period. But crossings in the Del Rio sector, home to Eagle Pass and a significant focus of Operation Lone Star, rose by 7%.
The border visits came on the same week that immigration legislation failed on Capitol Hill. As the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan border security bill sinks amid intractable political headwinds in Washington, D.C., Texans living and working in Eagle Pass expressed frustration that political leaders aren’t addressing the issues they see on the ground.
State Rep. Eddie Morales, D-Eagle Pass, who represents more than 770 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in the Texas House, says the U.S. Congress’ failure to compromise has abandoned his community. He urged the U.S. House to pass the Senate’s plan in a letter to Speaker Mike Johnson on Monday.
“Mr. Speaker, it is now incumbent upon you to pave the way for our communities along the border to get the relief they desperately need,” Morales wrote. “Our communities should not be put on the back burner for the sake of politics and the aspirations of the former president… Our communities are watching to see if we are left out to dry.”
Morales accused former President Donald Trump of using Eagle Pass as a “campaign stop.” Natives, pastors and activists have long echoed the same concerns as the border town becomes a top venue for Republican press events.
“Most of them have no experience with the border. They’ve never seen it. They don’t know any people who live along it,” Pastor Doug Paggit said. “We invite Congress’ leaders to come and join us and to meet these people, to see what’s going on — and not to do as the Governor did this weekend — which is to stand with flak jackets on surrounded by the military while you overlook a peaceful river.”
Garcia Grewal said the Senate’s border bill falls short of addressing the needs of her community.
She calls for additional investment in processing capacity in Eagle Pass, creating more legal pathways for people to seek refuge and more resources to reduce the backlog in asylum and work permit applications.
The Senate’s bill tried to address some of those concerns. It would have provided $4 billion to address asylum applications and hire more than 4,300 asylum officers, in addition to another $1.4 billion to help state and local governments handle immigrants.
On Monday, the National Border Patrol Union (NBPC) endorsed the Senate plan. The union, which represents more than 18,000 Border Patrol agents and staff, many of whom work and live in border cities like Eagle Pass.
The union has been especially critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the border. Their endorsement represented a win for Senate negotiators as they faced pushback from conservatives who traditionally side with Border Patrol.
“The Border Act of 2024 will give U.S. Border Patrol agents authorities codified, in law, that we have not had in the past. This will allow us to remove single adults expeditiously and without a lengthy judicial review which historically has required the release of these individuals into the interior of the United States,” said NBPC President Brandon Judd in a statement, which U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema shared on Monday. “While not perfect, the Border Act of 2024 is a step in the right direction and is far better than the current status quo.”
Documents reveal costs of Texas migrant busing program
Texas has spent more than $124 million sending buses of migrants to sanctuary cities, according to records related to Abbott’s controversial initiative.
According to documents Nexstar obtained, Texas has paid $124,603,616.19 to bus more than 100,000 migrants from the state’s border communities to Washington D.C., New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles as of Jan. 10.
That equals out to 2,245 buses year to date, an average of 45 migrants per bus.
Nexstar obtained the documents through a public information request to the Texas Division of Emergency Management — the agency tasked with this initiative. The majority of the payments have been made to Wynne Transportation LLC, with a handful of payments made to Transportation Management Services Inc.
The program sends migrants to other U.S. cities as part of Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” — a multibillion dollar initiative to slow down border crossings. The Republican governor began sending busloads of migrants outside of the state in April 2022, saying it will ease the burden of immigration on Texas cities.
Abbott has proudly touted his busing program as a reality-check to cities that have designated themselves as a sanctuary to immigrants.
“Overwhelmed Texas border towns should not bear the brunt of Biden’s open border policies,” Abbott wrote on social media in January. “Our transportation mission will continue until Biden secures the border.”
Mayors of cities that Texas is sending buses to have decried the governor’s effort as a “political stunt.” Leaders in New York City have said the influx of migrants has pushed the city to a breaking point, Denver has declared a state of emergency, and housing for migrants in Washington D.C. has hit capacity.
The busing intiative has created a shift in Democrats’ rhetoric around immigration issues, as leaders of blue states have called on President Joe Biden to provide them with more financial asssitance and enact policies to better contain illegal immigration at the southern border.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has sounded the alarm saying the influx of migrants could “destroy” his city, while also blaming the White House for not providing enough federal assistance. NYC has also sued the bus companies that transport migrants from Texas out east, seeking $708 million in damages — the amount the city has spent on providing shelter for the migrants. Abbott has called the lawsuit “baseless.”
Estimates vary widely when it comes to the cost of caring for migrants in Texas and in other states. Supporters of the busing program note that the cost for sending migrants out of state is far lower than the cost of providing shelter and care. For example, the amount New York City is seeking to reimburse shelter costs is significantly lower than what Texas is spending to bus migrants to other cities.
Taxpayers are footing about 99.6% of the total cost of these buses, coming from money already appropriated by the Texas Legislature for border security under Operation Lone Star.
Abbott created a donation portal for the program when it first launched to help supplement state dollars. As of early December 2023, the state has raised $460,196 to help pay for the buses, according to the governor’s office.
The documents did not detail price per passenger, since migrants are not paying for their transportation.
Migrants are being bused on a voluntary basis and have to sign a consent waiver. They first have to be processed and background checked by federal authorities at the border before being released.
Nexstar is seeking to obtain the latest detailed invoices about costs incurred for each bus. In September 2022, busing records from TDEM that Nexstar obtained showed the costs included the amount charged to the state for bus mileage, driver pay and security personnel — which had been the most expensive aspect. At the time, a senior spokesperson with TDEM told Nexstar the state saw security as a necessary precaution to take, in order to protect “passengers and drivers as they make a cross-country trip.”
Abbott is not the only one busing migrants away from border communities. Charities and non-governmental organizations have also taken part in sending migrants on planes and buses out of Texas.
Teammates put peanuts in allergic student’s locker. District said it wasn’t bullying
Carter’s mother dreads getting calls about his allergy. When he was a baby, his family discovered he was allergic to peanuts. Now that he’s a teenager, he doesn’t leave his house without AirPods — and an EpiPen in his pocket. His mom carries multiple EpiPens in her purse. She says he would have minutes to react if the dust and oils from the nuts came into contact with his mouth or eyes.
On one of Carter’s first football games as a varsity player at Lake Travis, his mom got a call from another parent. The parent told her some of his teammates put peanuts in his locker.
“He was already on his way to the game,” said his mother, Shawna Mannon. “I don’t know if he’s OK. I just need to know what is going on.”
Despite what happened in the locker room, he played in the game. Afterward, he told his mom about how peanuts fell from his jersey hanging in his locker. He told her how he quickly went to wash his hands before touching his face. And how hives had already started to crawl up his arm. She said she could still see the hives as he told her the story.
“I think the hardest part was, one, it was his teammate. You know, you have this brotherhood and football, and it was disappointing that it was his teammate,” Mannon said.
She later found out his teammates knew about the severity of his allergy before filling his locker.
“A couple of teammates on his varsity football team were asking about his allergy to peanuts and asked if it could kill him,” Mannon said. “He said yes, it absolutely could.”
More than a month later, Mannon stood before the Lake Travis school board in November. She was livid. The kids responsible were disciplined, but she expected it to be to a different level. They were benched from some football games. She was told the district’s athletic director and head football coach were determining the discipline.
The district said it worked with other law enforcement agencies and consulted the assistant district attorney’s office, but ultimately, the school police department decided criminal charges were not warranted.
“These boys were handed minimal consequences,” Mannon told the school board on Nov. 16. “Since this incident, my son has faced backlash and retaliation almost daily.”
After the first incident, Mannon said her son found a peanut butter granola bar in his locker.
The district admits it didn’t open a bullying investigation until after she spoke in front of the school board. When it concluded, school officials decided what happened to Mannon’s son was not bullying.
The district said it determined the legal elements of bullying were not met. The Texas Education Code defines bullying as “an act or pattern of acts that physically harms a student or materially disrupts the educational process.”
“I don’t know what else to call it,” Mannon said.
Neither did State Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio. For years, Menendez has successfully passed legislation to give districts more power to investigate bullying in schools, including defining cyberbullying and allowing districts to expel students who engage in it when it threatens the lives of their classmates.
The law was named after 16-year-old David Molak, who took his own life in 2016 after being harassed and threatened in text messages and over social media. Despite the changes to Texas law, Menendez said he still hears concerns from families that feel school districts aren’t taking bullying seriously enough.
“That not enough is happening. That they report it. The report gets created, but they still don’t see the discipline, in some cases,” Menendez said.
KXAN found since September 2021, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has received more than 500 complaints about bullying happening on Texas public and charter school campuses and the districts’ policies on handling the incidents. Data shows the agency sends most of those complaints back to the local school district for the grievance process to resolve.
The agency said it cannot guide school districts on handling discipline regarding bullying because local school districts have control. Agency officials said districts should consult with their legal counsel to ensure compliance with state laws on bullying, including the requirement for local boards of trustees to adopt a policy and necessary procedures concerning bullying prevention.
Data obtained through open records requests show that of the hundreds of complaints, 13 landed in the agency’s compliance review unit and resulted in TEA ordering a district or charter to make changes. But it’s unclear what changes districts were ordered to make. The agency told KXAN that the documents detailing the changes ordered by the state are confidential.
There are at least 60 bullying complaints that were referred to units that investigated educator misconduct and special education, where it’s unclear if it led to TEA ordering the district to make changes.
Senator Menendez said that, before the next regular session, he wants to request an existing legislative committee to research bullying in Texas schools.
“I would like to see — thanks to this and others — what we are doing as a state to focus on creating a safe environment. What does a safe environment mean?”
Across the country, some states go beyond what Texas has implemented to prevent bullying. Several acknowledge bullying can include but is not limited to, bullying based on characteristics like race and sexuality. Texas law does not specify protected groups.
Several states also require school districts to review their bullying policies on a cycle. New Jersey has one of the strongest bullying laws in the country. It requires school districts to review their policies annually with experts. Texas does not.
The football season ended, and her son turned 16. Mannon said things have calmed down in the months since the incident. She has not filed a complaint with the state, but she has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. She is also in the middle of a grievance with Lake Travis ISD. She and her attorney argue the district did not follow its policy when it allowed the athletic department to determine discipline. She met with the school district for a grievance hearing in January.
The district told KXAN that TEA reviewed the incident and concluded the district “addressed all concerns with regard to potential bullying and food allergy compliance and found no violations of law or policy.”
“I’m hopeful right now. I’m really hopeful that they will do the right thing,” Mannon said. ”[This] made it hard for him to relax and enjoy playing football. And that’s really all he wanted. He wanted just to play football.”
Texas Secretary of State ‘100% confident’ in election security
Texas is ready and eager to welcome voters to the polls later this month, Secretary of State Jane Nelson conveyed Thursday, encouraging Texans to exercise their civic duty while warding off unfounded fears of fraud.
“I am 100% confident these elections are going to be run accurately. They’re going to be fair. I’m going to make sure that every vote that’s cast counts,” Nelson said. “Come Election Day, it will be smooth.”
In recent years, top Texas Republicans like Attorney General Ken Paxton, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Abbott have portrayed voter fraud as a top concern for the state. Nelson encouraged voters to ignore the “noise” around elections.
“I like to rise above that noise and show voters what we’re doing to make sure that we’re going to protect their vote,” Nelson told Nexstar. “That’s my job. I’m making sure that our election workers are well trained, that our ballots are secure.”
Election interference is vanishingly rare in Texas. Since 2005, the state has convicted 155 people of election fraud. In the same time period, more than 110 million ballots have been cast — equating to a fraud prevalence of 0.00014%.
In the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers took additional steps to punish and prevent voter fraud. The legislature increased the penalty for illegal voting from a Class A misdemeanor to a second-degree felony, for one, subjecting violators to up to 20 years in prison.
The state also eliminated the office of elections administrator in Harris County, citing delays and errors in recent elections. The state has conducted two audits of the county since, and Sec. Nelson projected confidence that Harris County and every county will be able to tabulate and report results efficiently and accurately this year.
“Harris County is a very populated county, so it’s going to require a lot of our attention to make sure it’s done properly,” she said.
Nelson directs voters to VoteTexas.gov for key information about how, when, and where to vote. She says the most important question though is why.
“Think back to your history classes–think how precious that right to vote is and how many people fought for this country to make sure that we have those rights ensured,” Nelson said.