EDITORIAL: Buying votes: Abbott’s border wall promise a political waste of tax money

Greg Abbott knows better. As the chief executive of the state with the largest international border, the Texas governor knows that a border wall won’t address our problem of illegal residents to an extend that makes it worth the huge expense. But he also knows the populist mileage former President Donald Trump got out of playing to conservatives’ irrational fears, and Abbott appears ready to pump untold billions of taxpayers’ dollars into his 2022 reelection campaign.

Last week in Del Rio, the governor announced plans to pick up where Trump left off, pledging to build a wall across our state’s border with Mexico. On Wednesday he said he had set aside $250 million in state funds — funds the legislature presumably had allocated for other purposes — as a “down payment” on the border wall plan.

In so doing Abbott took up the call that defined Trump’s presidency: fear of foreigners crossing our borders. But it proved to be an expensive logistical nightmare for the president, and likely would be even worse for the governor.

Despite his promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” all along our southern border, Trump was able to manage little more than upgrades to a little more than 450 miles of existing fencing along the border.

It’s part of roughly 700 miles of walls and fencing that have been erected along the border since Operation Hold the Line was launched in the El Paso area in 1993.

Although some sections of fencing have been built in the Rio Grande Valley, most of the existing barriers have been erected outside of Texas. While as much as 70% of land along the border in California, Arizona and New Mexico are owned by the federal government, most Texas border land is privately owned, and decades of efforts to acquire it have proved difficult. Landowners who have fought federal efforts to claim their property likely will also resist Abbott’s efforts as well. In addition, the easements that have been acquired now belong to the federal government, not the state, and the Biden administration isn’t likely to cooperate with Abbott’s plans.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that border wall doesn’t address the real source of unauthorized residency. The current wave of foreign migrants mostly consists of people coming to legal ports of entry and asking for asylum. Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security estimates that as many as half of all illegal residents also crossed through those ports, after securing tourist, scholastic and other temporary visas. They simply stayed here when those visas expired. Recent research from the Center for Migration Studies of New York places that number even higher, at closer to two-thirds.

No border wall will address such crossings; Abbott surely knows this. He also knows that a state whose economy is fighting to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic needs to be frugal with the limited supply of tax revenue. But he also knows that bold promises can pay off, and it’s easy to buy votes with the people’s own money.

As someone who once likened border politics to that of a Third World country, Abbott seems to have learned that lesson well.