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Sheriffs Want a Bigger Share of Texas Border Security Funding

Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald in his office in rural Sanderson, TX. (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

There’s been a recent uptick in the number of unaccompanied minors and families crossing the Texas border illegally. In December, Governor Greg Abbott said he was responding by sending more state troopers to the border and keeping the state national guard in place there.

Abbott’s move is just the latest in a string of similar efforts stemming back to Rick Perry’s time as governor.

But some border sheriffs continue to question the way the state’s spending money on border security.

First, let's be clear about something: border authorities like Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald do not think the border should be less secure.

McDonald made that clear at a state hearing on immigration law in December, where he also echoed the governor's well known frustration with the federal government.

"We see right now that our border is wide open," McDonald told lawmakers. "We have the laws in Washington, D.C. to secure our border, but the policies in which our nation is enforcing our laws are not allowing the immigration laws to be effective on our southern border."

Sheriff McDonald’s the current head of a group of 21 Texas border sheriffs who agree in principal with Abbott and other Republicans that the border needs to be tightened up, but they disagree about how to do it.

At the center of that disagreement is money.

Local law enforcement’s currently getting about $38 million in state border security funding from the $800 million lawmakers approved last year. More than $600 million is going to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and state trooper deployments.

In his office in rural Sanderson, Texas - population about 750 - McDonald says in his hands taxpayer money would have a bigger impact. He says state troopers don’t come cheap.

"We can hire two and a half deputies for everyone one trooper they hire, as far as wages and equipment and all of that," he says. "It's a cost-effective way to help us in each county help secure this border."

83rd District Attorney Rod Ponton, a West Texas border prosecutor, agrees. Because as he puts it, the sheriffs know their communities better.

"If give that money to the local sheriffs, and let them hire more deputies, they're gonna be able to know the difference between somebody who lives down the street and somebody who's just crossed the river yesterday," he says.

"If you have people coming in temporarily from other parts of Texas, they're not gonna necessarily know that."

Law enforcement on the post-9/11 border is a tangled web of agencies and acronyms. DPS, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol, county sheriffs - they all work together and generally agree it takes a combined effort to fight drug trafficking and discourage illegal crossings.

But when there’s hundreds of millions of dollars on the table, tensions flare.

"Right now I do have some troopers that are coming into my county, that are working operations, they're sitting on the side of the highway watching Netflix," McDonald said at that December hearing.

Democratic El Paso State Rep. César Blanco has been a vocal critic of the state’s border surges. He’s suggested DPS doesn’t have a lot to show for all the money it’s getting.

Blanco says yes, more money should go to sheriffs. But, he says the issue Abbott cited in his December announcement - those kids and families crossing the border - should be looked at as a humanitarian problem first:

"These are children. Children that are very vulnerable," he says.

"They're not fleeing because they can't find good-paying jobs in their countries. They're fleeing because of violence. Now we do have drugs, we do have some illegal crossings as well, and we have to be vigilant about that. But we have to balance that with what is actually happening and address it in a humanitarian way."

For his part, Sheriff McDonald says explicitly he does not think those children should be treated as refugees. His mission, as he sees it, is to help Border Patrol find the people crossing illegally and let the government send them back home.

But immigration law’s not that simple, and if nothing else, McDonald says he needs more state money simply to house immigrants in his jail while their court cases proceed.

Governor Abbott's office didn’t respond to a request for comment about the sheriffs’ concerns, but McDonald says he’s still hoping to meet with the governor at some point about all this.

In the meantime, his group plans to spend this year fine-tuning its appeal to lawmakers, hoping to get their hands on some of that ever-growing supply of border security cash in the next legislative session.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.