Democrats try to stop Governor Abbott from using COVID recovery funds on border wall

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WASHINGTON – As Gov. Greg Abbott tries to raise money so the state can resume construction of former President Donald Trump’s border wall, Democrats in Texas are trying to stop him from tapping into more than $ 15 billion dollars in COVID relief funding that the federal government sends to Texas.

All Texas Democrats in Congress on Monday signed a letter urging Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to take action to prevent Abbott from using COVID relief funds at border fences, asking him to issue a formal rule clarifying that recovery funding “cannot be used for a border wall, fence, or similar facility. They also say the Treasury must establish rules ensuring that the money cannot be used to replenish state funding. spent on a border fence.

It is the latest in an ongoing battle against a record number of migrants crossing the border and encountering a border patrol – a fight in which Abbott seeks to lead the GOP nationally as he lobbies for the state of Texas completes the border wall and begins to arrest migrants. Abbott also moved to revoke state licenses for shelters housing migrant children as it declared an emergency in counties along the border earlier this month.

The governor – who will visit parts of the border with Trump this week – tweeted a video of a tractor brush clearing brush on Monday, saying “construction of the border fence has started.”

But Democrats point out that Abbott has so far identified only a fraction of what it would cost to fill gaps in the border fence, and they fear he plans to use federal money to repay state funding that it has already started pulling for the project.

“Without any Republican support, we approved $ 350 billion in the US bailout package for eligible state, local, territorial and tribal governments to assist local leaders, facing the challenges of the pandemic, and to help economic recovery and jobs, “the 13 Texas Democrats. in Congress wrote in a letter in Yellen. “We are concerned about the prospect of the potential misuse of these funds by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to pursue President Trump’s misguided plans to extend a wall along the Texas-Mexico border. “

A spokeswoman for Abbott said he still plans to convene a special legislative session in the fall for lawmakers to decide how to distribute the $ 15.8 billion in COVID aid Texas should receive “so that the entire legislature can participate in the allocation process in a way that best serves all Texans.

“The governor will work with the Legislature during this special session to determine the most effective use of these federal funds to meet the needs of Texans,” said Renae Eze.



Abbott has ordered that $ 250 million be taken out of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as a “down payment” for the wall and his office said it raised $ 450,000 in private donations, with Abbott pointing out that crowdsourcing will be the main focus. key to financing the effort. Abbott said the $ 250 million will be used to hire a project manager, who will eventually provide a full cost and schedule for the project.

The former administration spent about $ 2.8 billion building or replacing barriers along parts of the Texas border, completing just 55 miles of the new wall, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Trump officials had planned to add some 280 miles to the state wall. Biden has halted construction of the wall, and the White House said earlier this month that parts of the wall were costing the Trump administration $ 46 million per mile.

“[Abbott] failed to raise enough money to build more than a few yards, ”US Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from San Antonio, said in a statement. “With so many needs in Texas, spending on an unnecessary wall is truly outrageous. Since Abbott has already squandered millions on his pseudo-border security effort, we are determined to prevent him from stealing the clawback funds to misuse it for this boondoggle. “

This isn’t the first time Congress Democrats have called on the federal government to closely monitor Texas stimulus spending decisions.

Defeat Biden at the border

In last year’s first round of COVID funding, Congress allocated $ 1.3 billion to support public education in Texas, but officials reduced state commitments by the same amount and transferred money in the general fund.

Congress then passed two more rounds of stimulus funding that included billions of additional dollars in money for public schools. Democrats wrote a similar letter to federal leaders in April, asking them to ensure Texas only uses the money to top up existing funding commitments, rather than replace them.

The letter comes as a recent public poll in Texas shows that Abbott, running for re-election next year, has won the approval of many more Texans than Biden on the issue.

Forty-six percent of Texans approve of Abbott’s handling of immigration and the border, according to the University of Texas-Texas Tribune survey, while only 37 percent disapprove. Only 27% of Texans approve of Biden’s handling of the problem, meanwhile, and 57% disapprove.

The online survey of 1,200 inhabitants have found that Texans are deeply divided on the issue along party lines as well as racial and ethnic groups. Notably, Abbott has a slight edge on the matter among Hispanic Texans, who both sides are trying to woo. Thirty-nine percent approve of his handling of the border, compared to 34 percent who side with Biden.

Biden, meanwhile, said he was working to build a more “humane” immigration system as his administration faces an increase in encounters with migrants that began under the Trump administration and has reached record levels this spring. The White House has focused its efforts on establishing shelters to house a record number of unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border, an effort that may soon be complicated by Abbott’s decision to revoke state licenses of shelters housing many of them.

Abbott, who has not ruled out a presidential bid, has remained focused on the border as he moves to a more immediate governor’s primary area in which at least one challenger, former State Senator Don Huffins, was already campaigning at the border wall.

Abbott has Trump’s approval, but Huffines continued to hammer him across the border, saying in a statement last week that Abbott stole his wall idea and calling his plan “unacceptable and impractical.” .

Abbott’s plan also includes ordering state soldiers to begin arresting migrants, a move that immigration experts say is legally questionable after the Supreme Court barred Arizona from a similar effort by 2012, ruling that only the federal government can enforce immigration law.

Cayla Harris contributed reporting from Austin.

ben.wermund@chron.com



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