EAGLE PASS, Texas (Border Report) — Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan was among a group of Republicans who toured the border here by air and boat on Tuesday as lawmakers in Austin prepare to debate a controversial border security spending bill during the ongoing third Special Session.
Phelan and three Republicans were joined by state Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., D-Eagle Pass, on Tuesday morning as they spent time on the ground, in the Rio Grande, and in the sky over both countries, assessing border security operations to thwart migrants from crossing illegally from Piedras Negras, Mexico.
Their visit came as lawmakers in Austin are expected to vote on whether to spend $1.5 billion for the state to construct its own border wall, much of which will be built in the Rio Grande Valley.
“Obviously, since it is my hometown and it is my district, I happily took advantage of that request and making sure that I traveled with them. I wanted to show how beautiful Eagle Pass and Maverick County is, as well as District 74. I wanted to address some of the realities taking place on the border and dispel some of the myths also,” Morales told Border Report.
“I think every state senator and every state representative should be required to come down here and see this with their own eyes,” Texas state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican from Collin County near Dallas, said after their tour, which lasted about 90 minutes.
When asked by Border Report what the group saw as they sped up and down the Rio Grande in two noisy Texas Department of Public Safety airboats and a pair of DPS helicopters, Leach said he believed they saw upwards of 100 migrants trying to cross illegally into Texas via the international river.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Leach said. “You just can’t fully grasp the vastness of this challenge for the state unless you get down here and see it for yourself.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection just released Fiscal Year 2023 data that showed an all-time high for yearly migrant encounters along the Southwest border. That includes the Del Rio Sector, of which Eagle Pass is part.
And in September, there were 269,735 migrants encountered on the Southwest border — the most ever recorded in a single month by CBP, according to CBP data.
There were 45,688 migrants who crossed in the Del Rio Sector in September, with most being Venezuelans and most crossing into Eagle Pass, agency data shows.
Nearly 400,000 migrants were encountered in the Del Rio Sector in Fiscal Year 2023.
Miles of concertina wire are unspooled on the banks of the river here, which have been stripped and cleared of brush.
When the wind blows — and it often does here — the dust travels into every crevice of one’s body. Asylum-seekers who cross the river often ask onlookers for “agua” as they dehydrate in the scorching South Texas sun.
Many cross downriver from the two international bridges, near a $1 million 1,000-foot-long marine barrier of spherical buoys that the State of Texas has put in the river as part of its Operation Lone Star border security initiative.
After just a couple of months, the orange buoys already are fading from the sun, and have had to be moved closer to the U.S. shore after complaints from Mexico.
Since 2021, the state has spent nearly $10 billion to fund Operation Lone Star, which also includes Texas National Guard troops guarding the riverbanks alongside large shipping containers put up to prevent migrants from crossing.
DPS Director Steve McCraw told Border Report that it’s important for lawmakers to see firsthand the operations, especially as they debate a $1.5 billion border wall spending bill.
“It’s vitally important. Certainly, in their oversight responsibilities they need to see exactly what’s going on and how the money’s been spent and how productive we’ve been in combating transnational criminal activity,” McCraw said.
“Infrastructure is vitally important,” McCraw said. “You also need boots on the ground, and technology.”
He characterized it as a “layered defense” and said Texas is leading the nation in protecting the border because he alleges the federal government isn’t doing enough.
Morales wants lawmakers to not only think about deterrence but also a way that both countries can benefit from those who want to come to Texas and work. He would like lawmakers to pass the Texas Secure Our Border Migrant Processing Plan, in which the state would charge every migrant $2,000 for a “migrant processing fee” and in return, they would be allowed to work within the state at jobs pending proof of an employment sponsor. They must have no criminal history and must come through Texas land ports, not illegally through the river.
“That would not be my first choice to build a border wall. I think we can use the resources and put them to better use,” Morales said Tuesday.
Republican state Reps. Justin Holland, of Heath, and Jacey Jetton, of Fort Bend County, also joined Tuesday’s border tour.
Phelan’s visit came as he is embroiled in a fight with state Republican leaders and on Monday called on Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi to resign over reports that he had met with an avowed antisemite and Nazi sympathizer.
Phelan did not comment on the controversy Tuesday.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.