AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday named a new border czar, whose top priority is making Texas the “least desirable place” for migrant crossings.
Mike Banks, a former Border Patrol agent, will help oversee Abbott’s controversial border security push that has deployed thousands of soldiers and state police and begun construction on new barriers.
In a press conference Monday, Banks said his No. 1 priority “is to make the state of Texas the least desirable place for illegal immigration to cross,” but he gave few specifics.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult,” he said. “I’m going to apply the applicable laws that are out there that should be applied within my ability.”
The creation of the new post comes as the legislative session is getting underway and Abbott, a third-term Republican, is expected to ask for more money to keep the border mission afloat. Unprecedented in size and scope, Operation Lone Star has already cost taxpayers more than $4 billion since its launch in March 2021.
Abbott announced the new hire in front of a stretch of state-constructed border wall in the small South Texas city of San Benito that he said costs about $25 million per mile to build. At the end of the event, Abbott called a construction crew from a radio who, at his command, used a crane to hoist into place another panel of metal wall barrier.
The number of migrants encountered by the Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border rose steadily in recent months, but daily encounters dropped by more than half from December to January, according to preliminary data released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Biden administration has claimed credit for the drop, saying new policies are working to cut down on the number of Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans crossing at the southern border. The administration is allowing entry to 30,000 asylum seekers per month from those countries and Venezuela so long as they apply in advance, while penalizing those who come without permission.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued to block the new asylum policy, deeming it an abuse of executive authority. Abbott praised the lawsuit on Monday and accused Biden of misleading the country with the data.
“Every January is kind of the lowest month for border crossings, and so if you look at cycles, because of the Biden administration’s actions we can expect those numbers to increase dramatically in the spring and in the summer,” Abbott said.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Banks will be headquartered in Weslaco, a city in the Rio Grande Valley that has been a hot spot for migration in recent years, and report directly to Abbott. According to the governor, Banks will accelerate construction on the state’s border barriers and “tap his expertise to deploy strategies that reduce illegal immigration.”
Banks retired from the Border Patrol about 10 days ago, after working for the federal agency for more than 20 years, Abbott said.
In 2019, when Banks was the agent in charge of the McAllen station, he led a tour for then-Vice President Mike Pence while the Trump administration was under criticism for providing migrants with poor detention conditions. At the time, Banks told reporters the men were allowed to brush their teeth once a day, but conceded many had not showered for at least 10 days.
Efrén Olivares, the immigrant justice deputy legal director with the Southern Poverty Law Center who was a program director at the Texas Civil Rights Project in the McAllen area for years, said he worries a state border czar role would lead to the blurring of roles between a state government and the federal government.
“It is unquestionable that immigration enforcement is [in] the jurisdiction and the purview and the competence of the federal government,” Olivares said. “States under the Constitution have no business enforcing immigration laws. So the fact that there’s someone tasked with that role in Texas is going to lead to a lot of questions and blur the lines of competence and jurisdiction between a state agency and the federal agencies, including Border Patrol where Mr. Banks comes from.”
Laura Peña, the director of the Beyond Borders program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said Abbott should “stop pretending” he’s the U.S. president.
“Plucking a former federal border agent as the latest ‘border czar’ will only sow confusion, chaos and danger into border communities that are hungry for real solutions to improve their lives and communities. Legally, enforcement of immigration laws is the domain of the federal government, and it is past time that they step in to stop Abbott’s stunts,” she said.