LOS INDIOS, Texas (Nexstar) – Texas Gov. Greg Abbott named a “border czar” for the state during a media news conference on Monday afternoon where construction crews are building the second segment of the state-funded border wall in South Texas.
Abbott said the new Texas border czar position is “a full-time job that requires a leader whose only focus is responding to President Biden’s open border policies.”
He has named former Border Patrol Agent Mike Banks, who served for 23 years in the agency, including in the Rio Grande Valley, Arizona and California. He also served a decade in the military.
“I’m humbled. I really am,” Banks told Border Report after Abbott’s announcement. “I’m very passionate about securing our border and so I’m completely humbled and grateful for the opportunity Greg Abbott has given me. The governor is very serious about securing Texas’ border and I’m excited about this opportunity.”
Banks will work “for the state of Texas and report directly to me,” Abbott said.
Abbott said Banks will office in the town of Weslaco, in the Rio Grande Valley, and “travel frequently up and down around the street as needed.”
One of his biggest jobs will be to assist in the state-funded border wall by encouraging more private landowners and local buy-in to secure borderlands for the 30-foot-tall border barrier to be built.
Abbott wants to build hundreds of miles of border barrier to fill in the border wall gaps that were left after the Biden administration halted border wall construction that had started under former President Donald Trump.
“As long as we can get property owners to allow us to build that would be the hope — to connect,” Banks told Border Report.
“We’re not gonna stand idly by while the Biden administration refuses to enforce the immigration laws as our borders are,” Abbott told a gaggle of reporters Monday afternoon assembled beneath a towering, yet small section, of the state border wall that is being built in rural farm fields in the tiny town of Los Indios, Texas, in Cameron County.
This section is slated to be 1.5 miles long and will cost $25 million per mile, Abbott said in response to a question from Border Report.
“The reason why this wall is located here and the reason why you will see other segments of well placed in different locations around the state is because we are putting wall up where we get the land rights from the land owner to be able to build a border wall. Most of the land on the border is private property. And we have to get the rights when the private property owners to build a border wall in those segments. You’ll see more of these going up,” Abbott said in response to a Border Report question.
Border Report last week visited the site and spoke with locals who said they had not been consulted on the border wall and were unaware of how long the segment will be once completed.
Rick Cavasos, an alderman and former mayor of Los Indios, told Border Report that city officials had not been invited to the governor’s event, but he said he spoke with Banks afterward, adding that Banks is already setting up meetings with locals and wants to work with them on their questions and concerns.
Cavasos also served decades as a Border Patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley and said this particular area where the state border wall is being built was left open in order to funnel irregular migration into the fields and away from the small town with a population of 1,000.
Border Report asked Abbott if that was taken into consideration and the concerns of the locals that migrants would not be forced toward town once the section is complete. The governor responded that will be a key job of the new border czar: “You raise a question about concerns of this community about migrants going around the wall into the community. For one thing, the border czar will work with local officials to address their concerns. He knows because we’ve already talked about this one of his first responsibilities is to work with the mayor in this community to make sure that we are addressing their safety needs. That also is the same role that the Texas Department of Public Safety has. We want to make sure that the surrounding community will be protected as safe as possible. But also we will be hoping that neighboring landowners in this region will allow us to be able to build a wall on their property,” Abbott said.
“No governor is dedicating more time and energy and effort in terms of public safety, Homeland Security and border security than Gov. Greg Abbott,” Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told media.
Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, Adjutant General of the Texas Military Department, said Abbott has launched an “unprecedented effort to secure the border and prevent, detect and interdict transnational criminal activity along our border.”
Suelzer said currently the state has put up over 130 miles of border barrier — including 72 miles of eight-foot-tall fencing with razor wire and 58 miles of concertina wire
The State of Texas so far has only built 1.7 miles of 30-foot-tall steel bollards in Starr County, 70 miles west, plus one-third of a mile that currently is being built in Los Indios.
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from McAllen who represents this region, told Border Report that Texas is wasting taxpayer funds building its own border wall.
“It’s just another one of Abbott’s usual political circus stunts on the border, at a monumental cost to taxpayers. He has spent hundreds of millions of state taxpayer dollars along the border and he has had zero impact in slowing migration to Texas,” Gonzalez told Border Report on Monday.
Private border wall builder wins largest Texas contract for state border wall
The Texas Facilities Commission, the state agency overseeing state border barrier contracts, said during its Jan. 19 meeting in Austin that it has awarded a total of over $855 million worth of border wall contracts. The agency says it cannot put bids out to build more border wall until the Texas Legislature approves more border security funds.
‘A very dangerous time’ – Rep. McCaul raises concern about conflict with China
The Texan who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Congress is sending a strong warning about potential military conflict with China. Congressman Michael McCaul called the risk “very high.” It comes amid rising tension over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced an agreement to increase the U.S. military presence in the Pacific. The agreement includes $82 million to enhance military infrastructure in the Philippines, including increased access to bases in the country. Austin called it a response to military moves by China in the region.
Congressman McCaul voiced similar concerns in an interview with Texas Capitol Correspondent Monica Madden. What follows is a partial transcript of that interview:
Monica Madden: You have warned about the potential of a war between China invading Taiwan in the coming years. Talk about why you think that is more imminent now than before.
Rep. Michael McCaul: “Well, it’s based upon my briefings, both classified and non-classified, I think, ever since Afghanistan fell, and the debacle that took place there. You know, it’s interesting when Afghanistan fell, last August, we saw the Russian Federation, moving toward Ukraine. We knew the invasion was gonna take place. I think it’s because we’re projecting weakness, after that, which invites aggression. Then you saw Chairman Xi, form this unholy alliance with Mr. Putin, and also Iran and North Korea are involved in the Ukrainian conflict.
When you look at Taiwan, we know that Chairman Xi has talked about, just like Putin talked about reunification of Ukraine, he talks about reunification of Taiwan back to mainland China. Taiwan, by the way, manufactures 90% of the advanced global manufacturing capabilities for semiconductors which if China either owns or breaks it, will cause major disruption in supply chain.
So I think, quite honestly, that a military invasion would be their last option. I think their first option would be to influence the elections that will take place next January in 2024. President Tsai’s party, the current president, her party lost a lot of their governor’s races. The Chinese Communist Party is began a campaign saying that her party is tied to the United States as a proxy to go with toward China. And it’s having some traction.
So I do think in answer to your question that they are going to try to overthrow the Taiwanese election and they can take it over without a shot fired. However, if they are not successful in that effort, I do believe that they will then go into Plan B, which would be either a blockade or an outright military invasion of the island.”
Monica Madden: “In the absolute worst-case scenario, if there is a war involving China, do you think the United States is prepared in terms of our defense space and our supplies?”
Rep. Michael McCaul: “Well, that’s a major discussion here. And it’s a great concern. I sign off on all foreign military weapons sales, but I signed off on weapons three years ago, they have yet to go into Taiwan. So I am worried about that. I’m worried about the lack of joint military exercises, with Taiwan, we have to have deterrence. Otherwise, China, if they see an opening, that they’re going to take it.
Taiwan will be a very different calculus compared to Ukraine, in the sense that Ukraine is capable of fighting their own war, if we give them the right weapons systems. Taiwan is not. Taiwan is not capable of fighting this alone. It would necessarily involve the United States, Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom. And I think it’s gonna be up to the American people. In the event that happens as to what to do.
I can say that my committee that I chair, the Foreign Affairs Committee, we have the authority of declaration of war under the Constitution and also authorized use of military force that you’ve seen exercised in previous conflicts we’ve had, I hope, we don’t have to have that discussion. But we have to be prepared.”
Monica Madden: “I want to ask you a quick question about the debate over the debt ceiling: what are your thoughts about using it as a negotiating tool to pass you know, certain Republican priorities, whether it be border policy or something else?”
Rep. Michael McCaul: “I don’t think I think with the debt ceiling, we just want to see a cap on 2022 spending, discretionary. We’re approaching, Monica, a $32 trillion debt. That is enormous right now. And it’s really immoral to pass it down to our children and grandchildren without trying to fix it. We’re talking about reasonable, meaningful spending cuts commensurate with the 2022 spending caps that we want to put in place.
Having said that, I’m not in favor of any cuts to our defense, our military defense, because as I’ve outlined in this interview, that we’re living in a very dangerous time, you know, a time that I haven’t seen really since World War Two, my father’s war, when you had Hitler invading Europe, and Japan invading the Pacific, you’re seeing this playing out with Putin, and Chairman Xi of China.
So I think it’d be very dangerous to cut our defense spending. But I do think we have to deal with the reality that we have way too much debt, that we’re moving forward to the next generation.”
Business at the Texas Capitol is running slowly, on purpose
The ice storm that slammed much of Texas this week also froze business at the Texas Capitol. Several key committees like the Senate’s budget review and redistricting hearings were delayed, and most legislative work was put on pause.
“The weather is moving in a little faster than anticipated, and it’s going to be a little worse than anticipated,” Senate Finance Chair Joan Huffman (R-Houston) told her committee on Monday. The committee will resume work on the budget proposal on Friday.
Several other offices on which lawmakers rely for their work, such as the Legislative Budget Board and the Legislative Council, also closed up shop during the freeze.
But if it seems like the news out of the State Capitol was muted even before the storm, that’s normal. The business of passing laws in Texas is intentionally sluggish — rain or shine.
The Texas Constitution requires lawmakers to wait until 60 days into the legislative session to start moving their bills through the process. This year, that is March 10 — until then, no bill will receive a committee hearing or a vote.
It’s a forced timeout that makes an already time-pressed legislature even more condensed. Some argue the first few months of the session give members the time to hear from stakeholders, meet new members, and build bridges before burning them later.
“It’s kind of a bonding experience for the folks that are coming here,” longtime Texas Capitol reporter and publisher of Quorum Report Harvey Kronberg said. “Staffs get to meet each other, procedures get refined, the biorhythm of the session is established in that first 60 days. We really do only have 140 days to do this, 90 days of activity. And that requires a level of consensus-building that doesn’t take place in the rest of the world.”
The power to carve out exceptions to this delay is in the governor’s hands. Lawmakers get a head start on bills related to items or topics that the governor designates as “emergency items.” Gov. Greg Abbott will unveil his emergency items during the State of the State address on Feb. 16.
Of course, much of the heavy lifting is complete before lawmakers ever return for the opening day of session.
“What most people forget is during that 600 days or so that we’re not in session, we also have interim studies,” Kronberg said. “And those get assigned to committees. There has been committee hearings over the last four or five months. And stakeholders, whether they’re business interests, or school districts, or school administrators, or highway departments — people have all been meeting during this period. Everybody understands that we’ve got 90 days to accomplish an amazing amount of things to take place.”
So, if it seems like things are frozen at the Capitol, it’s not just because of the ice.
Trapped by Tickets: Nearly 1M drivers at risk of losing licenses
The letter that changed Monica Sanchez’s life came after her birthday in 2020 when she tried to renew her driver’s license.
Sanchez, 51, would not be able to get her license, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, until she paid off traffic tickets.
“To be honest with you, I had completely forgotten about those tickets. I literally do not remember some of them,” Sanchez said.
At the time, she also could not afford to pay them off.
The tickets were in different counties. One was a $342 speeding ticket she received in Guadalupe County.
When she did not pay it or appear in court to contest the ticket, the judge in that case added an additional $392 fine for not showing up to court, sent the debt to collections, and put a warrant out for her arrest.
The judge also sent an order to a third-party company called OmniBase Services of Texas saying until Sanchez paid the $734, plus court fees – the state should deny her license renewal.
“It was a really bad time in my life. I was going through a divorce,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t have the money.”
Since her license expired, Sanchez has been working at a gas station walking distance from her home, trying to slowly pay back the fines. She said it was one of the only places that would hire her without a valid driver’s license.
“I am making baby steps to get out of the situation,” Sanchez said. “Chances are there are people out there who can’t even afford to pay a dollar.”
“We are struggling to not only pay this ticket but also to have food on our table or to pay our rent or to go get medicine,” Sanchez said.
Sen. John T. Montford introduced a bill in 1995 that ordered Texas to create a statewide traffic warrant database and deny the renewal of a driver’s license for failure-to-pay traffic warrants.
At the time, the bill’s analysis estimated there were more than three million outstanding traffic warrants in the state of Texas and that it was causing “a significant loss of revenue to the municipality or county and the state.”
OmniBase – since 1996 – has tracked orders from courts to deny license renewals for the state’s Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay program.
OmniBase data, obtained via records request from DPS, show as of Oct. 2022 there were active orders from Texas municipal judges and justices of the peace to deny driver’s license renewals to more than 980,000 people.
These are all because they failed to appear in court or pay Class C misdemeanor fines, most of which stem from traffic-related tickets.
The numbers OmniBase reported differ from the numbers the state agency says are flagged under its program.
DPS officials say there are 445,000 Texans whose licenses have already expired and are not allowed to renew until they pay off their tickets and another 350,000 more Texans who will not be able to renew when their licenses eventually expire if they don’t pay or resolve the ticket beforehand.
The difference in the numbers, according to the DPS Driver’s License Division, has to do with various factors, including incomplete information reported by the courts that can’t be resolved, records that don’t match a Texas driver’s license record or ones that match the record of a deceased person.
In those cases, the order to block the renewal of a driver’s license would be rejected by DPS.
When OmniBase adds a name to its system, it also adds another fee to that person’s debt. The company then sends those orders to DPS, which runs the state’s driver’s license division. DPS, according to its latest contract, will pay OmniBase a maximum of $50 million by 2024 to maintain the statewide database.
Once flagged under the Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay program, drivers can face more expensive fines and even jail time if caught behind the wheel.
There is also no statute of limitations on how long the state can keep a hold on a driver’s license. According to OmniBase data collected from 2019 to October 2022, on average people spent a little more than four years with a failure to pay or failure to appear flag on their driver’s license.
The longest time someone spent on the list in that period was 26 years.
‘I was penniless’ – System traps some Texans in a cycle of debt
Emily Culp hasn’t had a valid driver’s license in over a decade. On the orders of the judges, she, too, was not allowed to renew her license until she paid all her traffic tickets.
“I could not afford a lawyer at all at the time. I just got a divorce. I was penniless,” Culp said.
In 2021, she owed more than $5,000 in fines and fees.
Culp said sometimes she would still drive to work or to her child’s daycare even though her license was expired and couldn’t be renewed. When police pulled her over, she got more tickets — and was sometimes arrested for driving without a valid license.
“I never thought I would be someone in jail next to murderers for not paying a ticket,” Culp said.
It also added more ticket debt she needed to pay off before getting her license renewed.
Under the Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay program, even when defendants come to court to address their tickets, judges have the choice to maintain the order to deny their driver’s license renewal until the entire debt is paid.
Local governments, including Harris County, the City of Austin, and Dallas, canceled their contracts with OmniBase as recently as 2020 citing the financial “trap” and legal “risk” the program imposes on families.
“I think it is effectively a way of criminalizing people for not having any money,” Rep. Diego Bernal, D- San Antonio, said.
Rep. Bernal has repeatedly filed bills to make it illegal for judges to jail Texans over traffic-related tickets. Those bills all failed.
“Using it as a weapon does not help anybody. Using it as an accelerant to almost guarantee they end up with greater fines, and possibly for a lot of them that cannot afford to pay — behind bars — that is not the reason you should have an element of government,” Rep. Bernal said.
Travis County Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu said many judges follow what he considers to be best practices when it comes to OmniBase – that is, using it as a tool to get defendants to appear in court and dropping the hold once they do.
“Some courts have gotten into practices like number one, not waiving Omni holds due to indigency (in other words, if you are too poor to afford your Omni fees),” Chu said.
Check if you have a Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay flag on your license:
- Go to Texasfailuretoappear.com
- Click the search button
- Type in your driver’s license number and date of birth
- You should then see the open offenses, the violation and the court that made the order.
“Forcing someone to resolve their case because I have their driver’s license and you can’t get it renewed until you plead guilty and resolve it, just isn’t fair and I don’t think it is constitutional,” Chu continued.
In a 2020 OmniBase quarterly report to DPS, Texas judges reported dismissing driver’s license holds due to inability to pay, or indigency, in less than 1% of cases. The same report stated 1% of driver’s license holds were lifted during that time because the person entered a payment plan with the court.
Chu said it is unclear if the data accurately reflects what is happening in Texas courts, or if data was input inconsistently or erroneously.
“Only seeing a hundred or so dismissed for indigency would not be consistent with the size of the indigency population,” Chu said. “That could indicate that courts are not using indigency or granting indigency as often as they should, which needs to be addressed. Number two, though, it could represent a problem with the data.”
Former Texas Fair Defense Attorney Karly Jo Dixon, who is now a public defender in Travis County, spent years defending low-income Texans who found themselves facing thousands of dollars of debt, and years in the OmniBase system, before getting their licenses back.
Dixon said while Texas laws recently passed in 2017 and 2019 allow payment plans, community services, or waivers for low-income Texans, courts do not always utilize these alternatives.
“They’ve not educated their clerks to tell people, ‘Oh, if you cannot afford to pay, there’s some paperwork you can fill out,’” Dixon said. “And so, folks are calling and saying ‘I have a ticket,’ and they are being told, ‘You can pay it in full or go to jail.’ That is still happening today. It is very common. And then at that point, people just give up. They do not know what to do.”
A new bill introduced in December would allow drivers to renew their license after 10 years of being expired through the state’s Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay program. Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, authored the bill. Right now, there is no statute of limitations on how long a driver can be flagged in the database.
The Texas Association of Municipal Judges, which has opposed other bills that would prevent municipal judges and justices of the peace from using jail time as a punishment for Class C misdemeanors, has already expressed opposition to the bill.
“If a scenario occurred where both Sen. Johnson’s bill and Rep. Bernal’s passed, then there would be no enforcement authority by a municipal judge or a justice of the peace,” City of Lewisville Municipal Judge and Texas Municipal Courts Association Legislative Chair Brian Holman said. “It would create pandemonium.”
“I don’t want a single mom with three or four kids to not be able to drive. That’s the last thing I want. That’s the last thing that our judges want, truly, and so getting them back on the road — legally — is what we want,” Holman said.
“I’m in communication with, and our association is in communication with, Senator Johnson’s office, and we look forward to collaborating with him in his office to reach some sort of combination that we can live with,” Holman said. “That will meet the desire, the appropriate desire of Sen. Johnson to protect those abuses, or protect those people from being abused.”
Data from the Fines and Fees Justice Center shows 30 states have laws that suspend, revoke, or will not allow people to renew their licenses for failure to pay fines and fees, including New Mexico, Louisiana and Florida.
For the first time in a long time, Culp has no outstanding fines hanging over her. She can finally get her driver’s license.
Culp and Sanchez both had help from Dixon, when she worked for the Texas Fair Defense Project, in fighting to reduce fees they owed and have some dismissed.
“There was, I believe, a $200 reinstatement fee and being the hero she is, she took care of it,” Culp said, talking about Dixon. “I feel lucky because I know there are so many people out there who don’t know about it and are stuck in this situation like I was.”
Digital Data Reporter Christopher Adams, Investigative Photographer Richie Bowes, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Investigative Producer Dalton Huey and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.