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By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Wyoming would send $5.25 million to Texas, Arizona and Florida to help their efforts to build a border wall and transport migrants to other places under a bill that passed through the state Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday afternoon.
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, sponsored Senate File 166 as a gesture Wyoming can make in recognizing and helping to address a national immigration crisis.
“When you’re faced with an overflowing bathtub, it doesn’t make sense to grab the mop,” Hicks said. “You have to reach for the spigot. Rather than putting a continuing burden on our local state governments and stand with the mop.”
If passed, the bill, titled “Border Wall and Sanctuary City Transport,” would provide Arizona, Texas and Florida with money to help construct a border wall and transport migrants from those states to sanctuary cities across the country.
The bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 3-2 vote.
The loudest voice opposing the bill was Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, who described the legislation as “misguided at best.”
Gierau mentioned a few of the projects the committee had recently rejected as well as many other budgetary commitments being considered by the Wyoming Legislature this session.
“This is ridiculous. Frankly, I think it’s offensive,” he said. “This state has problems; this state has issues. This state has things that we need to take care of, and it takes serious people and serious discussions to help solve these issues. This is not an issue for us.”
Hicks said he wasn’t offended by Gierau’s comments, seeing the Teton County senator as representing the people who voted for him.
“His constituencies find it abhorrent that anybody would move illegal aliens around,” he said. “I represent a body of constituents, the most of them think the failure of the federal government is at harm.”
Hicks made his case for the bill based on a number of points.
The United States Border patrol documented 2.4 million encounters at the Southwest U.S. border in 2022, an 11.5% increase from the previous year, Hicks said. A total of 165 detainees had records with the Terrorist Screening Dataset and more than 28,000 had prior criminal convictions.
He also said there were at least 1.5 million border crossings that were not prevented.
In the last four months alone, there have been 800,000 people intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and in the month of December there were 250,000, an all-time high for any month.
“The numbers are going up, not down,” Hicks said.
A Drug Pipeline
The federal agency’s Office of Field Operations seized 655,780 pounds of drugs, including 14,699 pounds of the highly potent narcotic fentanyl.
In 2021, Hicks said Wyoming law enforcement officers intercepted 17,324 grams of fentanyl.
“This puts a significant burden on both our law enforcement and people in the State of Wyoming,” he said. “It puts us in potential jeopardy.”
Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, who also voted against the bill, questioned whether the fentanyl that winds up in Wyoming could be traced back to the southern border.
Hicks said this would be impossible to determine but mentioned how most of the ingredients used to make fentanyl come from China and most fentanyl production happens in Mexico.
“We know the mechanism for the transportation into the United States and Wyoming,” Hicks said.
What It Does
Senate File 166 would allow Gov. Mark Gordon to provide $3 million to Texas toward the construction of a permanent border wall along its southwest land border with Mexico. A $2 million apportionment would go to Arizona for the same cause.
Part of those payouts would include $250,000 to each state for transporting non-citizens of the U.S. from Arizona and Texas to sanctuary cities in other states. A similar $250,000 would be given to Florida for the same purpose.
The closest sanctuary cities to Wyoming are in northern Colorado, where Larimer (Fort Collins)and Weld (Greeley)counties have pledged to not honor U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers.
“We’re going to bus 800,000 migrants to Denver? Is that what we’re going to do with the money?” Nethercott questioned.
Hicks said sanctuary cities that will not assist in detaining illegal immigrants should accept them being brought to their communities.
“It’s put up or shut up time,” he said.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, and a former mayor of that city, expressed empathy with the communities along the U.S. Southern border. He voted to support the bill.
“Those towns are just absolutely overwhelmed,” he said. “They don’t have the services to provide for those folks.”
There is a caveat in the bill that allows the governor to pull money intended for one state to another. This scenario would most likely play out in Arizona, where Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs was elected in November.
Hobbs has continued her Republican predecessor’s policy of bussing migrants out of the state but discontinued his stacking of shipping containers at the border to create a wall.
Hicks said he has not talked to Hobbs or her staff about whether they would accept Wyoming’s $2 million contribution.
“It does put a certain amount of pressure, it does highlight the issue,” Hicks said. “If she chooses not to, that’s the choice of the governor and the State of Arizona.”
Hobbs beat Republican Kari Lake in the election, who said during her campaign that Wyoming might be interested in helping pay for a border wall.
According to USA Today, about 650 miles of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border is fenced, leaving 1,350 miles open. Of that, 650 miles, about half, are designed to stop vehicles, not people.
Former President Donald Trump made the promise to build a border wall a key point of his 2016 campaign.
Under his watch, the U.S. built new barriers along 455 miles of land, 49 miles of which previously had no barrier.
When President Joe Biden took office, he immediately canceled the federal emergency initiated to fund the wall and a few months later halted all wall construction projects.
“At the end of the day, this costs everybody in the state of Wyoming to not to do this,” Hicks said.
Transportation To Sanctuary Cities
Nethercott voiced the strongest opposition to the transportation part of the legislation.
“We’re going to be paying for the plane tickets, for the bus tickets, for all of these people to travel across the United States to other sanctuary cities or states,” she said. “I’ll be fighting for $22 million for a Laramie County school and I’m being asked to appropriate over $5 million for bus tickets?”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming has also opposed Hicks’ bill.
“Immigrants in Wyoming have always been an important part of our state’s history, culture and economy — but immigrant communities continue to be profiled, harassed, detained and demonized. Bills like Senate File 166 only exacerbate this rhetoric,” said Antonio Serrano, ACLU of Wyoming advocacy director.
Serrano said legislation like SF 166 is being used by “anti-immigrant politicians to peddle falsehoods and racist tropes about migrants and asylum-seekers.”
Last week, Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, mentioned how a flight of Guatemalans had landed in his community the previous night while making an argument against Medicaid expansion. It was later determined the travelers were fully documented.
A few other people testified against the bill, like Sheridan resident Gail Symons. Symons mentioned the multiple busloads of migrants dropped off at Vice President Kamala Harris’s residence in Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve in below-freezing temperatures without any food or other resources provided.
The migrants had been bussed there by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
“That’s as un-American as it gets,” Symons said of Hicks’ proposal.
Gordon Supports It
Betsy Anderson, deputy chief of staff and legal counsel for Gordon, said he supports the legislation.
“This legislation will be very helpful for us to continue to support these (border) communities,” Anderson said.
Gordon has been acting on border security through appearances at the border and in pacts with other governors. In April 2022, he joined 25 other Republican governors to create a Governor’s Border Strike Force.
“All of us are seeing an increase in drug trafficking related to the lack of border security,” Michael Pearlman, Gordon’s spokesperson, told Cowboy State Daily in November.
In October 2021, Gordon joined other governors in Texas to call for policy changes at the U.S-Mexico border and promote their Joint Policy Framework on the Border Crisis to the Biden administration.
Gierau questioned Anderson about why Gordon didn’t include funding to secure the Southern border in his budget request.
She didn’t have an answer, but Hicks said his bill hadn’t been drafted until January and the topic wasn’t on Gordon’s radar. Hicks said he had been thinking about it for more than a year.
“We have a $1.76 billion surplus, we also received $1.2 billion from the federal government a year ago that probably should have been transferred for this purpose to begin with,” he said. “One way or another we’re just moving money that probably should have been allocated by the federal government to begin with.”
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