Private donations for a Texas border wall have soared to $54 million. But it’s still unclear who’s giving.

A border wall near the U.S. and Mexico border in Del Rio on July 22, 2021.

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Gov. Greg Abbott's efforts to raise private funds to build a wall along the Texas-Mexico border surged in August, from around $1 million at the beginning of the month to more than $54 million by its end.

In June, Abbott announced a fundraising website where people could donate to help pay for the barrier. Two months into the effort, donations had leveled off at around $1.25 million — a drop in the bucket compared to the soaring costs associated with the massive project. But the effort saw a major jump in the second half of August, with donations jumping to nearly $19 million by Aug. 27 and then topping $54 million by Aug. 31.

Renae Eze, an Abbott spokesperson, said the governor is grateful for the support from across Texas and the entire country as the state “fills the gap created by President [Joe] Biden and steps up to secure our southern border.”

“In less than eight months, President Biden’s dangerous and reckless open border policies have led to a disaster along our southern border, with 21-year record-high numbers of illegal immigrants surging into our country,” Eze said in a statement. “While the Biden Administration may not prioritize the sovereignty of our nation or the safety of our people, Americans clearly do.”

It is not yet clear what caused the jump in donations or who is behind the nearly $53 million that poured into the effort in the second half of the month. Abbott’s office has a website that provides occasional updates on the total funds raised but does not voluntarily provide information about individual donors. The Texas Tribune has filed an open records request for the names of the donors. A review by the Tribune of the first week of donors showed more than 3,300 individual donations from June 10-17 with the highest gift being $5,000.

Meanwhile, experts have expressed concern with the lack of transparency for the border wall crowdfunding effort.

It remains to be seen how much border wall the donations would pay for. An existing contract awarded by the Texas Department of Transportation in June is set to pay $25 million for a nearly 2-mile stretch of “concrete barrier” along State Loop 480 in Eagle Pass. But costs for the wall's construction may vary depending on the area where the state is building.

Portions of the federal border wall started by the Trump administration, and put on hold by the Biden administration, ranged from $6 million per mile to $34 million per mile for construction. Abbott's office said it has identified 733 miles of border that may need some type of barrier.

But private donors won't be the only ones footing the bill. On Wednesday, the Legislature sent a bill allocating $1.88 billion in additional funds toward border security to Abbott’s desk to be signed into law. About $750 million of those dollars will go directly toward building the border wall, as well as concrete barriers and temporary fences.

Still, the $54 million the effort has raised have surpassed expectations for many. A similar effort by the Arizona Legislature to raise funds for the construction of a border fence raised only $270,000 in three years.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at the Scharr School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said the amount raised by Abbott's crowdfunding efforts was noteworthy because of failures in other recent efforts to use private funds for a border wall.

“It is surprising in some regard that people are using their money to fund a project like this understanding the fact that in the recent past efforts like this had resulted in fraud and in construction that has been destroyed to some extent because of the lack of capacity of those who built it,” she said, referring to the conservative nonprofit We Build The Wall, which raised private funds for a border wall and included former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon as a board member.

Bannon and Brian Kolfage, the group's leader, were accused by the federal government of looting the charity for personal gain in August 2020. Bannon was later pardoned by Trump.

One of the privately funded border walls the group helped fund in South Texas showed signs of erosion last year and was in danger of falling into the Rio Grande, according to engineers and hydrologists.

But Correa-Cabrera said that the multimillion-dollar investment for a border wall reflected some Americans' perception that immigrants are a threat to the country and the government is not addressing the issue. She said those sentiments are often fueled by politicians to drum up support for their cause.

“Building a wall is not going to protect the nation from drug trafficking, from the entrance of drugs from south of the continent and it doesn’t stop immigrants arriving to the south of the United States,” she said. “What’s happening is symbolic and it’s a symbol of how divided the nation is along the lines of immigration.”

Jill Fleuriet, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the border is frequently cast as a “political bogeyman” that's full of danger, which is the only way many Americans ever hear of regions like South Texas.

“It shows the enduring strength of this border as a threat and lawlessness,” Fleuriet said. “When the reality is, it’s not.”

But Kevin Roberts, chief executive officer of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the border wall donations reflect a feeling by many Americans that the Biden administration's immigration enforcement has been lacking.

Roberts said a wall could be an effective deterrent to migrants if it was combined with other actions, including the deployment of personnel to the border to enforce immigration law and strong messaging from state and national leaders that migrants should not attempt the journey to the United States. He said barriers help free up immigration enforcement staff to other areas where they could be more helpful in preventing illegal entries.

“If the federal government isn’t doing its job to protect the citizens of the state, then that state has the obligation to do so,” Roberts said.

Disclosure: Texas Public Policy Foundation and University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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