MCALLEN, Texas — When Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas announced last week a vague ambition to pick up where former President Donald J. Trump left off and complete the construction of a multibillion-dollar wall along the border with Mexico, many in the state were puzzled. A wall is costly and, in Texas, would require cutting a swath across private ranches, difficult terrain and some urban areas.
On Wednesday, Mr. Abbott revealed how he would pay for it: Donations.
Flanked by lawmakers at the State Capitol, Mr. Abbott, a staunch Republican who has found himself defending his conservative credentials in recent months, said the state was “stepping up to get the job done.”
But his announcement was dismissed by critics and immigration advocates as political theater and an obvious attempt to appease right-leaning voters ahead of his re-election bid next year.
“If the governor wants to blow hot air on TV, he can do that,” said David Donatti, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “I truly don’t think he has thought this through. The governor is not a king. We have checks and balances in the state of Texas.”
Still, Mr. Abbott cast aside the derision in his push to finance construction of a barrier along the border. He said he would set aside $250 million from the state’s general revenue as a down payment and hire a program manager who would determine the total cost of the project and the length of the wall. But he was short on other details, saying they would emerge later.
His posture comes amid a massive surge of migrants. Last month, there were 180,000 encounters between migrants and immigration officials along the Southwest border, from the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas to San Diego, Calif., the most in more than two decades, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
It also comes as Mr. Trump, who made the border wall a signature campaign promise, announced plans to visit the border region in Texas and as Republicans criticized the Biden administration as having not addressed what they classify as a crisis. Since Mr. Biden took office, the number of migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central and South America has climbed, up from some 74,000 in January.
To grapple with the sheer volume of migrants, which many officials said has disrupted daily life in border towns, Mr. Abbott said he would deploy additional law enforcement agents to assist the Border Patrol. He also said he planned to seek permission from private landowners across the Rio Grande Valley to immediately begin construction on their property.
In Texas, Mr. Abbott is not the only politician with grand plans to build a wall. Don Huffines, a former state senator who is challenging Mr. Abbott in next year’s primary elections, has also proposed constructing a barrier, calling it a safety necessity. “The Biden Administration won’t secure our border, so Texas will,” he said in a statement.
But whoever wins the election won’t have jurisdiction to enforce immigration laws, which are the sole responsibility of the federal government, said Domingo Garcia, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the oldest Latino civic organizations in the nation.
“It’s illegal, unconstitutional and immoral,” Mr. Garcia said.
His organization and other advocacy groups said legal challenges were likely, should Mr. Abbott push forward. And in Democratic circles, the plan was mocked and condemned. In a tweet, Sawyer Hackett, a party strategist, referenced the epic winter storm that left more than 150 Texans dead and collapsed the state’s power grid, plunging millions of Texans into brutally cold conditions inside their homes.
“Governor Greg Abbott says Texas will spend $250,000,000 on a ‘down payment’ for a state border wall,” Mr. Hackett wrote. “He’s also asking for donations of land and cash. The state has spent $0 to help Texans pay the $18B surge in utility bills.”
At his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Abbott encouraged people to donate to a website, borderwall.texas.gov, to help fund the project. The move has gained momentum over the years among right-leaning voters in neighboring border states like Arizona, but all previous efforts eventually went nowhere, including one in 2019 launched by an Air Force veteran that raised $25 million but ended in complete scandal.
Still, Mr. Abbott said he was confident he would at least build parts of the wall on state and private land and along sections where the federal government has little say. It’s a stance that won praise from many conservatives and Mr. Trump, who often pressured his homeland security officials to speed up construction of the project, waiving federal contracting and environmental laws in the process.
During his 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump promised that Mexico would pay for the wall. Instead he redirected billions from Defense Department funds that were initially meant for anti-narcotics or construction programs.
His administration ended up building more than 450 miles of new wall, mostly in Arizona and not in South Texas, which has seen a huge surge from minors and families seeking asylum.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Abbott is likely to face obstacles from private landowners in South Texas who resisted the Trump administration’s efforts to seize their land through eminent domain.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been assigned the job of addressing the poverty, corruption and violence in Central America that drives migration north, has faced increased pressure in recent days from Republicans and some Democrats to visit the U.S.-Mexico border.
Her aides have tried to differentiate her work from the more politically volatile issue of responding to rising crossings at the southwest border, despite the fact that the White House has simultaneously argued the key to securing the border is addressing those very root causes.
Ms. Harris has also stumbled when discussing the administration’s plans for the border, even as she delivered blunt messaging while meeting with leaders of Guatemala and Mexico last week, at one point warning migrants “do not come.”
When pressed during an interview with NBC about visiting the border, Ms. Harris responded, “And I haven’t been to Europe. And I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”
The next day in Mexico, Ms. Harris committed to eventually visiting the border.
“I will and I have before,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time at the border both going there physically and aware of the issues. But the reality of it is that we need to prioritize what’s happening at the border and we have to prioritize why people are going to the border.”
Dave Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas, and Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Washington, D.C.