AP Photo/Eric Gay

For Greg Abbott, All the Border’s a Stage

But political theater can still get people hurt.


Above: Former President Donald Trump, left, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, visit an unfinished section of border wall, in Pharr, Texas, on June 30, 2021.

It’s a Texas tradition as old as, well, at least the Perry administration. Don some camouflage, maybe add a bulletproof vest, and scurry south. Find someone with a gun, have your photo taken, get out on a boat, another photo, set your jaw and squint your eyes as you peer into the middle distance, photo. Assemble every cop and Border Patrol agent you can for a roundtable, then bellow: “The immigrants are coming, and I’m the guy to stop them.” It’s border security theater, the show that never ends.

Since President Biden took office, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has reprised his Obama-era role as the border security hawk filling in for a negligent federal government. It’s a part he never fully quit during the Trump years, but his performance intensified this year. He’s declared an emergency, pledged to build his own version of Trump’s wall, and marshaled police from multiple states to flood the border. It’s a program aimed at Republican primary voters, one that comes at the expense of refugees, immigrants, and Texas taxpayers.

In May, Abbott declared that undocumented immigrants crossing the border constituted a disaster in 34 Texas counties. The move paved the way for state and county law enforcement cooperation, but 11 counties, including the three most populous South Texas border counties, declined to participate. Local leaders in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo tend to resist militarization and hyperbolic rhetoric about their low-crime communities, but Abbott charged ahead, expanding his declaration to include counties more than 100 miles from the border. 

Late last month, the governor hosted ex-President Trump for a border tour, a visit that Abbott’s team chopped into video segments, set to a lo-fi beat, and tweeted out ad nauseum. “Cartels, smugglers and human traffickers are profiting off Biden’s dangerous open border policies,” the governor captioned one clip, in which he lavished praise on Trump from a stage near the existing border wall. Trump then reiterated his endorsement of Abbott’s reelection in 2022.

Abbott is facing multiple far-right challengers in next year’s Republican primary, including former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West and ex-state Senator Don Huffines. These hopefuls seek to tap into far-right sentiment that Abbott was too draconian with his COVID-19 restrictions and has abused his executive authority. Huffines has called Abbott a “RINO” and pledged to finish Trump’s wall well before Abbott got on board. Having Trump’s backing helps shore up Abbott’s right flank, and picking a fight with Biden could also help raise his national profile, if he harbors presidential ambitions. 

The governor justifies his fear-mongering with statistics: Border Patrol’s reported apprehensions have risen significantly since last year. But that apprehension figure, which represents a mixture of asylum-seekers and people looking for work, is overblown—precisely because Biden has not instituted an “open border” policy. To the chagrin of immigrant advocates, Biden has instead maintained a Trump-era policy under which federal agents swiftly return single adults and some families to Mexico without a formal deportation, purportedly to prevent COVID-19 transmission. This has led to individuals attempting to cross over and over again, racking up arrests and juking the stats.

To address his manufactured crisis, Abbott has turned to solutions neither effective nor harmless. In June, he announced he would finish Trump’s border wall in Texas, transferring $250 million from the state’s beleaguered prison system to pay for it. Trump only managed to build about 20 miles of wall in South Texas, thanks to resistance from landowners and logistical issues, before Biden halted the project in January. A state-led border wall, meanwhile, will face even more obstacles. At the prices Trump was paying, $250 million would buy Abbott maybe 10 miles of wall on Texas’ 1,254-mile border, and that wall would then cost millions more to maintain and repair. In a separate crowdfunding effort hosted on a state webpage, the governor has raised just $837,000. 

Abbott will need land, but he hasn’t threatened to use eminent domain, as the feds do, saying he’ll rely on private volunteers and state properties. Historically, private landowners in Texas have resisted the border wall. State Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who’s after the Republican nomination for Attorney General, has volunteered his agency’s property for the wall, but nearly all that land is in far West Texas, nowhere near popular migration routes. The governor also cannot waive federal environmental and historic preservation laws for wall construction, meaning federal regulators may slow or block parts of the project. Earlier this month, Abbott tweeted a video of state agents putting up “temporary fencing” in the Del Rio area, but the structure is just a chain link fence.

“What I think the Texas government is going to be able to build is very small stretches of freestanding border walls, kind of far away from the actual southern border,” concludes David Donatti, staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas. Not enough, he says, to provide much border security, but enough to cause harm: “They’re going to use at least 250 million dollars to physically destroy borderlands… It’s a bad thing that causes genuine threats to our civic life, our lands as a state, and to our public treasury.”

The other prong of Abbott’s strategy is Operation Lone Star, the latest in an interminable series of grandiosely named deployments of state troopers and National Guard members to the border. The Texas Department of Public Safety sent some 1,000 troopers to the border this year, who’ve made 2,000 criminal arrests and detained approximately 48,000 migrants before handing them over to Border Patrol. For years, border leaders and residents have complained these troopers engage in profiling and excessive traffic enforcement. This time, Abbott’s even invited armed agents from other states to join the surge, letting other Republican governors in on the fun. Hard drugs, meanwhile, continue to flow primarily through ports of entry, which are monitored by federal agents. Texans currently pay $1 billion a year for border security operations, which the governor wants to increase even further. 

Abbott is also directing state troopers at the border to enforce criminal trespassing and property destruction laws against undocumented migrants who cross private property, including any who climb or cut through his proposed wall. The penalties for these crimes will be enhanced because of his disaster declaration, and he’s cleared out a prison south of San Antonio that is now receiving criminally charged migrants. “We will be putting these people in jail for a long time,” Abbott has said

Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), says his organization is monitoring for cases of “racial profiling” and planning for a lawsuit against the governor. 

“The borderlands are wrapped up in so much excessive militarization already,” says Donatti, the ACLU lawyer, who’s also looking at lawsuit options. The governor may be trying to score political points, he says, but the consequences are likely to be concrete. “This is real people, who will suffer real incarceration for who knows how long.”

But Abbott has made it clear: At the border, he’s the leading man. His primary voters are the audience. All the rest are bit players.