Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of America’s second-largest state, has kicked off the New Year by escalating his ongoing war against immigrants to fresh heights of recklessness. In both deed and word, Texas’ top executive has chosen not just to lob cheap political barbs but to court chaos and foment hate.
Starting January 10, Abbott oversaw the state takeover of a city-owned park along the Rio Grande in the border town of Eagle Pass. The move was made without the consent of local officials. “That is not a decision that we agreed to. This is not something that we wanted. This is not something that we asked for as a city,” Mayor Rolando Salinas said on Facebook.
Following the takeover, according to a court filing by the U.S. Justice Department, the Texas National Guard began denying access to federal Border Patrol agents, a Defense Department soldier, and even Texas’ own state troopers. The filing, consisting mostly of a declaration by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official, is part of an ongoing legal dispute between the state and feds over concertina wire along the border. In it, Robert Danley, lead field coordinator for the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, said National Guard members were preventing Border Patrol from using a boat ramp and placing surveillance equipment used to monitor the area.
“In total, a combination of armed [Texas National Guard] personnel and equipment, fencing, and concertina wire is blocking Border Patrol from approximately 2.5 miles of access points to the U.S.-Mexico border,” Danley stated.
On Friday, the governor said: “Texas has the legal authority to control ingress and egress into any geographic location in the state of Texas. And that authority is being asserted with regard to that park in Eagle Pass, Texas, to maintain operational control of it.”
Abbott’s move to block Border Patrol agents from, well, patrolling the border represents a significant on-the-ground escalation of his feud with the Biden administration and his bid to wrest control of immigration enforcement away from the federal government. It’s of a piece with many other gambits both at the border and in the courtroom that he’s launched since the beginning of his Operation Lone Star in 2021.
It also looks a lot like sowing chaos on purpose. The Texas-Mexico border is 1,254 miles long; blocking 2.5 of them isn’t a game-changer for migrants who’ve risked everything to come. And, no matter what Abbott may wish, the Texas National Guard is not the parent agency of the federal executive branch.
On Saturday, Laredo Congressman Henry Cuellar said that three migrants were found drowned near the state-occupied park in Eagle Pass after the Texas National Guard had declined to grant access to Border Patrol agents to assist them.
In a statement, the Texas Military Department—which includes the state’s National Guard—disputed the timeline, claiming the drownings had already occurred when Border Patrol requested access to the area. In a subsequent court filing, Danley confirmed that the drownings on January 12 occurred before Border Patrol sought entry, but he said that other migrants, who ultimately survived, were also in distress at the time.
The Biden administration Sunday warned Texas—which has reportedly restored Border Patrol’s boat ramp access—that the state had until end of day Wednesday to assure full federal access to the Eagle Pass area or the matter would be referred for Justice Department action. (Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton responded Wednesday with a defiant letter stating “the State will continue utilizing its constitutional authority to defend her territory.”)
But Abbott’s New Year spree hasn’t been confined to actions in Eagle Pass.
In a January 5 exchange with conservative talk radio host Dana Loesch, a clip of which was later surfaced by the Chicago-based Heartland Signal, Abbott took an otherwise tiresome softball interview in an unexpectedly bloodthirsty direction. Grinning periodically, the governor took shots at New York City’s mayor for complaining about migrant arrivals and enumerated what Texas has done to deter refugees from stepping foot on Lone Star soil: building a wall, deploying dangerous river buoys and razor wire, and passing a law turning local police and judges into immigration officials.
Then: “The only thing that we’re not doing is we’re not shooting people who come across the border because, of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder,” Abbott said. (An impassive Loesch quickly changed the topic to immigrant detention.)
This was an incredibly reckless comment from someone with every reason to know better. In 2019, after a xenophobic and racist Texan killed 23 people at a Walmart in the border city of El Paso, Abbott acknowledged that his own anti-immigrant rhetoric needed to be toned down—literally deploying the cliche “mistakes were made.” Long before this month, the governor broke that pledge to dial down his language, but his comment to Loesch confirms that his fleeting concern is dead and buried. He’ll keep painting asylum-seekers as invaders, and if the implication that Texans might be justified in taking up arms against such an “invasion” wasn’t clear enough, he’ll highlight and underscore it too.
At an unrelated press conference on Friday, Abbott said he had merely been distinguishing “between what Texas has the legal authority to do and what would be illegal to do” to deter immigration, claiming his remark was not one an El Paso-esque shooter might seize on.
It’s hard to see exactly how all this simmering state-federal conflict will resolve, just as it’s unclear what Texas’ third-term governor hopes to get out of all this. (Trump’s vice president? The White House in 2028? A trophy from Chris Russo?) But for the last few years, each escalation begets another, and the governor seems to feel he can’t go too far with his xenophobic crusade. Let’s hope, at least, that we won’t look back to find that some happening along the river in Eagle Pass—a place few Texans will ever even go—became our shots at Fort Sumter.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect an additional letter from Attorney General Ken Paxton.