Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), center, and other Texas officials at a news conference April 6 in Weslaco, Tex. (Joel Martinez/Associated Press)
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The governor of Texas said Wednesday that his state will start busing and flying undocumented immigrants to the nation’s capital, escalating his clash with the Biden administration over border policy and its plans to phase out pandemic-era restrictions.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced the busing as part of a broader crackdown amid rising illegal crossings and fears that restoring old policies will overwhelm border communities. For two years, a federal health order called Title 42 has allowed the government to expel more than 1.7 million migrants in the name of controlling covid-19.

Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed alarms about a humanitarian “crisis” at the U.S. border with Mexico, but Abbott’s critics accuse him of favoring flashy politics over effective solutions. Wednesday’s announcement about mass relocations drew the expected cheers from conservatives and denunciations from advocates for undocumented immigrants, who noted that Abbott is seeking reelection this year.

“He uses human beings as political pinatas to score political points six months before his election,” Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said in a statement. “It is mean-spirited to use refugees’ lives to manipulate public opinion.”

As early as Thursday, Texas officials said, the state will start offering bus rides to migrants released from federal custody while their court cases are pending. Abbott and other conservatives have derided current immigration policy as a strategy of “catch and release,” while advocates for migrants say it’s the most humane way to handle the many people seeking asylum in the United States.

CDC to phase out border restrictions; increase in crossings expected

At a news conference Wednesday, Abbott said the busing would help local officials “whose communities are being overwhelmed” and suggested Texas was giving federal leaders a taste of their own medicine.

“We are sending them to the United States capital, where the Biden administration will be able to more immediately address the needs of the people that they are allowing to come across our border,” he said.

Busing already helps redistribute migrants within Texas, the governor said. “So I said, I got a better idea,” he continued. “As opposed to busing these people to San Antonio, let’s continue the ride all the way to Washington, D.C.”

The D.C. mayor’s office, the chairman of the D.C. Council and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday evening.

The busing was the most pointed of a slew of measures announced Wednesday. Abbott and other Texas officials also said they would block “lower water crossings” with razor-wire and “boat blockades”; increase lighting in “prominent smuggling areas”; and routinely inspect commercial vehicles entering Texas, a move that Abbott said would help stop smuggling of people and drugs.

“Now I know, in advance, this is going to dramatically slow traffic from Mexico into Texas,” he said and promised more measures to come next week.

The idea of moving migrants out of state — sometimes targeting liberal areas — is not new. In 2019, under President Donald Trump, White House officials pushed to release detainees in “sanctuary cities” as a form of retaliation against political foes, The Washington Post previously reported. Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement raised concerns and ultimately rebuffed the proposal.

The same year, federal authorities also flew migrants from Texas to California as facilities grew overcrowded.

The pandemic scrambled the immigration system as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people entering the United States represented a public health risk. Under Title 42, the government could deport migrants immediately without giving them the chance to request asylum. Previously they would have been detained and potentially released to live in the United States while waiting for their cases to be heard.

What is Title 42 and how could its end affect the border?

The Biden administration recently announced it would phase out the hotly debated policy by May. Many Democrats and activists had pushed for a return to normalcy — but the prospect of more migrants also triggered some opposition across party lines.

“We have every expectation that when the CDC ultimately decides it’s appropriate to lift Title 42, there will be an influx of people to the border,” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said at a press briefing last month, shortly before the CDC followed through. “And so we are doing a lot of work to plan for that contingency.”

Abbott called the decision to end Title 42 “reckless” — and doubled down on the border crackdown he has put at the center of his agenda and his campaign for reelection. Last year he said Texas had deployed thousands of members of law enforcement to south Texas and promised to “start arresting everybody” — the state might not control immigration enforcement, he said, but Texas officials could press charges for trespassing.

Critics said the push for arrests backfired in strained border towns, creating a new crisis within the local criminal justice system. Prosecutors complained last year of massive case backlogs, while some migrants were detained without charges for so long they had to be released.

“It’s basically a show of force by the governor’s office,” David Ortiz, an attorney representing migrants, told The Post last year. “Is it really doing, accomplishing anything?”

Abbott’s latest policies sparked similar critiques. “You can always count on Abbott to choose stunts over solutions,” tweeted Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman hoping to unseat Abbott this year.

The Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) said Abbott was “trying to Make Texas White Again,” while Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, said Abbott was playing politics and trying to “take over federal immigration authority.”

Abbott argued Texas had to act, with federal officials preparing for the arrival of as many as 18,000 migrants every day when Title 42 lifts. “Because Joe Biden is not securing the border, the state of Texas is having to step up,” he said.