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Busing migrants, halting trade: Abbott bets future on divisive border plans

The Republican governor of Texas is spearheading polarizing spectacles at the U.S.-Mexico border as he runs for reelection and looks ahead to 2024

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) speaks during a rally where former president Donald Trump appeared, in Conroe, Tex., on Jan. 29. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

SAN ANTONIO — The news blindsided some of the most powerful people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Customs brokers sent panicked text messages. Truckers called warehouse operators. Bank executives puzzled over dinner. Elected leaders called emergency cross-border meetings.

They all wanted to know what Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest border gambit would mean. The Republican had ordered secondary inspections of commercial trucks entering from Mexico — triggering chaos as traffic snarled on international bridges, and stalling already-strained supply chains of products ranging from auto parts to jalapeños. As produce spoiled and traffic worsened, Abbott touted his move on Fox News.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) placed new restrictions on April 6, requiring secondary inspections of commercial trucks and other vehicles entering from Mexico. (Video: Reuters)

White House, truckers blast Texas as inspections snarl Mexico traffic

“The Biden administration has abandoned the immigration laws of America. … They have no idea about the chaos they have caused by their open border policies,” Abbott said, exaggerating last week during one of at least four appearances on the network favored by many conservative viewers. “They refuse to come down and see firsthand and talk to the people who are really most adversely affected.”

Like Abbott’s other recent border directives, the order was panned by critics, including some Republicans, as unnecessary and ineffective. Abbott, facing widespread disapproval from business leaders and others, ultimately reversed his decision. The contentious episode underscored what allies and critics alike said is at the core of the conservative stalwart’s political strategy as he seeks a third term for governor this fall and eyes a potential presidential run in 2024: establishing himself as President Biden’s most visible adversary on immigration and the staunchest border hawk in his party.

“Those of us who live, work and get hit on the border by all these riptides caused by external forces in Washington and Austin pay the price,” said Gerry Schwebel of the International Bank of Commerce, one of the largest companies on the border. “It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time. You never let your guard down. But this affected everyone in North America.”

Immigration has long been a subject of dispute during campaign season in a state where the southern border spans more than 1,200 miles and is the preferred backdrop for Texas political theater. But this latest act is part of a long-running play for Abbott. Each scene appears designed to draw attention to an issue former president Donald Trump showed has the power to energize Republican primary voters. In a year when Biden has received low marks on immigration and border security, public opinion polls show, Republicans are seeking to elevate the debate to mobilize independents and centrist Democrats frustrated with the president.

Biden struggled early in his presidency to process an influx of migrants on the southern border after shifting away from the Trump administration’s hard-line rhetoric and policies. Now, he is facing intense criticism from many Republicans and Democrats, including Abbott, over his administration’s plan to lift a pandemic-era policy expelling many migrants under a health order known as Title 42.

Abbott’s response to the Biden administration’s plan to lift Title 42 comes amid expected increases in unauthorized migration that has vexed border communities and enforcement officials. March saw the highest monthly total of Southwest border arrests since 2000 — including more than 5,000 Ukrainian war refugees — leading to the detention of more than 221,300 people.

Republican strategist Dave Carney, general consultant for Abbott’s reelection campaign, defended the governor’s approach, saying he believes concerns over the border and immigration are the top issue in Texas, higher even at the moment than inflation, and the political risks of doing too little are far greater than doing too much: “Not doing something is more risky than trying to stem the flow,” he said.

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about his plans beyond winning reelection this fall. But in interviews with Texas news stations, Abbott has been coy about leaving the door open to a White House run: “We’ll see what happens,” he told a Dallas-area radio station in 2020.

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Many of the possible Republican presidential aspirants are seeking to establish lanes in the run-up to 2024 and build their profiles — from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s efforts to limit LGBTQ discussion in schools and fight pandemic safety restrictions, to Trump’s focus on re-litigating false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Republican strategists and donors said they view Abbott’s intense focus on the border as part of that fray.

“This is all really about 2024. Abbott is worried about being outflanked by DeSantis,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who has organized fundraisers for the Florida governor and did not claim any direct insight into the Texas governor’s thinking. “Both men are looking past their reelects to the Republican primary voter. Abbott needs to be focused on introducing himself to 2024 primary donors and staying relevant in the party nationally. Picking a fight on immigration keeps him on the news.”

Each time Abbott dons the beige tactical shirt emblazoned with an official seal to announce a border security initiative, the governor draws attention with proclamations that his state will succeed where the federal government has failed. But his ensuing actions follow a familiar pattern, critics say. The price tag is high, the goals are unclear, and the people who have to live with it say they aren’t always sure how it helps curb undocumented immigration or drug smuggling.

So far, Abbott has bused migrants to Washington, giving scores of them free meals and transportation to the East Coast.

He sent thousands of Texas National Guard troops to secure the border under Operation Lone Star, sowing mass discontent among soldiers now seeking to unionize.

He’s spending more than a billion dollars in Texas taxpayer money to arrest migrants (specifically, adult men) on state charges, inviting civil rights lawsuits. The vast majority of the cases come from one sparsely populated Texas county where the set for John Wayne’s epic film “The Alamo” was built.

The governor is also crowdfunding a border wall that can only be built on state lands or on those of willing property owners. The vast majority of Texas is privately owned.

The consequences of Abbott’s actions are most deeply felt in Texas border communities that have borne the brunt of decades of congressional inaction on immigration reform, Schwebel said.

In a statement, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze defended the governor’s inspection policy, saying, “A 5-hour average delay for enhanced vehicle inspections is hardly equivalent to President Biden’s 15-month delay to secure our border.” Eze added, “Border governors are leading the way in solving border problems, and it’s time for President Biden and Congress to step up and do their jobs to secure our border.”

But the disruption Abbott caused was clear. Truckers protested, hours-long delays persisted and businesses fretted the collective loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in commerce each day. Republican Sid Miller, Texas’s agriculture commissioner, sounded the alarm about $5 avocados and empty grocery store shelves as he urged Abbott to end the inspections.

Mexican border governors, eager to resolve the situation, scrambled on Easter weekend for photo-ops and agreements to enhance security checks on their side. As Abbott suspended the inspections, he sought to claim some credit for bringing Mexico to the table and taking off the road dozens of trucks found to have defective lighting, tires and brakes. But the extra searches did not turn up the drugs and criminals Abbott warned about.

“None of it made any sense,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond (D), echoing what he heard from businesspeople. He added that Abbott did what any politician would — take advantage of an opportunity left open by national Democrats.

“Do I think those agreements will lead to anything substantive? No. But will it look good to Republican voters?” said Peña Raymond, who opposes the lifting of Title 42 along with several other border Democrats. “And Joe Biden gave [Abbott] the chance to do it.”

Lewis Owens, the Democratic judge of Val Verde County, home to Del Rio and the site of one of the most dramatic migration scenes last year when thousands decamped under a bridge waiting for entry, recalled asking Abbott for help earlier this month if the number of migrants overwhelms his small, isolated community again. Abbott’s answer was to send them on buses to Washington. About a tenth of the migrants released daily by Border Patrol agents in Del Rio boarded them.

When asked if the two dozen or so migrants leaving Del Rio eases the pressure, Owens chuckled.

“If nothing else, it got people’s attention,” he said. But it’s more help than what Owens said he has received from federal immigration authorities.

Securing the border is something Abbott has prioritized since his first run for governor, said former staffer John Wittman. The day after he announced his gubernatorial bid in Austin in 2014, he was in the Rio Grande Valley to build support among Tejano voters. He returned to the valley last year when he launched his most recent reelection bid.

Abbott is a prolific fundraiser who rose quickly in Texas politics after being appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1996. He became state attorney general and was elected governor in 2014. Growing up in a small town outside Dallas, he was a driven runner and ambitious from the start, supporters said. A freak accident at the beginning of his legal career paralyzed Abbott from the waist down, and he now uses a wheelchair.

The governor has campaigned with former president Trump, inviting him to rallies staged in border communities, and echoed his rhetoric about the “invasion” at the border. They spoke together at a wall along the border built by the Trump administration and sat side-by-side in June as Abbott announced Texas would build its own wall and lamented Trump was no longer in the White House. Trump later endorsed Abbott’s reelection bid.

“Texans are howling mad and fed up” about immigration, said George Seay, a Dallas businessman and former donor to Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Focusing on border security could also help Abbott in his reelection bid this year against former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D). But Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said it’s not a risk-free proposition.

“He realizes it’s the Achilles’ heel of Texas Democrats, the Biden administration and Beto. It’s an issue on which the Democratic position is not popular with the majority of Texans,” Jones said. “Their ability to beat up on them is a winning issue, as long as he avoids rhetoric and actions than can be construed as racist or anti-Latino or anti-immigrant.”

On the campaign trail, O’Rourke has sought to focus on other issues, pointing to Abbott’s failures in the foster care system that led to the deaths of children, the power grid collapse of 2021 that resulted in pricey electric bill surcharges, and the woes of soldiers the governor deployed to the border.

O’Rourke has at times been on the defensive over the border, calling on the Biden administration to implement a concrete plan to mitigate the anticipated influx before the enforcement of Title 42 is lifted, even as he criticized Abbott’s extra inspections policy.

“We need to end Title 42 and we need to work with local border communities to make sure we are prepared for the changes that will bring,” said O’Rourke, who visited South Texas last week. The governor’s actions, he said, hurt Texans and don’t fix problems.

Polls have shown Abbott leading O’Rourke, and many Democrats are bracing for a difficult midterm election in Texas and across the country.

Matt Angle, a veteran Democratic consultant and director of the Lone Star Project, said Abbott has evaded political consequences for policy failures but his actions at the border are not only unhelpful, they also may be worsening the situation.

“This has exposed Abbott as what he has always been, crassly political and incompetent,” Angle said.

Texas has held hundreds of migrant men arrested at the border in special state prison units without filing formal charges, leading to the dismissal of their cases. The system Abbott’s office created has been plagued by missteps and legal challenges. The military operation was similarly troubled.

“I feel like this is all political and it’s just a huge waste of money and effort,” a Texas National Guard member told The Washington Post in January about their border deployment. The soldier, who oversaw more than 100 others on lookout patrols from a hotel in South Texas, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Soldiers bemoaned the open-ended mission.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” another soldier deployed in West Texas said. He submitted his retirement papers because of the border mission. “I didn’t sign up for this,” said the soldier, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

A recent report from the Texas Tribune, ProPublica and the Marshall Project found the governor’s office’s claims of success in disrupting drug and human smuggling are not clearly supported by Operation Lone Star data.

“The governor did the state huge damage and did his prospects in this election huge damage,” O’Rourke said. “There was a real cost and consequence for everyone involved even if he got his 3½ minutes on Tucker Carlson. These stunts not only did not make us safer or improve security, they have created more chaos and made us less safe as a result.”

Back in Laredo, commerce is back to normal, said Ernesto Gaytán Jr., chair of the Texas Trucking Association. The group has a supportive relationship with Abbott, said Gaytán, who said the governor’s order was “a little redundant and duplicative.”

Trucks undergo inspections by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, random safety checks from the Department of Transportation, and hit state- and Border Patrol-run checkpoints on Interstate 35, the primary commercial thoroughfare. Most migrants, Gaytán said, aren’t detected at ports of entry but are loaded up on the Texas side after crossing the bridge.

“We agree with Abbott that something needs to get done, but that’s between the feds and the state of Texas to talk out. Let’s not slow down trade,” he said. “But we are so polarized now that nothing gets done.”

The governor has already threatened to bring back the inspections if he thinks they are necessary.

Neena Satija in Austin contributed to this report.

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