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Opinion In a close race, Texas’s Abbott talks war — against migrants

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) speaks during a news conference on March 10 in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez/The Monitor/AP)

As polls in Texas show Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in a tough reelection fight for what would be his third term, his rhetoric, actions and stunts involving illegal immigration have become increasingly extreme. Egged on by conservative allies — including his lieutenant governor, who likened the current flow of immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to the attack on Pearl Harbor — Mr. Abbott is now challenging constitutional norms that have generally put immigration policy under the federal government’s purview. He is also defying U.S. law and treaty commitments.

About three years ago, after a mass shooting by a white supremacist at a Walmart in El Paso that left 23 people dead, most of them Latino, Mr. Abbott acknowledged the role of incendiary hyperbole leading up to the massacre. That presumably included his own rhetoric, which included warnings of a plot to “transform Texas — and our entire country — through illegal immigration.” But Mr. Abbott’s memory is apparently short. Now, he speaks openly of declaring that an immigrant “invasion” is underway at the border, a move that supposedly would enable Texas to claim war powers, forbidden to states under the U.S. Constitution unless they are “actually invaded.” Such a declaration might, in turn, empower the governor to deport immigrants, usurping the federal government’s authority.

Or so the argument goes by the anti-immigrant extremists who are pushing the move. It’s far-fetched. Mr. Abbott himself says deporting immigrants might expose state law enforcement authorities to federal prosecution, though he has not ruled it out.

Nonetheless, last week he edged right up to the line, issuing an executive order authorizing the Texas National Guard and Public Safety Department to return undocumented immigrants to the border. Under that scheme, immigrants would have no opportunity to apply for asylum in this country, which is their right under U.S. and international law.

The governor’s move came one day after a poll was published showing him leading Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke by just six percentage points in this fall’s gubernatorial race. While Mr. Abbott remains the favorite in GOP-leaning Texas, his favorable ratings plummeted after the mass shooting in May in Uvalde, which left 19 students and two teachers dead. His lead in the current race is less than half of his margin of victory in 2018.

As the race has tightened, the governor’s immigration stunts have become showier — and more expensive. Under his policies, Texas has spent some $4 billion on border security — by detaining thousands of immigrants in state facilities on misdemeanor trespassing charges, deploying thousands of National Guard troops to the border, building more than 20 miles of new border wall and paying to bus some immigrants to D.C. He has also spent heavily to reinforce security in Texas border towns, although little serious crime is attributed to border crossers. In April, he played havoc with cross-border commerce by ordering safety inspections on trucks entering Texas from Mexico — an undertaking that produced no significant seizures of narcotics, guns or other contraband.

Mr. Abbott’s ostentatious policies are wasteful and ineffective; they have produced no detectable reduction in cross-border immigration. Whether they help him win reelection remains an open question.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).