Texas Governor Greg Abbott Bets on Border Chaos

Welp, it turns out The Border Chronicle are “race baiting fear mongers.” We’re also “destroying the United States of America,” after last Tuesday’s post about the manufactured chaos and border security theater in Del Rio, Texas.

There were lots more colorful names, as you can imagine, littering my Twitter feed after one of Fox News’ recently anointed border correspondents, Bill Melugin, aka @BillFoxLA, called my analysis “detached from reality” and a “hit piece.” Melugin’s tweet linking to my article unleashed thousands of Fox News followers, and probably just as many bots, to drown my Twitter feed in insults and threats.

My response to Melugin is that his work speaks for itself. And there’s no denying that Fox News host Tucker Carlson is spouting white supremacist “great replacement” propaganda to millions of Fox viewers and using the arrival of Haitian asylum seekers in Del Rio, and the network’s border coverage in general, to promote anti-immigrant sentiment.

In the coming weeks, we will delve deeper into how we arrived at this moment. Todd will be interviewing Reece Jones about his new book, White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall. Jones is a longtime border scholar, and in his new book, he digs deep into the long history of racial exclusion in U.S. immigration policy based around the idea of saving a white America.

Thank you to the readers who left comments about important work challenging these border security theatrics. We are very thankful for your recommendations. Unfortunately, we had to shut down comments on Tuesday’s post for a few hours as the backlash grew worse on Twitter. This is why we’ll be putting comments behind a paywall, so we can have more constructive conversations. We don’t mind people disagreeing with us or a healthy debate; we just want people to actually read our articles and offer something substantive to say about them.

We’ll be putting up the paywall for comments and discussion threads in November, so please consider becoming a paid subscriber. It’s just $6 a month, or $60 a year. We appreciate your support!

Texas Governor Greg Abbott Bets on Border Chaos

Republicans Are Counting on the #BorderCrisis for Midterm Gains

On the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas, governor Greg Abbott instructed the National Guard and Department of Public Safety troopers to park their vehicles in a solid line—“a steel barrier” as Abbott described it at his press conference, surrounded by national news cameras. The wall of cars would keep Haitian asylum seekers from entering the country. Flanked by National Border Patrol Council president Brandon Judd, a Texas National Guard general, local elected leaders, and various state Republican officials, Abbott cranked up the crisis rhetoric. “The Biden administration is promoting and allowing open borders,” he said. “When you have an administration that has abandoned any pretense of securing the border or securing our sovereignty, you see the onrush of people that we saw … the chaos day after day after day.”

Nobody does border security theater better than Texas. Abbott had lost support among the Trump base over a mask mandate and business restrictions, and he was in hot water with just about everyone else after the devastating power grid failure in February. So, to save his political future, he went all in on border hysteria.

With the loss of Arizona to Joe Biden in the last election, Republicans are hyperfocused on keeping Texas red. And Abbott is shaping himself as the leader of the “Biden Resistance Campaign,” according to Politico. In the same article, James Dickey, former chair of the Texas Republican Party, calls Texas and Abbott “the tip of the spear.”

This is why Abbott and Doug Ducey, Arizona’s governor, are declaring border communities—which are largely Latino and vote Democratic—to be disaster zones. At their invitation, other Republican-led states have sent their own National Guard soldiers and law enforcement to patrol border communities “in defense of our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to the letter they issued, because of “Biden’s unsecured border.” This is such a big deal for Republicans that a Republican mega-donor in Tennessee, Willis Johnson, paid $1 million for South Dakota’s deployment of National Guard. In addition to Texas and Arizona, the states sending troops, such as Arkansas and Iowa, are also passing legislation to restrict voting rights, which disproportionately affect communities of color.

The real crisis—at least for Abbott and the GOP—is a political one, as the party tacks further and further to the right. Abbott’s challenger Don Huffines, a former Republican state senator who markets himself as the “only true Trump candidate,” is just one contender in the 2022 election, which will feature a host of other far-right candidates for the governor’s mansion.

It was Abbott’s predecessor, Rick Perry, who first embraced the border crisis tactic as a winning campaign strategy and started depicting the border region as a “war zone.” Perry invested billions in creating a Texas version of the Department of Homeland Security under DPS. In 2011, leading up to his bid for the 2012 presidential election, Perry toured the Rio Grande Valley in a DPS helicopter with then Fox News personality Greta van Sustern. During their segment, he told Fox viewers that the Obama administration was allowing terrorists into the country. “They are from countries that have very close ties to al Qaeda, whether it’s [Yemen] or Afghanistan, Pakistan, China. It is an absolute national disgrace,” Perry told van Sustern.

In 2014, when unaccompanied minors began arriving from Central America, Perry sent 1,000 National Guard soldiers and hundreds of troopers to Hidalgo and Starr counties, even though the children were presenting themselves to Border Patrol agents to request asylum.

When Abbott became governor in 2015, he doubled down on Perry’s formula with Operation Secure Texas and then Operation Lone Star, flooding border communities with highway troopers, game wardens, and criminal investigators from the Texas Rangers, a division within DPS. The officers are pulled from communities across Texas and deployed on rotation to border cities, where they collect overtime from state and federal programs such as Operation Stonegarden. In the next two years alone, Texas will spend more than $3 billion on flooding border communities with police, National Guard, and a new “border wall” built by Abbott.

For years, the Rio Grande Valley (the four border counties in the southernmost tip of Texas) has been the preferred stage for border security theatrics. One reason is that it is the shortest distance on the U.S. border from Central America and a preferred route for Central American migrants.

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Texas’s militarized border strategy has made cities in the Rio Grande Valley, such as Mission and La Joya, some of the most heavily profiled and surveilled in the country. Residents there are under the constant watch of Customs and Border Protection aerostat surveillance balloons, observation towers, National Guard listening posts, drones, DPS surveillance cameras, DPS spy planes, and highway patrols.

So when Abbott proclaimed in May that he wanted to issue a Border Crisis Disaster Declaration, elected officials in the Rio Grande Valley refused to go along with the ploy. Abbott wanted the crisis declaration so he could use taxpayer money to send state police to arrest asylum seekers and migrants for criminal trespassing and also fund Texas’s border wall, which is being constructed from chain-link fencing. “President Biden’s reckless open border policies have led to a crisis along our southern border,” a spokesperson for the governor told The Texas Tribune. “Until the Biden Administration starts doing their job, Texas is stepping up to secure our southern border and protect Texans.”

When elected leaders from the valley—some of the most populous counties on the Texas border—refused to go along, this left Abbott with 28 rural counties, including Val Verde, where Del Rio is located. Del Rio had already begun seeing an increased number of migrants and asylum seekers in 2020 leading up to 2021. In March 2021, when the frustrated mayor of Del Rio, Bruno Lozano, a Democrat, appeared on Fox News saying his city had been abandoned by the Biden Administration and left to deal with hundreds of migrants, with the electric grid down and in freezing cold weather, the scene was set for a border showdown.

In July, Abbott deployed state troopers and Texas Rangers to arrest migrants on criminal trespassing and other state charges in Val Verde and neighboring Kinney County. Texas has tried similar tactics in the past with its “Cortina Units,” which paired Border Patrol and DPS troopers in the same vehicle. Border Patrol would detain a migrant, then DPS would charge them on state charges such as misdemeanor marijuana possession. The program was a flop because it only clogged up an already overtaxed state judicial system and prevented investigators from focusing on more serious crimes. In this most recent effort, hundreds of migrants—all Central American and Mexican men—have been shipped off to a remote state prison, where they have languished for weeks. Many of them have no charges filed against them or legal representation. (A state judge recently ordered that the men be released on bond.)

Journalist Michelle García, who was in Del Rio as Haitian asylum seekers arrived, spoke at length with Mayor Lozano in her piece for The Intercept, “Security Theater.” Lozano told García that he wanted to see policy “reformed so ports of entry have to take them in legally and not be criminally charged.”

When the Haitians arrived, Lozano said, Abbott asked him repeatedly to allow state troopers on city property to arrest them on criminal trespassing charges. “It would have caused mass chaos,” he told García. Lozano said he stalled for time and told the governor that he wanted to wait for border agents to process the asylum seekers instead.

With the full-scale dismantling of the asylum system under Trump, cities like Del Rio have been left to handle arriving migrants largely on their own. While Biden has kept in place Title 42, a public health regulation installed by Trump to expel asylum seekers during the pandemic, he’s also admitted some unaccompanied minors and families who have crossed the Rio Grande, since the bridges and ports of entry are closed to asylum seekers. Migrants with credible claims for asylum are given notices to appear before immigration court, then released.

Before 2019, as journalist Aarón Cantú notes in his investigative piece “Inside Trump’s Border Chaos” for The New Republic and Type Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had a program called Safe Release in which ICE agents would help asylum seekers contact relatives, then transport them to the airport or bus station. As a result, their time in border cities would be minimal. After ICE did away with the program, Border Patrol started releasing large numbers of migrants in cities without notice. The policy change created chaos up and down the border as city leaders and nonprofits scrambled to set up humanitarian and respite centers.

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Another development, according to Cantú, was that the migrants being released had none of their personal or government documents with them, which they would need to contact relatives in the US and pursue their asylum claims. Tony Martinez, the mayor of Brownsville at the time, told Cantú “that he suspected the agency was purposely creating an unmanageable situation to turn the Trump administration’s rhetoric about a crisis at the border into a reality.”

Cantú asked Ronald Vitiello, who had served as acting director for ICE until Trump dismissed him in April 2019, why they’d ended Safe Release. Vitiello told Cantú that it wasn’t the job of ICE or CBP to help migrants or the border communities. “These mayors and the cities, they came to expect a service brought to them by the government,” Vitiello told Cantú. “They got used to it, [and] when the numbers overwhelmed everybody, they looked to us to fix it.”

Discontinuing the Safe Release program was just one more way the Trump administration created chaos for migrants and border communities.

So it’s disingenuous, to say the least, for those who had a hand in manufacturing the chaos to act like what we saw in Del Rio is something new. In a September 18 public post on Facebook, Rodney Scott, former chief of Border Patrol, who was asked to step down by the Biden administration in June, doubled down on the crisis rhetoric that asylum seekers were causing the border to be overrun, due to Biden’s border policies. He exhorted “all patriots” from CBP, ICE, and Border Patrol to share information with him about how many “miles of border have been abandoned … Get me the info and I will get it out to America safely,” he wrote as Haitian asylum seekers arrived in Del Rio. “We need facts to counter the lies and misinformation that the DHS secretary and Biden officials spew out every time they speak about the border.”

That same day, Griff Jenkins, a Fox News correspondent covering the border, tweeted to his thousands of followers that “CBP sources” had confirmed to him that 224 miles of the Rio Grande border were unpatrolled. He used the hashtag #BorderCrisis.