EAGLE PASS, Texas – From a camouflage humvee on the edge of the Rio Grande, a Texas National Guard soldier in the front line of Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign to secure the southern border of the United States saw a man with a crutch cross the river from Mexico.
“Senor! Are you there?” shouted the soldier as the man disappeared into a thicket of towering reeds. Nobody answered.
Down the river, four other soldiers stood by as a U.S. Border Patrol team detained dozens of newly arrived migrants in a pecan plantation. An agent with an audience counter registered 135 people, mostly men, but also families from Cuba, Peru and Venezuela, who sought asylum in the United States.
“That’s it, every day,” said Hal Bowles, a Maverick County deputy constable who has been hired with new state funds to work on border security. “The governor is trying,” he said, but still, “everyone is coming in.”
In the last year, Mr. Abbott turned a relentless stream of migrants across the border into a potent political message that has gripped the role of defending the country against unauthorized migration as he sets out for a third term in November. His aggressive stance has done little to stem the tide and has also exposed him to fierce criticism for using his authority to interfere in a policy area belonging to the federal government. Still, his efforts to tighten border security and harden Texas’ 1,254-mile border have helped Mr. Abbott, a Republican, to hold challenges on his right and made the legal governor a regular man on Fox News.
Now Mr Abbott is considering whether to invoke actual military forces to conquer much broader state authority on the border. He could do so, advocates inside and outside his administration claim, by officially declaring an “invasion” to comply with a clause in the U.S. Constitution that states states may not participate in war except when they are “actually invaded. “
Top lawyers for Mr. Abbott and for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton met this month to discuss the move, which would put the state in a frontal collision with the federal government by allowing state police to arrest and deport migrants, according to two people familiar with the discussions. Mr. Abbott says he remains open to the approach, but has expressed concern about unintended consequences.
“If we use this strategy, it could delay law enforcement in the state of Texas to be prosecuted,” he said. Abbott during a recent press conference. But, he added, “Is that something we’re looking at? Yes.”
Already, the governor has mobilized thousands of National Guard troops to sit at border posts and ordered security inspections of trucks coming from Mexico, disrupting international trade. He has overseen the construction of 20 miles of new border fences, converted certain state prisons to hold migrants accused of intrusion, poured money into border towns for law enforcement and paid for buses to take willing migrants from Texas to Washington, DC
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The Biden administration has been dismissive of Mr Abbott’s actions at the border, sometimes calling them a “political stunt,” and has not taken steps to intervene, despite calls from Texas Democrats to do so. Any attempt by Texas to enforce federal immigration laws would almost certainly end up in court.
Although Mr Abbott has directed more than $ 3 billion to border security and approved another $ 500 million on Friday, he has little to show for it beyond drug seizures and arrest figures. The overlapping state actions have not held back the onslaught of arrivals.
Federal agents registered nearly 129,000 crossings to Texas in March, about 11,000 more than in the same month last year, when Mr. Abbott began the effort known as Operation Lone Star. The largest increase occurred in an area of the border that includes Eagle Pass, a sun-bleached town of 28,000 people, numerous stray cats and dogs and few resources left over.
Costs have been rising. Just maintaining the National Guard’s deployment through the summer will require an additional $ 531 million, government officials said this month. A 22-year-old soldier assigned to the mission drowned last week while trying to rescue two migrants in fast water.
And now Texas officials are preparing for an even larger influx of migrants, which is expected to come when the Biden administration concludes a pandemic policy of rejecting many asylum seekers under the public health rule known as Title 42.
Opposite the Eagle Pass in the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, a large number of migrants are waiting for the political change, ready to cross. Many others are not waiting.
“The most important thing is prevention,” said Steven C. McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. “And we have a way to go.”
The shortcomings of Mr Abbott’s efforts reflect the limits of a governor’s power to deal with a situation rooted in international unrest, federal immigration policy, and the economic pull of a better life in the United States.
The governor rejected a request for an interview about his efforts at the border. His office said it measured success by an increase in arrests and drug seizures. “With millions of deadly drugs and thousands of criminals and guns off the streets, communities across Texas and our country are more secure as cartel operations are undermined,” a spokeswoman, Renae Eze, said in an email.
Mr. Abbott’s aides also pointed to his recent negotiations with leaders of Mexican border states, which have resulted in promises of more aggressive policing on the Mexican side. The non-binding agreements came after security inspections commissioned by Mr. Abbott snarled truck traffic for days, which according to some estimates caused as much as $ 4 billion in economic damage to Texas.
The current wave of migrants began with the election of President Biden, who promised a more humane approach to immigration. But Mr Biden has maintained the title 42 policy of quickly expelling migrants, which began during the Trump administration and results in some attempts to cross repeatedly.
Sir. Abbott has been under pressure from conservative and former Trump administration officials to take even more draconian steps along the border. Some see his efforts so far as well-meaning but inadequate.
“The Lone Star has not moved the needle an inch for the simple reason that they are not returning people to Mexico,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a senior official in the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security and a vocal advocate for formally declaring an invasion.
In border towns like Eagle Pass, where accordion wires now mark the southern outskirts of the United States in some areas, a constant rotation of police officers and soldiers has created a kind of economic boom, with restaurants humming and hotel rooms going as much as $ 500 a night.
Tom Schmerber, the sheriff of Maverick County, which includes Eagle Pass, said a $ 1.6 million grant through the state border program had allowed him to hire six deputies and buy a pair of new patrol cars. “We heard we want more money from the state,” said Mr Schmerber, a Democrat. “If we do, we’ll get a drone.”
The Biden administration has broadly defended its handling of the border and criticized elements of Mr Abbott’s push. Texas “does not need to replace the CBP at the southern border,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, referring to the Federal Customs and Border Protection Agency.
Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security, has called for more border patrol agents, but told Congress on Wednesday that despite having inherited “a broken and dismantled system”, the administration had “effectively managed an unprecedented number of non-nationals seeking to come into the United States. “
According to Glenn Hegar, Texas state inspector, the increase in state police has helped ranchers who have complained about property damage from migrants. Police discouraged passing migrants from searching his ranch house near Eagle Pass when he was not there, as they did last year.
“Yes, there are still people,” he said. “But I feel like people are passing through faster and leaving less waste on the ground.”
Clusters of unauthorized migrants can still be seen wandering around the city. Some find shelter in unoccupied homes.
Earlier this year, the city’s mayor, Rolando Salinas Jr., said he encountered a Nicaraguan couple and two children who had lived in a home he was in the process of remodeling. “What are you doing here? This is my house,” he recalled, saying. The man said they were waiting for someone to pick them up. Mr. Salinas called the border patrol and the police chief.
“It’s a sad situation,” said Mr. Salinas. “Nobody says these people are criminals, but you still do not know who they are.”
While some residents are complaining about an increase in the number of pan traffickers, crime has not gotten worse and those who come are generally not staying, said Mayor George Antuna. “Most of the people who come here go north – DC, Chicago, New York, Miami,” he said.
But it is the large number lately that has been overwhelming. “We are not equipped for this,” Mr Antuna said.
It has even strained smuggling networks, said Mr. McCraw, State Police Director. “They’re running out of drivers,” he said, pointing to interviews with those accused of smuggling and Spanish-language TikTok videos seeking drivers to transport migrants from the border to cities like Houston.
“My view is that what we are succeeding in is securing zones” along the border, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where the number of illegal crossings has decreased, said Mr. McCraw. “It’s like hot spot policing.”
In Eagle Pass, border patrol buses with asylum seekers now arrive in a constant stream to the main relief center, which had to move from its small urban space to a cave-like, warehouse-like building. The number of migrants seeking services, said Valeria Wheeler, director of the center, Mission: Border Hope, has risen to as many as 500 a day, from about 20 a day two years ago.
Still, many migrants who arrived there this week were frustrated by the lack of space. Some said they should sleep on the concrete floor.
“Where do we all fit in?” Diego Carmona, 28, wondered after arriving at the end of a grueling five-month journey from Venezuela with his wife, 8-year-old son and 7-month-old baby.
Mr. Carmona said that as he crossed the river, he feared his older son would be swept away. He said he could still hear him screaming, in Spanish, “Dad, I do not want to die,” as they crossed the unpredictable stream. “It was the worst moment of my life,” he said – but they managed it.
It was at a bend in the river, north of downtown, that a National Guard soldier outside Dallas, Special Bishop Evans, had been stationed with a partner when he saw a man and a woman fighting in the river as they crossed from Mexico. He hurried to help them and jumped several meters from the high banks into the fast water.
Specialist Evans drowned. The two migrants, who state officials have said were involved in drug trafficking, survived and were taken into custody by the border patrol.
No members of the National Guard were stationed on the high flat ground on a recently cloudy day. Below, the river overturned near a path filled with discarded clothing and other items from migrants who had recently passed through.