Since last week, the Texas National Guard has seized a miles-long stretch of the border with Mexico at Eagle Pass, across the border from the Mexican town of Piedras Negras. Border security is the responsibility of the federal government, but Governor Greg Abbott, in open conflict with the Biden administration, said the state would do it all by itself.
The stretch taken over includes a municipal park, which had been recently used by federal authorities as a gathering point for the large number of migrants who had been crossing the Rio Grande illegally near that point. Authorities from the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the border guards, had set up a makeshift center here for initial reception and asylum application processing. Since Wednesday, however, the Texas Military Department and the state’s National Guard took control of the area, expelled the federal authorities from the park and fenced it off with barbed wire.
It wasn’t long before tragedy struck. On Saturday, a woman and her two children drowned while trying to cross the river and reach the shore at the “commandeered” park. A CBP (Customs and Border Protection) spokesman said the federal units that normally would have intervened to carry out a rescue were prevented from doing so by Texas troops. Federal patrols were alerted to the emergency and attempted to reach the boat dock, but were prevented from accessing it by state agents.
Last summer, Abbott had ordered anti-personnel barriers to be installed in the middle of the river to prevent crossings and “spread the message” that Texas is not easy to get to illegally. The barriers consisted of rows of large buoys with barbed wire wrapped around them, which made it impossible not only to cross but also to cling to if someone was in difficulty. In August the body of a migrant had been found clinging to the barbed wire. After months of controversy, an appeals court in December had finally ordered the removal of the floating barriers. Now the governor can reinforce his message of deterrence with the three new bodies.
A letter released by the White House had particularly harsh words about the situation, asking the Supreme Court to rule on the matter, calling the governor’s actions unacceptable and reiterating that federal authorities must have “access to the border to conduct law enforcement and emergency response activities.” The clash comes in the context of the red-hot atmosphere around immigration, which promises to be a central theme of the upcoming elections, with the GOP accusing Biden of “throwing our border wide open” to an “invasion,” a topic craftily exploited by Trump and conservative governors. In the Republican narrative, the crisis is framed in terms of national identity and sovereignty, notions already well-known in Europe. In addition, once more like in Europe, the historically high migration flows have recently shifted from the traditional transnational workers from South and Central America to a mix of African, Asian and Middle Eastern refugees that also characterizes the Mediterranean routes.
Tensions have not reached such a level since Eisenhower sent the Airborne 101 Division to integrate the segregated schools in Little Rock in 1957, after the governor of Arkansas had mobilized the National Guard to enforce segregation. To date, the situation in Texas is one of the clearest bellwethers pointing to the risk of the country facing a constitutional crisis.
The Texas governor, like Florida governor Ron DeSantis, has focused his entire term on provocations of this kind. For months, the governors of the two big Republican states have been sending groups of migrants off to large northern cities to “teach a lesson” to progressive elites who oppose the immigration crackdown. These “shipments” have dumped migrants in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’ home, while other families were dropped off at gas stations in the middle of the night in subzero temperatures. DeSantis had previously sent migrants via charter flights to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Since August 2022, 29,400 migrants have been shipped to Chicago, 35,600 to New York and 12,500 to Washington.
Two weeks ago, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson led a delegation of GOP congressmen to Eagle Rock to stage an event denouncing the alleged failure of Biden’s immigration policies. The Republicans are calling for work to resume on the border wall started by Trump and for the revocation of asylum rights, including separating children from their parents once again if needed. The hardline rhetoric has proven to be effective, making regular appearances at Trump’s rallies, where he has accused immigrants of “poisoning the blood” of the country.
Republicans are now threatening to begin impeachment proceedings against Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s Homeland Security Secretary, for supposed “criminal negligence.” Furthermore, the GOP made the tightening of border policies a condition for authorizing Biden’s requested military aid for Israel and Ukraine. In any case, what they want is not to find a solution to the problem – which is also very much connected to past U.S.-funded wars – but to blatantly exploit the issue in order to rally support on the right. In an election year, the border is becoming a universal hot button for populist demagoguery and a well-publicized pilgrimage destination for anyone calling for closing off the borders, from billionaire mega-influencer Elon Musk to third-party presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr.