Briefing

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has a controversial plan for the southern border. Is it working?

Understanding the effects of Abbott's hotly debated policies

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has made waves with his aggressive southern-border policies as of late. Here's everything you need to know:

Is Gov. Abbott busing migrants out of Texas?

Yes. In response to the Biden administration's decision to suspend a COVID-era public health order at the U.S.-Mexico border (note: that annulment is now currently up in the air), Abbott began busing migrants from Texas to Washington, D.C., where he claims they'll be better taken care of. The caravans are largely understood as an Abbot-led rebuke of the federal government's immigration policies, though critics claim the effort turns migrants into "political pawns."

The governor's first migrant bus pulled into D.C. on April 13, right where he said it would: blocks from the U.S. Capitol. "Biden refuses to come see the mess he made at the border," Abbott tweeted that day. "So Texas is bringing the border to him."

Meanwhile, the White House has appeared unphased by the unconventional move. In one particularly buzzworthy moment, Press Secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the whole maneuver as a "publicity stunt," but other than that, it's been left mostly unaddressed.

Though Title 42 — the public health order in question and object of Abbott's ire — was never meant to be permanent, it's become almost a de facto piece of U.S. immigration law in the minds of its supporters, especially once officials predicted a surge in migration as a result of its revocation. Critics, however, have argued that the measure — which allows the U.S. to quickly expel migrants for reasons related to COVID-19  —  was never actually that helpful to public health, and has ultimately done more harm than good.

Is Abbott's plan working?

The migrants are making their way to D.C., sure, but it's unclear if anyone is as rattled as Abbott was perhaps hoping. At least for the time being, the arrangements might even sound like a sweet deal to some. 

That's because the long bus rides are paid for by the state of Texas, and migrants aren't actually required to make the journey — the decision is voluntary. Once they disembark in D.C., they're then greeted by volunteers who will "help them reach their desired destinations around the country to await their day in immigration court," The New York Times reports. One passenger — Chadrack Mboyo-Bola — outright thanked Abbott upon arrival. Another, Cuban migrant Reydel Grau, told the Times he is "very thankful to the governor. His help is very much welcomed."

"In a way, it's actually perfect," Bilal Askaryar, spokesperson for Welcome With Dignity, a migrant assistance collective, told the Times. "Unintentionally, Governor Abbott sent them to one of the best places in the nation to welcome people … It might not have been the governor's intention — I think he clearly wanted to create some kind of chaos — but the reality is that we're really well prepared and really excited to welcome these people."

Notably, those traveling to D.C. from the border are "only a fraction" of the thousands crossing daily, the Times notes. If the number of D.C.-bound passengers grows, Washington would certainly have a problem — as would the vulnerable migrants, dropped in an unfamiliar city. For now, however, totals have remained manageable.

What about other controversial border policies of Abbott's?

The same day he announced his bus plan, Abbott also ordered state troopers to conduct secondary inspections of vehicles crossing into Texas from Mexico, a controversial directive that only served to back up border traffic, snarl supply chains, anger Mexican truckers, and send business to a more-welcoming New Mexico. Abbott rescinded the policy on April 15, just nine days after enacting it, but not before it cost the U.S. almost $9 billion.

The additional inspections, which were intended to root out drug and migrant smuggling, seemingly failed. Per The Houston Chronicle, the extra searches, despite having cost Texas a purported $4.3 billion, amounted to zero migrant detentions and zero illegal drug seizures. The governor simultaneously, however, "persuaded Mexico states to enhance security on their side of the border," added an email from Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, the Chronicle reports.

Abbott previously made headlines with his Operation Lone Star, a March 2021-launched initiative aimed at bolstering security along the Texas-Mexico border due to "insufficient policies from the federal government," The Texas Tribune reports. But the entire endeavor has proven controversial; "National Guard troops have called it a disaster, and migrants arrested on state trespassing charges have gotten caught in [confusing] legal proceedings, their lawyers citing due-process violations," the Tribune writes. The governor's office, meanwhile, maintains that the operation has been a success.

The leader is also said to be weighing invoking actual war powers so he could "seize much broader state authority on the border," the Times writes, noting Abbott could do so by declaring an "invasion." But such a move is risky, and would "put the state in a head-on collision with the federal government by allowing state police to arrest and deport migrants," the Times reports. 

What's the political angle here?

Well, it's an election year, and Abbott's now-famous border policies are perhaps intended to establish him as "President Biden's most visible adversary on immigration and the staunchest border hawk in his party," writes The Washington Post

Especially given the incumbent governor's rumored 2024 presidential ambitions, "[p]icking a fight on immigration keeps him on the news," claimed one Republican donor who has organized fundraisers for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), another reported presidential hopeful.

Dana Milbank, a columnist for the Post, agreed: "The stunt is part of a fortune in Texas taxpayer money that Abbott is spending for the benefit of his gubernatorial re-election campaign and potential presidential bid." He's using the border as an "expensive campaign prop," added the El Paso Times' editorial board.

"It's clear that in Abbott's view of politics, nothing matters more than winning," continued James Moore for CNN. "Not even Texas."

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