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Gov. Greg Abbott defends migrant tactics in Eagle Pass amid escalating legal battle with Biden administration

Flanked by Republican governors, Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to the press in Eagle Pass on Feb. 4, 2024.
Flanked by visiting Republican governors, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to the press in Eagle Pass on Feb. 4, 2024. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

EAGLE PASS — Flanked by visiting Republican governors, Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday afternoon railed against President Joe Biden’s handling of the southern border and recommitted to defending the state from an “invasion” of migrants.

Abbott has doubled down on enforcement at the border amid an escalating feud with the federal government over who controls part of the Texas-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, a town of about 29,000 residents. Although immigration law enforcement is under the jurisdiction of the federal government, Abbott claims the Biden administration has failed to enforce immigration law, leaving the state to fend for itself.

Texas has continued to erect razor wire as a barrier between the Rio Grande River and Shelby Park, a 47-acre area in Eagle Pass, even after the federal government said the wire impedes federal border agents from apprehending people who cross the river.

“As opposed to detaining illegal immigrants, Biden has let them all loose, with no ability to accurately determine their whereabouts,” Abbott said during a press conference Sunday at the park. “We’ve seen the catastrophic consequences of Joe Biden’s open border policy.”

Abbott said gang members, as well as hundreds of people on the terrorist watch list, have been apprehended at the border. He thanked border patrol agents at checkpoints who have seized millions of lethal doses of fentanyl and thousands of pounds of methamphetamine.

Republican governors have rallied behind Abbott’s efforts to deter illegal immigration. Last month, 25 of them released a joint statement, arguing that Texas has legal authority to defend itself because the Biden administration has failed to enforce immigration laws.

About half of those Republican governors traveled to Shelby Park on Sunday, where they praised Abbott for his methods, such as building a border wall, installing wire and placing a string of buoys in the river. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said they would continue to deploy National Guard troops to the border to support Abbott.

Lt. Col. Freeman Martin, deputy director of DPS’s Homeland Security Operations, told the visiting governors Sunday that Abbott’s directives are working, according to a pool report from the Houston Chronicle. During a briefing at the DPS Eagle Pass Area Office, Martin said the razor wire and buoy barriers "save lives."

Martin’s claim echoes previous assertions by DPS and Abbott that the buoys deter people from trying to cross, thus reducing drownings. The state has provided no evidence of that, however. Calls to DPS for more details weren’t immediately returned late Sunday afternoon.

In January, a woman and two children drowned trying to cross the border at Eagle Pass, and Mexican authorities rescued two others. Federal officials accused the state of refusing to allow Border Patrol agents access to Shelby Park to assist in the rescue and recovery. State officials said Border Patrol requested access to the park after the drownings had already occurred.

An escalating border standoff

The standoff between Texas and the federal government began after the Texas National Guard and state troopers took control of Shelby Park in January, blocking Border Patrol agents from entering.

It was the latest move by the state under Abbott’s Operation Lone Star initiative, which began in March 2021 and sent Department of Public Safety troopers and Texas National Guard members to the border to stop illegal immigration. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have crossed the Rio Grande into Texas, many of them seeking asylum.

That put Texas on a collision course with the federal government: Under federal law, the federal government has sole jurisdiction over the enforcement of immigration laws, a power upheld by multiple U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The Texas forces have deployed miles of concertina wire along the border at Eagle Pass, including around Shelby Park. When Border Patrol agents began cutting through the wire to apprehend migrants or reach those who needed medical attention, the state sued the federal government, accusing it of damaging state property.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in December that prohibited Border Patrol agents from cutting the wire. But on Jan. 22, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s ruling.

The ruling did not explicitly grant Border Patrol agents access to the park or require the state to remove the concertina wire, prompting Abbott to double down. Shortly after, National Guard and state troopers continued to block federal agents’ entry to the park and deploy more concertina wire as Abbott maintained his long-standing claim that the Biden administration has refused to enforce immigration laws.

"Instead of prosecuting immigrants for the federal crime of illegal entry, President Biden has sent his lawyers into federal courts to sue Texas for taking action to secure the border," Abbott said in a statement.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency that oversees the Border Patrol, sent a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office demanding that federal officials be allowed into the park.

Paxton has said Texas wouldn’t comply with the Biden administration’s request.

Another legal confrontation is brewing: Late last year, Abbott signed into law a bill that allows police to arrest people suspected of illegally crossing the Texas-Mexico border on state charges. Scheduled to take effect in March, the legislation prompted the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to file lawsuits to overturn the law.

In an interview with the New York Times published Friday, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas called Abbott's actions on the border unconscionable, saying the state refused to communicate or coordinate with the federal government to create disorder.

"I call upon Gov. Abbott to follow the law as the courts direct," he said. "I call upon Gov. Abbott to communicate and coordinate with his fellow governors in other states. I call upon Gov. Abbott to not use human beings as political pawns."

Demonstrators descend on Eagle Pass

Abbott's visit to Eagle Pass coincided this weekend with the arrival of a convoy of Americans opposed to the Biden administration's handling of border policy.

The Take Our Border Back convoy departed from outside Washington last week, passing through Dripping Springs along the way. Organizers called it a peaceful protest, though some critics expressed worry about violent or secessionist undertones. Border Patrol officials evacuated a migrant processing center in Eagle Pass Thursday after the FBI warned of threats to the facility. The Daily Mail reported that officials said up to 175 migrants were relocated to other holding centers in Texas.

The convoy arrived Saturday in Quemado, a rural community about 20 miles north of Eagle Pass. A rally attracted a modest crowd and remained peaceful, The New York Times reported. Attendees listened to Christian music, waved “Trump 2024” flags and called on the federal government to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

Micki Larson-Olson, 54, a retired Air Force Master from Abilene who spent 161 days in a D.C. jail on charges related to the January 6 riot in 2021, participates in the people’s convoy ahead of Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference, in downtown Eagle Pass on Feb. 04, 2024.
Micki Larson-Olson, 54, a retired Air Force Master from Abilene who spent 161 days in a D.C. jail on charges related to the January 6 riot in 2021, participates in the people’s convoy ahead of Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference, in downtown Eagle Pass on Feb. 04, 2024. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune
Community members and faith leaders speak in opposition to participants in the border convoy before Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference, at San Juan Plaza in Eagle Pass on Feb. 04, 2024.
Community members and faith leaders speak in opposition to participants in the border convoy before Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference, at San Juan Plaza in Eagle Pass on Feb. 04, 2024. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune
Residents watch a media scrum form from their backyard overlooking Shelby Park ahead of Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference, in Eagle Pass on Feb. 04, 2024.

During the Sunday afternoon press conference, some members of the Take Our Border Back convoy faced off against Eagle Pass residents, who condemned Abbott for spending billions of dollars on the border. Just outside of Shelby Park, convoy members held pro-Trump signs and chanted “USA.” Meanwhile, Eagle Pass residents and activists from other border towns such as Laredo led their own chants of “Vive la frontera.”

Some of those residents held a press conference before the governor’s. Speakers criticized members of the convoy for “hijacking Christianity.” Others criticized Abbott for taking over a city park.

“Quit wasting our tax dollars on political propaganda,” said Juanita V. Martinez, an Eagle Pass resident and Maverick County Democratic Party Chairperson. “Abbott doesn’t care about anything but boosting his Republican political agenda.”

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