Texas' standoff with the feds in Eagle Pass is igniting calls for secession and fears of violence

A Texas National Guard humvee parked at the gates of Shelby Park, in Eagle Pass, on Jan. 16, 2024. Texas has closed off Shelby Park, cutting access to federal agents to part of the Texas-Mexico border and escalating tensions between the Biden administration and Gov. Greg Abbott.
A Texas National Guard Humvee parked at the gates of Shelby Park, in Eagle Pass, on Jan. 16, 2024. Texas closed off Shelby Park, limiting access to federal agents to part of the Texas-Mexico border and escalating tensions between the Biden administration and Gov. Greg Abbott. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Daniel Miller felt encouraged last week, as fears of a new civil war trended online and a coalition of powerful Republicans coalesced behind Gov. Greg Abbott’s standoff with the Biden administration.

As the longtime leader of Texas’ unlikely secessionist movement, Miller has for decades argued that the state is in a stranglehold by the federal government that, eventually, would prompt enough popular support for a vote to leave the union. The past week only reinforced that belief.

"It validates and confirms the position we've had all along, which is that if Texas ever wants to truly secure its border … the only way we’re going to do it is as an independent and self-governing nation,” Miller said in an interview.

At issue is the 47-acre Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, where Texas has for months been laying concertina wire along the Rio Grande to prevent migrants from crossing. In a 5-4 decision early last week, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration, allowing U.S. Border Patrol agents to cut the wire to apprehend people who had crossed the river.

The narrowly written decision — which didn’t speak to whether the state had to stop laying new concertina wire — has emboldened Abbott, who vowed to continue his fight against the high court and federal government, citing Texas’ right to defend itself from what he claims is an “invasion” of migrants.

By week’s end — and as the Texas National Guard and state troopers continued to roll out wire and stifle federal agents’ access to much of the park — Abbott’s defiant calls were backed by 25 Republican governors, former President Donald Trump, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson and nearly all of Texas’ congressional delegation.

The calls for Texas to defend itself and defy the federal government have set fire to a long-simmering fight over states’ rights, emboldening right-wing figures small and large, from secessionists like Miller to far-right militias and a convoy of protesters from across the country that are currently en route to the border. This week, the Texas Military Department — which oversees the Texas state and national guard — also began flying the “Come and Take It” flag from the Battle of Gonzales outside its Austin headquarters.

“Everyone in power, from the White House, to the hedge fund managers, to the Supreme Court of the United States has decided to destroy the country by allowing it to be invaded,” former Fox News star Tucker Carlson wrote last week to his 11.3 million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter. “That leaves the population to defend itself. Where are the men of Texas? Why aren’t they protecting their state and the nation?”

The standoff comes amid a recent and growing acceptance of political violence: October polling from the Public Religion Research Institute found that nearly 1 in 4 Americans agree that “patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” up from 15 percent in 2021, when the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection prompted PRRI to begin asking the question.

Roughly one-third of Republicans and white evangelical Protestants agreed with that sentiment, compared to 13% of independents and 7% of Democrats.

The “invasion” legal theory

At the core of the Eagle Pass dispute is a term with a recent, violent history: “Invasion.

To justify Texas’ legal position, Abbott and others have claimed that the state faces an “invasion” of migrants that has been aided and abetted by the Biden administration. Thus, they argue, Texas has the right to supersede the federal government’s Constitutionally outlined immigration powers in order to defend itself.

The once-fringe theory has long been derided by legal experts and constitutional scholars who say it would effectively destroy the federal system and allow states to wantonly use “invasion” declarations to ignore federal law. And federal judges have similarly shot down the idea, with one recently calling Texas’ argument “breathtaking.”

Adriel Orozco, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit advocacy organization, said that Abbott is not the first politician to describe the number of migrants arriving at the border as an invasion. He added that Abbott is blurring the line between political rhetoric and factual legal basis.

“Unfortunately, the word invasion has been used historically against migrants to justify stricter immigration laws,” Orozco said. “It appears that Gov. Abbott is more interested in scoring political points than understanding what an invasion is under the Constitution.”

Immigration rights groups have similarly warned that framing immigrants as part of an invasion will inevitably lead to border vigilantism and violence, and that such rhetoric reinforces core tenets of “great replacement theory” — a foundational ideology of white supremacists that falsely claims there is an intentional, sometimes Jewish-driven, effort to replace white people through immigration, the LGBTQ+ community, interracial marriage and diversity initiatives.

The San Marcos man who pleaded guilty in April to setting fire to an Austin synagogue railed about Jews and “invaders” in his journals; and the North Texas gunman who murdered 22 people at an El Paso WalMart in 2019 was driven by his belief in "great replacement theory."

After the El Paso shooting, Abbott vowed to stop using “invasion” rhetoric, but resumed doing so to criticize the Biden administration and as he faced well-funded, anti-immigration primary challengers in 2022.

By then, immigration hawks had begun to coalesce around the idea of declaring an “invasion” that would allow Texas to further ramp up its immigration enforcement. In 2021, former officials from the Department of Homeland Security under Trump argued that Abbott should declare Texas was under invasion and “exercise every option available” at the border — and let the Supreme Court decide what’s legal.

“Abbott should be resolved to do everything that is constitutionally permissible,” they wrote. “That may take him into some gray areas, like using state officials to enforce portions of immigration law not in clear contravention of federal law. The governor has an obligation to exercise every option available.”

But perhaps no one has been more important to the spread of the “invasion” legal theory than officials in Kinney County, a 3,000-person county along the border. In 2021, Kinney County Attorney Brent Smith — who Miller said has served as a policy adviser for his secessionist group — penned a letter arguing that Texas was being “invaded by thousands each day” and should invoke “invasion” clauses of the U.S. Constitution to justify defending itself.

He and other officials began calling on other counties to make “invasion” declarations. It wasn’t long before the idea took hold: A May 2021 “border crisis rally” drew some 200 attendees as well as speeches from, among others: the sheriff of Goliad County, who claimed there was a “Marxist invasion” underway; then-state Rep. Bryan Slaton, an immigration hawk who proposed a constitutional referendum on secession not long before being expelled from the Texas House for unrelated reasons; and Bianca Gracia, a current Texas House candidate and collaborator of Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys leader who was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his leading role in the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Other “border invasion” events in Kinney County featured Attorney General Ken Paxton and Maria Espinoza, whose “Remembrance Project” frequently depicts immigrants as rapists or murderers.

By late 2021, militia members had begun patrolling in Kinney County, citing an “invasion” that they believed was part of a conspiracy to turn Texas blue. And that December, Lucas Denney, a North Texas militia leader and Proud Boys collaborator who was later sentenced for his role in the Jan. 6 riots, was arrested at a property owned by the family of Smith, the Kinney County attorney.

In November 2022, after months of prodding from critics to his right, Abbott finally invoked the “invasion” clause, saying in a letter to Biden that Texas had no choice but to protect itself. Texas’ legal arguments have been routinely slapped down by courts and federal judges who note that states have no right to declare “invasions.”

That hasn’t deterred major figures on the right, many of whom have called for Abbott to simply ignore the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court if it doesn’t rule in Texas’ favor — to tell the court to “go to hell,” asU.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, suggested.

“If the Supreme Court wants to ignore that truth, which a slim majority did …Texas leaders still have the duty to defend their people,” Roy said on Fox News last week. “It's like, if someone's breaking into your house, and the court says, 'Oh, sorry. You can't defend yourself.’ What do you tell the court? You tell the court to go to hell, you defend yourself and then figure it out later."

Fears of violence

Others have noted that, in his response to the ruling, Abbott argued that the “federal government has broken the compact between the United States and the states” — language that some have argued echoes Texas’ 1861 declaration of secession over slavery. Abbott, who was in India for most of last week, has not responded to those accusations and did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Since then, chatter about a looming conflict has continued to spread.

“What is this going to turn into, a civil war?” Fox News host Maria Bartiromo asked Lt. Gov Dan Patrick over the weekend. “You’ve got Texas rights vs. federal rights, both sides with guns.”

Patrick responded: “We believe, constitutionally, we are right. We have a right to defend our citizens. We have a right to defend this country.”

After the Supreme Court decision last week, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Louisiana, said that the “feds are staging a civil war and Texas should stand their ground” — a post that was shared and celebrated widely in far-right online communities, including those that were integral to the planning of “stop the steal” protests in the lead up to the Jan. 6 riot.

And earlier this week, Rep. Keith Self, R-McKinney, announced that he would rally in Eagle Pass with a so-called “Take Back Our Border” convoy that is traveling to the border in California, Texas and Arizona this week. The Texas leg of the caravan is also scheduled to meet at a Dripping Springs distillery owned by Phil Waldron, a retired army colonel who played a key role in Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

The organizers of the convoy have said they plan to peacefully protest, though social media chats set up for the group have been replete with references to “1776” and discussions about arriving armed and prepared for potential violence.

“There is a point where we are going to have to get our hands dirty,” one member reportedly wrote.

They aren’t the only ones preparing for potential violence: A Tuesday report by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism found that transnational far-right groups have also used the standoff to rail against immigrants and proliferate baseless conspiracy theories about the “intentional displacement of whites.”

In Texas, the report found, overt extremists and neo-Nazis such as the Aryan Freedom Network are similarly capitalizing on the controversy, with one group calling for “white men” to “join the resistance at the border.”

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