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  • Pamela Arjona

Southern Standoff: Abbott Bypasses Supreme Court Ruling In The Name Of ‘Border Security’

Courtesy of Politico

The Border Crisis

In the past decade, the ongoing presence of migrants at the United States' southern border has evolved into what many describe as an unrelenting crisis. The implementation of COVID-19 protocols and the enforcement of Title 42—a stringent immigration policy enacted during public health emergencies—brought some relief within the U.S. immigration system. However, the statistics of the present paint a stark reality, revealing a surge in migrant crossings over the past three fiscal years.

Early 2023 showed a marginal decrease in migrant entrances compared to the preceding year. Nevertheless, the numbers have reached unprecedented highs since September of that same year. The escalating situation has prompted cities and politicians who once supported immigration to ask the federal government for public assistance. In a bold move, Governor J.B. Pritzker (D-IL) personally addressed President Biden, demanding urgent intervention. Meanwhile, the Democratic San Diego Board of Supervisors went even further, categorizing the situation as a "humanitarian crisis."

The transformation of the border issue from a purely political problem to a multifaceted challenge is evident, given the harsh terrain and escalating violence along the Rio Grande. The San Diego Board of Supervisors' assertion of a humanitarian crisis is not unfounded. Shocking reports reveal that over the past decade, a staggering 9,000 individuals have been recorded missing or dead while attempting to cross into the U.S. from the South. The Missing Immigrants Project has attributed these casualties to a range of factors, including drowning, transportation mishaps, heat exhaustion, disease, and malnourishment.

The challenges continue for those navigating into the United States, further straining the courts and legislative resources. Lengthy court battles and restricted access to permanent residency await them. According to the TRAC Immigration Court Backlog Tool, an alarming backlog of over 3.3 million cases are pending, with fewer than 700 judges nationwide. The influx of cases leaves an overwhelming 4,500 cases per judge, underscoring the urgent need for reforms to address the mounting crisis. As the situation intensifies, the collective plea for federal intervention intensifies, echoing across political landscapes and humanitarian concerns alike. 

Operation Lone Star 

When President Biden assumed office, Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX) vowed to take decisive action to "secure" the southern border. This commitment materialized in early 2021 with the initiation of Operation Lone Star (OLS), a collaborative effort between the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department. Despite Texas' historical engagement in border security operations, Abbott's tenure has witnessed an unprecedented grant of authority to state law enforcement officials, a move justified by the governor as essential to curbing migrant entrances at the Rio Grande Valley.

By 2022, Abbott extended the scope of OLS, deploying the National Guard under his orders, with up to 10,000 members stationed at the border by year-end. Seeking to ease the burden on Texas and advance an anti-immigrant agenda, Abbott expanded OLS to include the transportation of migrants to cities like New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. This move stirred uncertainty. Still, Abbott avoided conflicts with the Biden Administration until early 2024.

Eagle Pass Standoff

In a dramatic escalation less than a month after criminalizing illegal immigration at the state level, Texas found itself in a contentious standoff with the federal government. On January 11, 2024, the Texas National Guard seized control of Shelby Park, an area along the Rio Grande River in Eagle Pass that is known for high migrant entrances, prompted by an emergency declaration from the governor.

Tensions flared as the National Guard barred U.S. Border Patrol agents from entering the area, erecting a concertina wire blockade. Tragically, three migrants were discovered to have drowned in the Rio Grande, intensifying the dispute. Border Patrol alleged they had alerted the National Guard to distressed migrants, but the National Guard undertook no rescue effort. This discord epitomized the strained relations between Governor Abbott and the Biden Administration.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals initially upheld the National Guard's authority, prohibiting Border Patrol from cutting the wire fencing. However, this assertion of power was short-lived. On January 22, the Supreme Court issued an order overturning the Circuit Court ruling, mandating Border Patrol's access to the park. Abbott swiftly dismissed the ruling, asserting Texas' constitutional right to self-defense and vowing to deny federal authorities entry to the park. The clash between state and federal powers reaches a critical juncture as Abbott remains steadfast in his commitment to defending Texas on its own terms.

A National Perspective

On January 23, in the aftermath of the ruling, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an ultimatum for removing “obstructions” at the border and for Border Patrol to be given full access to their jurisdiction by January 26. Some Texan Democrats called for Joe Biden to federalize the Texas National Guard, causing all the more tension and uncertainty. January 26 came and went, but the concertina wire stayed strong. 

Following the Supreme Court’s statement and the DHS request, every Republican state governor but Phil Scott (R-VT) has announced support for Texas. Many governors had already sent troops to the border for additional human resources in the previous year, such as Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Kevin Stitt (R-OK), and Kristi Noem (R-SD). On January 29, over two dozen attorney generals, representatives from 27 states, governors, and the Arizona state legislature leadership signed a letter supporting Texas. The letter was addressed to President Biden and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The representatives hoped this would prompt the federal government to commend Abbott’s work in securing the border in times of crisis.

An Unprecedented Challenge

Immigration has surfaced as the top concern for bipartisan voters in recent polls— why can’t Congress find a solution? Ronald Reagan was the last president to sign a significant immigration reform bill in 1986. With increased political polarization, international crises, and tensions over federal and state jurisdiction,  today's global landscape simply can’t continue to operate under laws over 30 years old. Passing comprehensive immigration reform has become a multi-edge sword. 

An election year is unlikely to churn out the immigration bill that will provide the resources America -and its leaders- need. Both Republicans and Democrats have staunch agendas on immigration, and the public can’t seem to reach a consensus. The standoff in Texas highlights a new challenge of jurisdiction over the issue, and other state leaders have begun to mobilize against the federal government.

As the weather begins to warm and we enter the peak months of immigration from the southern border, tensions will seemingly continue to escalate before bipartisan efforts for comprehensive reform and systemic changes are implemented.

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