The following editorial published in the Austin American-Statesman on Aug. 8:
Surely Texas has gotten the memo.
Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court plainly told a border state that it could not run its own immigration enforcement policies at odds with the federal government. The high court in 2012 told Arizona it couldn’t send local police to arrest people with the goal of getting them deported, or make it a crime for noncitizens to fail to carry proof of their legal status.
“The national government has significant power to regulate immigration,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote then. “Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”
Those words should hold just as true today for Texas. Instead, Gov. Greg Abbott has wholly disregarded them, escalating a cruel immigration crackdown in recent months to bolster his political ambitions.
Abbott’s latest moves go far beyond the measures struck down in Arizona. Abbott has sent about a quarter of the state police force to counties near the border; directed troopers to arrest undocumented immigrants for the state crime of trespassing, with the goal of steering them toward deportation; and cleared out the Briscoe state prison in Dilley to house those migrants, even as the state’s prison system faces a serious shortage of guards. The Texas Tribune has reported that the clip of arrests could reach 200 people a day this month, potentially overwhelming the lone judge and clerk assigned to these cases, and costing the state millions of dollars a year in indigent defense costs alone.
To be clear, Texas is not lending the feds a hand at the border. Texas is pointedly throwing sand in the gears. The federal government has about 4,000 migrant children in 50 residential facilities in Texas, waiting to be connected with relatives in America; Abbott has directed state agencies to yank the licenses for those facilities so they can’t house anyone. Federally-contracted workers drive about 1,100 migrants a day from one facility to the next, often as part of these migrants’ lawful efforts to seek asylum; Abbott has ordered troopers to pull over any cars that appear to be transporting migrants and send them back to Border Patrol, cynically citing the need to contain COVID-19 even as the governor has blocked every other effort to contain the virus. A federal judge has temporarily put the brakes on Abbott’s migrant transportation.
Still, the governor has gloated on Twitter about his efforts: “We have a new program contrary to the Biden plan to catch & release. The Texas plan is to catch & to jail.”
We have long recognized the need for America to secure its borders and provide an orderly system for immigration. And we remain concerned about the spike in border crossings in recent months that has strained South Texas communities. Sheriffs and ranchers describe human smuggling on a previously unseen-scale: Daily high-speed chases of coyotes, the destruction of fences and pastures, the discoveries of bodies of people who perished in the grueling trek. It is clear President Joe Biden’s administration has not done enough to manage the problem.
But that is precisely the point: It is the job of the federal government, not any state government, to manage the border and the flow of migrants. Abbott’s obstructionism only makes the job harder.
It does, however, make for good politics for the governor, who is up for reelection next year and may have presidential aspirations. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll from June found 46% of Texans agreed with Abbott’s handling of the border and immigration, compared to only 27% approving of Biden’s approach.
But Abbott’s efforts to disrupt federal operations — whether it’s working to close children’s shelters or arrest migrants who are trying to seek asylum under federal law — only siphons resources away from the places they are needed. That includes other state priorities, as Abbott has diverted $250 million from the state prison budget toward wasteful border wall-building efforts, pulled state troopers from other public safety needs and burdened our state prison system with immigration detention responsibilities it was never designed to handle.
One might expect Abbott to have his hands full with a fourth COVID-19 wave sweeping the state, with an economy and education system trying to rebuild from the pandemic, with a power grid that is far from secured after the deadly outages in February. Texans need a governor who can lead on those state problems and leave federal problems to the feds.