Texas Republicans Still Relying on Same Old Anti-Immigrant Playbook, Say Experts

Texas Republicans are drumming up fear over the border and immigration at large
Texas Republicans are drumming up fear over the border and immigration at large Dicklyon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even with Donald Trump nearly two months removed from the Oval Office, Texas Republicans continue to rely on a page from the former president’s playbook: blaming immigrants for everything from spreading the coronavirus to the country’s economic hardships.

In the last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert and several other Texas Republicans have taken turns pointing the finger at immigrants and drumming up fear over immigration at large.

Still wading through the political fallout that followed a deadly winter storm and statewide power outages in February, Abbott last week claimed that President Joe Biden’s administration was releasing COVID-positive immigrants into Texas communities.

The Biden administration, Abbott told CNBC's Squawk Box last Thursday, was “importing COVID” via undocumented immigrants.

A day earlier, the governor made similar claims on Twitter, alleging that the president’s team “is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities,” a charge that echoes former President Donald Trump's rhetoric.

"The Biden Admin. must IMMEDIATELY end this callous act that exposes Texans & Americans to COVID," Abbott added.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Texas Democratic Party blasted Abbott for those comments, saying Abbott's policies were responsible for rising coronavirus infections and deaths.

"Abbott’s pathetic and callous effort to shift the blame of new COVID-19 infections on immigrants is racist and will fail for the simple reason that Texans know the truth: people are dying across our great state because of Greg Abbott," said Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa.

The irony of Abbott’s claims wasn’t lost on migrant advocates and rights groups, either. That same week, the governor scrapped the state’s mask mandate and said businesses could open at full capacity starting today.

Claudia Muñoz, co-executive director of the Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, says the uptick in anti-migrant rhetoric, in part, is a way to "preemptively" derail criticism of getting rid of the mask mandate. "Everything Abbott said is not really consistent with what's happening on the ground," Muñoz told the Observer.

Muñoz should know: She's lived in the country undocumented for two decades and is working her way through the maze-like legal process of updating her status.

"Immigrants are not being mass released in any way, shape or form," she added. "For the most part, because a lot of immigrants are essential workers, they are wearing masks. And from what we know, those being released are tested."

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who recently fled across the southern border himself, took a slightly different tack over the weekend. The Republican senator railed against portions of a $1.9 trillion relief bill approved by the Senate on Saturday.

“This bill also shockingly provides COVID relief checks to illegal aliens and criminals behind bars,” Cruz said in a statement Saturday. “I proposed two amendments to close these loopholes. Democrats voted in lockstep to ensure illegal aliens and prison inmates would still qualify for these rebates.”

On Monday, Cruz ramped up the anti-immigrant rhetoric, saying the Biden administration had created a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. In a separate statement, he claimed that “today’s Democratic Party has been so radicalized that they are intent on prioritizing people here illegally ahead of the safety of Americans.”

Predictably, other Texas Republicans joined the anti-immigrant chorus. Speaking to the right-wing outlet Newsmax, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert said the recent uptick in arrivals constituted a “national crisis.”
“This Biden administration — and I don’t say Joe Biden because I don’t know who’s pulling his strings — but this administration is the biggest, best accomplice the drug cartels in Mexico have going for them,” he claimed.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed the chorus of nativist claims. “It’s bad when even democrats [sic] on the border are telling Biden to stop,” he tweeted, sharing a CNN clip. “These illegals have huge financial & safety burdens on our state.”

On Saturday, Gov. Abbott launched Operation Lone Star, which brings together the Texas Department of Safety and the state's National Guard to clamp down on movement across the border. Abbott says the operation will target Mexican drug cartels and other smugglers.

"Republicans want to draw attention to [the border] as frequently as they can and describe it in as apocalyptic terms as they can." - Cal Jillson, Southern Methodist University

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Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University and an expert on Texas politics, says Texas Republicans see the border, in part, as an electoral strategy. "Republicans want to draw attention to it as frequently as they can and describe it in as apocalyptic terms as they can," he told the Observer.

"I think Texas Republicans are very nervous," Jillson said. "Their margins of control in Texas are declining, and future demographic change is going to continue to squeeze those margins. One thing they can do right now is to try to block the flow across the border."

A large part of the Republican strategy rests on the premise that a new crisis has erupted on the southern border. Arrivals are rising, but whether that constitutes a crisis depends on who you ask and who you consider blaming. While Republicans insist it's a national security crisis, immigrant advocates say it's a humanitarian crisis.

In January, some 78,000 people reached the border, twice as many as January 2020. But Joe Biden wasn't sworn in until Jan. 20, and the arrivals still pale in comparison to peak levels under the Trump administration.

According to an analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations, apprehensions on the border actually started to spike again in April 2020 while Trump was still president. "While the upsurge is significant, it is just half of the 2019 peak levels," CFR's Shannon K. O'Neill wrote.

Tony Payan is the director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He says current trends don't support the claim that the border is enduring an unprecedented crisis.

"The numbers don't back the Republicans' rhetoric today," he told the Observer. "Their audience isn't Texans or people who live on the border and know better. Their audience is the Republican base for the 2022 and 2024 elections."

"The numbers don't back the Republicans' rhetoric today." - Tony Payan, Rice University

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Meanwhile, Texas Republicans have continued to pin the blame on the Biden administration.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, a Republican from Texas, tweeted on Monday, "Even the cartels are overwhelmed by the border crisis," sharing a link from the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigrant think tank that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has rejected descriptions of increased arrivals at the border as a crisis. "I think there is a challenge at the border that we are managing," he told a reporter last week.

Crisis or not, it’s hard to say how long anti-immigrant rhetoric will continue to benefit Texas Republicans. Trump won Texas’ 38 electoral votes in November, but fewer Texans support the harsh kind of immigration crackdown he advocated than you might expect.

Published by the University of Texas and Texas Tribune, a recent poll found that nearly half of Texans don’t believe undocumented immigrants should be “deported immediately.” Of that total, nearly a quarter of Republicans disagree with the suggestion that undocumented people should be shipped out of the country right away.

Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of those polled say dreamers — undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children — should be allowed to remain in the country.

Still, another poll conducted last month by Harvard University and Harris Insights and Analytics found that Biden’s border and immigration policies didn’t sit well with many Americans.

In that survey, more than half of the respondents opposed an executive order Biden signed that would cut down the number of deportations for undocumented people who had committed crimes that “are not national security related.”

The same study noted that 47% of Americans opposed removing portions of the border wall built during Trump’s presidency.

Apparently hoping to capitalize on that sentiment, Republican state Rep. Bryan Slaton last week introduced a bill to finish building Trump's border wall on the Texas-Mexico border. "If the federal government won't do its job protecting American citizens," he tweeted, "then Texas will stand in the gap and do it for them."

During recent elections, predictions that Texas' increasingly Latino electorate would lead Democrats to flip the state failed to pan out time and again. But even in a state as conservative as Texas, Tony Payan thinks that anti-immigrant hysteria could have a shelf life.

"They have fully bought into Trumpism, part of which is essentially portraying the border as a very dangerous place, a place that is overrun by immigrants, crime and violence," he said. "But immigration has been very good to Texas … I think Texans value immigrants from Dallas down to the Rio Grande Valley, from El Paso to Houston."
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Patrick Strickland is the news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's a former senior reporter at Al Jazeera English and has reported for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.