As the Biden administration continues to struggle to address an increase of migrant apprehensions on the U.S.-Mexico border, the White House has become a constant target for Texas Republicans, who have hammered the president over the conditions in federal detention facilities for families and minors.
Beyond that criticism, the administration is drawing heat after denying reporters access to detention centers that have swelled well beyond their capacities, an issue given additional attention during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Among those centers are facilities in Carrizo Springs, the Dallas convention center and Fort Bliss, an Army base in El Paso.
U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Gov. Greg Abbott have visited the state’s southern border recently, including Abbott’s press conference in front of a wall of Texas Department of Public Safety vehicles parked near the banks of the Rio Grande in Mission last month and Cruz’s hosting of a delegation of U.S. senators to ride on a DPS gunboat a couple weeks later.
“This humanitarian, public health, and [national security] crisis is a result of Biden stopping construction of the wall, bringing back catch and release, & ending the Remain in Mexico policy,” Cruz said in a tweet after The Washington Post reported that federal border agents apprehended 171,000 migrants last month — a figure that included 18,800 unaccompanied minors, a 99% jump from February.
But Democrats are also loudly questioning where the conservative compassion was less than two years ago under President Trump’s watch, when apprehensions hit near-record figures despite his crackdown on the border. Abbott riled up the state's Democrats with what they call his newfound concern for the way migrants in federal custody have been treated.
"The Biden Administration’s reckless open border policies have created a humanitarian crisis for unaccompanied minors coming across the border,” Abbott said in a March 15 statement. “With no plan in place, the administration has created heartbreaking and inhumane conditions for children who are being held in Texas.”
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who hasn’t ruled out a run for Abbott’s seat in 2022, shot back days later with a tweet referencing an immigration-themed mailer Abbott’s campaign sent supporters the day before a gunman killed nearly two dozen people at an El Paso Walmart in August 2019.
“You care about immigrants? The day before a white supremacist killed 23 people in El Paso (claiming there was a “Hispanic invasion of Texas”) you mailed a letter urging Republicans to “DEFEND TEXAS NOW” from immigrants & “take matters into our own hands,” O’Rourke tweeted.
Abbott subsequently said “mistakes were made” when news of the mailer surfaced. His office did not respond to a request for comment about O’Rourke’s comments.
Abbott's critics on immigration also point out that last year, Abbott withdrew Texas’ participation from the federal refugee resettlement program, in which nonprofit and religious organizations partner with the federal government to aid people fleeing violence in their countries. That came after he sued the Obama administration in 2016 to prevent Syrian refugees from resettling in Texas.
As Democrats and immigrant rights advocates question Abbott’s apparent about-face on the treatment of migrants, the governor last month launched Operation Lone Star, a state-based enforcement strategy by the Texas Department of Public Safety to crack down on human trafficking — a continuation of a yearslong border enforcement effort by Texas elected officials, who have approved roughly $800 million during every two-year budget cycle since 2015 to send state resources to the border.
"The safety of children in Texas has also remained a constant priority for the Governor, leading him to create the Child Sex Trafficking Team in 2016 to combat this terrible crime and protect all young victims in our state," Abbott's press secretary, Renae Eze, said in a statement. "In the recent expansion of Operation Lone Star to include efforts to crack down on human trafficking related to illegal border crossings, he tapped this team of experts to assist these efforts to take care of these unaccompanied minors and prosecute any traffickers."
During a visit last week to the Rio Grande Valley city of Weslaco, Abbott said that since Operation Lone Star began, Texas DPS officers have encountered about 16,000 undocumented migrants, who he said were referred to U.S. Border Patrol. DPS troopers have also arrested nearly 600 people suspected of being involved in human, drug or weapon smuggling, Abbott said.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said the situation on the border is concerning but is not new.
"We have now had three different presidents facing the same challenge at the border with regard to Central American migrants,” she said. “For the first time I believe we have an administration that wants to tackle this in a very holistic, forward-facing way," she said during a Texas Tribune event last week. "It's been frustrating for me and for some members of my community to see some members of the media act as though this is a brand new phenomena that happened on Jan. 20"
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling shared a similar message: The city has seen this before.
"[It's] nothing that we can’t handle and that’s kind of what our message is," he said, adding that the crisis is in Washington D.C., where politicians can't come up with viable solution. "Our city is still safe, we are handling it. And hopefully they’ll resolve it pretty soon."
Correction, April 7, 2021: A previous version of this story misspelled Gov. Greg Abbott's last name as Abbot in one instance.