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Blog Post | March 1, 2024

An RDP Explanation Of The Texas Border Dispute

Ethics in GovernmentImmigrationState Attorneys General
An RDP Explanation Of The Texas Border Dispute

What Is Going On?

Beginning on January 10, federal border patrol agents mobilized in Eagle Pass, Texas to set up mobile surveillance equipment in Shelby Park. In response, the Texas National Guard, deployed by Governor Greg Abbott, initiated a stand-off with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents to prevent them from accessing a 2.5-mile strip of the border along the Rio Grande via Shelby Park. After a mother and her two children tragically drowned on the river on January 12, it was reported that Texas National Guard agents were explicitly ordered to deny CBP officers and personnel access to said part of the border “even in emergency situations.” On January 15, the Biden administration filed an injunction with the Supreme Court to determine jurisdiction.

But on January 17—the day which DHS set as the deadline for Texas authorities to stand down—Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton reaffirmed Texas’ usurpation of federal authority and vehemently denied the administration’s portrayal of the situation in a letter to DHS. Come January 22, the Supreme Court overturned a Fifth Circuit ruling from October and instead voted 5-4 in favor of federal agents who were removing Texas state installed razor wire at the border. Even so, Texas officials continued installing new fencing and razor wire in the park while Abbott sought to offload all responsibility for such cruelty onto Biden. 

Standing in unison with Abbott, Paxton and 25 other Republican Attorneys Generals (AGs) addressed a letter to President Biden and DHS Secretary Mayorkas referring to the migrant surge as an “invasion” and demanded that they “enforce the laws that secure the southern border.” In a press release lauding his fellow AGs, Paxton characterized the record number of migrant border crossings as an, “invasion, encouraged by Biden’s refusal to follow federal statutory law, is the biggest threat facing this country. Texas will continue doing everything in her power to close the border and protect America,” effectively doubling down on his and Abbott’s refusal to comply with the federal government or Supreme Court. “We are putting up wire…everywhere we can. We will continue. We will not stop,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick proudly proclaimed to Fox News, “If they cut it, we will replace it.” As of February 4, 14 states with Republican governors have even sent personnel to support Abbott’s endeavors. 

Despite SCOTUS previously affirming legal precedent that the federal government has near absolute control over enforcing immigration policy, some observers argue that a standoff with CBP has been the ultimate goal of the AGs and 25 GOP governors. A prolonged conflict between the state and federal government could eventually result in a case before this hyperpartisan SCOTUS, which could easily rule in Abbott and Paxton’s favor despite longstanding precedent that explicitly refutes their position.

Such remorselessness at our southern border has been routine for Abbott. As the Revolving Door Project’s Kenny Stancil wrote last summer for Common Dreams, Abbott’s Operation Lone Star program has a well-documented history of ratcheting up human rights abuses targeting desperate migrants. Through tactics unauthorized by Border Patrol or DHS, such as lining the Rio Grande with buoys wrapped in razor wire (something so heinous even CBP has internally raised red flags about),Texas authorities have forced migrants back into the river despite prevalent drowning, denied them water amidst oppressive heatwaves, and even delayed or withheld necessary medical care to women and children who died as a result. The US-Mexico border represents the deadliest route on Earth for migration by land, and Abbott’s policies play no small part in fostering such devastating conditions.

Who Is Responsible? 

Although more media attention has been given to the governors who continue to fuel this dispute, it’s important not to overlook the role that state AGs play. As chief legal officers for their respective states, AGs are ultimately responsible for defending their state’s actions (in this case, Abbott’s) in federal court. Therefore, it’s worth investigating just who will be crafting the legal justifications for Abbot’s total flouting of both the Constitution as written and centuries of judicial precedent. Of the 26 total AGs that have, so far, supported Abbott, we wanted to highlight two individuals with particularly egregious immigration stances: Raúl Labrador of Idaho and Ken Paxton of Texas.

Raúl Labrador:

Upon closer inspection of Raúl Labrador’s professional histories, both within and outside of politics, it becomes immediately clear why he would stand out as an especially egregious AG. In 1995, Labrador graduated from Brigham Young University with a Juris Doctor and entered the legal world as a practicing immigration lawyer. However, his political career began in 2006 as a member of Idaho’s House of Representatives. During his four years as a state legislator, Labrador made a name for himself as a conservative firebrand for his ardent opposition to increasing taxes. This led to a mixed bag of legislative fights regarding immigration policy, exemplified by his opposition to a 2007 bill denying state benefits to undocumented immigrants (on the grounds of it costing, not saving, money), but support for his own bill that would have penalized businesses for repeatedly hiring undocumented workers. His willingness to antagonize fellow Republicans in the name of fiscal conservatism earned Labrador the adoration of the Tea Party movement, which carried him to a stint in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2010-2018. As a Congressman, Labrador’s adherence to policy positions held by the right-most wing of the GOP led to him becoming a founding member of the Freedom Caucus. However, he did (at least briefly) attempt to fashion himself as a bridge between hardline Republicans and Democrats on the issue of immigration reform. As a member of the “Gang of Eight,” Labrador quietly worked with liberals in the House to match bipartisan efforts that were also underway in the Senate at the time. However, Labrador abandoned these efforts when his negotiating partners opposed his insistence that migrants entering the country as “registered provisional immigrants” remain solely responsible for healthcare costs incurred while in the U.S., risking deportation if they could not afford to pay. 

During his campaign for Idaho AG, Labrador went to great lengths to show that he had dropped his support for bipartisan immigration reform to instead pursue a nakedly conservative agenda. Throughout the race against the Democratic candidate Tom Arkoosh, Labrador assured voters that he intended to take a more “activist” approach to the position by utilizing the court system to “preserve” his state’s supposed conservative values. These statements came much to the dismay of nearly 50 other fellow state Republicans, including power players such as Phil Batt, Jim Jones, and Ben Ysursa—Idaho’s former Governor, former Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice, and former Secretary of State, respectively. Unfortunately, Labrador has made good on this promise since winning the election in November 2022 and taking office in January 2023. In fact, one of Labrador’s first moves as AG, mere weeks into his tenure, was to sue the Biden administration for seeking to parole undocumented immigrants within the U.S. He has since continued to support attempts by other Republican AGs to do the same. Labrador has likewise continued to act on his assertion that “health care is first and foremost a personal responsibility” by working with other Republican AGs to ensure undocumented migrants remain ineligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. (Labrador’s health care positions are so extreme that he once argued in a 2017 town hall that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.”) 

Ken Paxton:

If for nothing else, Ken Paxton would be worth noting because he’s been Texas’ AG since Abbott first implemented the Operation Lone Star Program in 2021. But the fact that Paxton himself has been such an enthusiastic proponent of right-wing immigration policy since he assumed office in 2015 makes him worthy of even further scrutiny. During his first year as AG, Paxton led a 26-state coalition in successfully challenging the Obama administration’s attempt to offer some stability to millions of undocumented individuals already living in the U.S. via the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program and an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It should come as no surprise then to learn that Paxton welcomed—and himself empowered—the anti-immigrant attitudes ushered in by the Trump administration. During Trump’s first term in office, Paxton offered support for Trump’s executive order known as the “Muslim Ban” as well as his lawsuit against California for their sanctuary city policies. Paxton also used the increasingly xenophobic sentiments of the previous presidential administration to further antagonize undocumented individuals both intending to enter, and already within, the U.S. For example, in 2017, Paxton sought to restrict the ability for undocumented migrants to access health care services, including abortions. And since Biden has taken office—a transition of power Paxton nearly lost his position for attempting to overturn—Paxton has fought to preserve as many of Trump’s immigration policies as possible, the most notable of which being the Title 42 program which limited entries into the U.S. under the guise of the COVID-19 pandemic public health emergency.

Tensions between Texas and the Biden administration are still high as their standoff over Southern border authority continues to unfold. Consequently, understanding the histories, actions, and aims of the state governors and AGs involved remains essential to understanding the conflict itself. This is especially true for AGs, considering the ever-increasing likelihood that the Supreme Court will be the venue where this issue is ultimately resolved. Raúl Labrador and Ken Paxton, though notable in their own right, are just two nodes in a wider network of Republican AGs seeking to preserve and expand the most harmful aspects of the Donald Trump administration’s governance legacy. RDP has, and will continue to, keep a close eye on this cohort of state officials. 

Ethics in GovernmentImmigrationState Attorneys General

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