May 20, 2024

EAGLE PASS, Texas — From a camouflage Humvee at the edge of the Rio Grande, a Texas National Guard soldier on the front lines of Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign to secure America’s southern border was watching a man with a crutch crossing the river from Mexico.

“Señor! Are you there?” the soldier called out as the man disappeared into a thicket of towering reeds. No one answered.

Downriver, four other soldiers stood by as a U.S. Border Patrol team detained dozens of newly arrived migrants in a pecan orchard. An agent with a crowd counter recorded 135 people, mostly men but also families from Cuba, Peru and Venezuela who were seeking asylum in the United States.

“This is it, every day,” said Hal Bowles, a Maverick County deputy constable who has been hired with new state funding to work on border security. “The governor is trying,” he said, but still, “everybody is coming in.”

For the past year, Mr. Abbott has transformed an unceasing flow of migrants over the border into a potent political message, seizing the role of defending the country from unauthorized migration as he runs for a third term in November. His aggressive posture has done little to stem the tide and also exposed him to fierce criticism that he is using his authority to meddle in a policy area that belongs to the federal government. Still, his efforts to tighten border security and harden Texas’s 1,254-mile frontier have helped Mr. Abbott, a Republican, hold off challenges from his right and made the lawyerly governor into a regular on Fox News.

Now Mr. Abbott is weighing whether to invoke actual war powers to seize much broader state authority on the border. He could do so, advocates inside and outside his administration argue, by officially declaring an “invasion” to comply with a clause in the U.S. Constitution that says states cannot engage in war except when “actually invaded.”

Top lawyers for Mr. Abbott and for the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, met this month to debate the move, which would put the state in a head-on collision with the federal government by allowing state police to arrest and deport migrants, according to two people familiar with the discussions. Mr. Abbott says he remains open to the approach, but he has expressed concern about unintended consequences.

“If we do use this strategy, it could expose law enforcement in the state of Texas to being prosecuted,” Mr. Abbott said during a recent news conference. But, he added: “Is it something we’re looking into? Yes.”

Already, the governor has mobilized thousands of National Guard troops to sit at border posts, and ordered safety inspections of trucks coming from Mexico, disrupting international trade. He has overseen construction of 20 miles of new border fencing, repurposed certain state prisons to hold migrants charged with trespassing, poured money into border towns for law enforcement and paid for buses to take willing migrants from Texas to Washington, D.C.

The Biden administration has been dismissive of Mr. Abbott’s actions on the border, at times calling them a “political stunt,” and has not taken steps to intervene, despite calls from Texas Democrats to do so. Any attempt by Texas to enforce federal immigration laws would almost certainly end up in court.

Even as Mr. Abbott has directed more than $3 billion to border security, and approved an additional $500 million on Friday, he has little to show for it beyond drug seizures and arrest figures. The overlapping state actions have not held back the rush of arrivals.

Federal agents recorded nearly 129,000 crossings into Texas in March, about 11,000 more than during the same month last year, when Mr. Abbott began the effort known as Operation Lone Star. The biggest increase occurred in an area of the border that includes Eagle Pass, a sun-faded city of 28,000 people, numerous stray cats and dogs and few resources to spare.

Costs have been mounting. Just maintaining the National Guard deployment through the summer will require another $531 million, state officials said this month. A 22-year-old soldier assigned to the mission drowned last week while attempting to rescue two migrants in swift water.

And now officials in Texas are bracing for an even larger influx of migrants, who are expected to come when the Biden administration ends a pandemic policy of turning back many asylum seekers under the public health rule known as Title 42.

Across from Eagle Pass in the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, large numbers of migrants are awaiting the policy change, ready to cross. Many others are not waiting.

“What’s most important is prevention,” Steven C. McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said. “And we’ve got a ways to go.”

The shortcomings of Mr. Abbott’s efforts reflect the limits of one governor’s power to deal with a situation rooted in international turmoil, federal immigration policy and the economic pull of a better life in the United States.

The governor declined a request for an interview about his efforts on the border. His office said it measured success by an increase in arrests and drug seizures. “With millions of deadly drugs and thousands of criminals and weapons off the street, communities across Texas and our country are safer as cartel operations are undermined,” a spokeswoman, Renae Eze, said in an email.

Mr. Abbott’s aides also pointed to his recent negotiations with leaders of Mexican border states that have resulted in promises of more aggressive policing on the Mexican side. The nonbinding agreements came after safety inspections ordered by Mr. Abbott snarled truck traffic for days, causing by some estimates as much as $4 billion in economic damage to Texas.

The current surge of migrants began with the election of President Biden, who vowed a more humane approach to immigration. But Mr. Biden has kept in place the Title 42 policy of rapidly expelling migrants, which began under the Trump administration and results in some attempting to cross repeatedly.

Mr. Abbott has been under pressure from conservatives and former Trump administration officials to take even more draconian steps along the frontier. Some see his efforts so far as well-meaning but insufficient.

“Lone Star hasn’t moved the needle one iota for the simple reason that they’re not returning people to Mexico,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a top Department of Homeland Security official in the Trump administration and a vocal proponent of formally declaring an invasion.

In border towns like Eagle Pass, where concertina wire now marks the southern edge of the United States in some areas, a steady rotation of police officers and soldiers has created a kind of economic boom, with restaurants humming and hotel rooms going for as much as $500 a night.

Tom Schmerber, the sheriff of Maverick County, which includes Eagle Pass, said a $1.6 million grant through the state’s border program had enabled him to hire six deputies and buy a few new patrol cars. “We heard that we’re going to get more money from the state,” said Mr. Schmerber, a Democrat. “If we do, we’ll get a drone.”

The Biden administration has broadly defended its handling of the border, and criticized elements of Mr. Abbott’s push. Texas “does not need to replace C.B.P. at the southern border,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, referring to the federal Customs and Border Protection agency.

Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, has asked for more Border Patrol agents but told Congress on Wednesday that despite inheriting “a broken and dismantled system,” the administration had “effectively managed an unprecedented number of noncitizens seeking to enter the United States.”

According to Glenn Hegar, the Texas state comptroller, the increase in state police has helped ranch owners, who have complained of property damage from migrants. The police discouraged passing migrants from ransacking his ranch house near Eagle Pass when he was not there, as they did last year.

“Yes there’s still people,” he said. “But I feel as though people are passing through quicker and leaving less trash on the ground.”

Clusters of unauthorized migrants can still be seen wandering around town. Some find shelter in unoccupied homes.

Earlier this year, the town’s mayor, Rolando Salinas Jr., said he came upon a Nicaraguan couple and two children who had been staying in a home he was in the process of remodeling. “What are you doing here? This is my house,” he recalled saying. The man said they were waiting for someone to pick them up. Mr. Salinas called the Border Patrol and the police chief.

“It’s a sad situation,” Mr. Salinas said. “Nobody is saying that these people are criminals, but still you don’t know who they are.”

While some residents complain of an increase in panhandlers, crime has not worsened and those who come do not generally stay, said the city manager, George Antuna. “Most of the folks that come here are going north — D.C., Chicago, New York, Miami,” he said.

But it is the sheer number lately that has been overwhelming. “We’re not equipped for this,” Mr. Antuna said.

It has even strained smuggling networks, said Mr. McCraw, the state police director. “They’re running out of drivers,” he said, pointing to interviews with those charged with smuggling and Spanish-language TikTok videos seeking drivers to shuttle migrants from the border to cities like Houston.

“My view is what we’re succeeding at is securing zones” along the border, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley, where the number of illegal crossings has declined, Mr. McCraw said. “It’s like hot spot policing.”

In Eagle Pass, Border Patrol buses with asylum seekers now arrive in a constant stream at the main respite center, which had to move from its small downtown space to a cavernous, warehouse-like building. The number of migrants seeking services, said Valeria Wheeler, the director of the center, Mission: Border Hope, has ballooned to as many as 500 a day, from about 20 a day two years ago.

Still, many migrants who arrived there this week walked away frustrated at the lack of space. Some said they had to sleep on the concrete floor.

“Where are we all going to fit?” Diego Carmona, 28, wondered after he arrived at the end of a grueling five-month journey from Venezuela with his wife, 8-year-old son and 7-month-old baby.

Mr. Carmona said that as he crossed the river he feared his older son might be swept away. He said he could still hear him screaming, in Spanish, “Daddy, I don’t want to die,” as they traversed the unpredictable current. “It was the worst moment of my life,” he said — but they made it.

It was at a bend in the river, north of downtown, that a National Guard soldier from outside Dallas, Specialist Bishop Evans, had been stationed with a partner when he spotted a man and a woman struggling in the river as they crossed from Mexico. He rushed to help them, jumping several feet off the high banks into the fast-moving water.

Specialist Evans drowned. The two migrants, whom state officials have said were involved in drug trafficking, survived and were taken into Border Patrol custody.

No National Guard members were posted on the high flat ground on a recent overcast day. Below, the river churned near a path littered with discarded clothes and other items from migrants who had recently passed through.

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