President Joe Biden took office vowing to chart a different course on immigration than his predecessor.
He repealed Donald Trump’s travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries, halted construction on the border wall and proposed a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. He ended the Trump-era program that forced asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their court hearings in the US, and set up a task force to reunite families previously separated at the southern border.
But during all of Biden’s attempts to roll back the restrictive immigration policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration, one state has stood ready to counter him at nearly every turn: Texas.
Since January, Texas has filed five lawsuits against the Biden administration challenging its immigration policies. The state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has announced a plan to arrest more migrants and build his own border wall, and recently hosted Trump at the southern border.
When it comes to immigration, Texas has long been “a thorn in the side of the federal government,” says Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. But while the state traditionally waged its battles in court, Abbott’s latest actions signal something different.
“The political optics of this new chapter cannot be underestimated,” Chishti said.
Here are some of the ways Texas has tried to block Biden on immigration – and what they mean for the border and beyond.
On his very first day in office, Biden announced a 100-day pause on deportations.
The moratorium, which included some exceptions, was intended to allow time for federal immigration agencies to review their policies, evaluate how resources were being directed and set new priorities for enforcement, according to a memo from the Department of Homeland Security.
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President Joe Biden signs several executive orders on immigration on February 2 in the Oval Office.
Two days after the announcement, Texas sued the Biden administration over the decision.
In the lawsuit, state attorney general Ken Paxton argued, in part, that the move violated an 11th-hour agreement between Texas and the Trump administration that required the Department of Homeland Security to consult with the state before changing or modifying policies.
A federal judge in Texas has since blocked Biden’s pause on deportations indefinitely.
In March, the Biden administration announced it had stopped implementing a Trump-era rule that allowed the government to deny legal status to immigrants who need, or are likely to need, public assistance.
The 2019 policy, known as the “public charge” rule, had been met with legal challenges from advocates, states and localities, who argued that it penalized those who used government assistance. After Biden took office, his administration also said it would no longer defend the rule in court.
Texas and 13 other Republican-led states responded by filing a bid with the Supreme Court seeking to uphold the rule.
The Supreme Court ultimately declined to hear the case, saying the states would first have to go to the lower court to make their request.
On April 6, Texas sued the Biden administration over its new immigration enforcement guidelines, specifically policies around deporting undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of crimes.
Texas attorney general Ken Paxton alleged the federal government was “refusing to take custody” of immigrants with felony convictions and that it had implemented unlawful guidance allowing them to “roam free.”
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An aerial view of El Paso, Texas, just north of the US-Mexico border, on June 24.
The Biden administration had directed officials earlier in the year to prioritize deporting immigrants who pose threats to national security, border security or public safety.
Paxton alleged that the policy change led the federal government to release immigrants convicted of drug offenses or “crimes of moral turpitude,” saying it rescinded detainer requests against several people in Texas.
Texas asked the court to halt the policy change and require the federal government to take immigrants with criminal records into custody. The case is currently pending in a federal district court.
A week after the April 6 lawsuit, Texas sued the Biden administration again – this time seeking to reinstate a Trump-era policy that required asylum seekers at the southern border to remain in Mexico until their court hearings in the US.
Those subject to the “Remain in Mexico” policy, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols, were often forced to wait months, if not years, in dangerous and unsanitary conditions.
Texas, along with Missouri, alleged in the lawsuit that the Biden administration’s “arbitrary and capricious decision” to end the policy resulted in a surge of Central American migrants at the border which is straining federal immigration resources, posing public safety risks and inflicting costs on both states.
The border is still operating under a Trump-era pandemic policy that’s allowed border authorities to turn away migrants encountered at the US-Mexico border, barring some exceptions.
On April 22, Texas sued the Biden administration over its immigration policies a fifth time.
That lawsuit argued that the federal government was putting Texans at risk by allowing migrants “potentially affected with Covid-19” to cross into the US, where they could end up in crowded facilities.
Paxton accused the Biden administration of failing to apply a Trump-era policy, still in effect, that permitted officials to swiftly expel migrants. He also argued the administration failed to enforce a federal law that required immigrants who might transmit diseases of “public health significance” to be detained.
While its legal challenges played out in court, Texas began ramping up migrant arrests.
In March, Abbott launched what he called Operation Lone Star, an initiative that deployed state troopers and National Guard members to the southern border. State law enforcement made more than 1,000 arrests in the months after, according to Abbott’s office.
The governor continued to expand on those efforts, issuing a disaster declaration at the end of May over the increase in migrants crossing the border. In it, he directed state law enforcement to “enforce all federal and state criminal laws, including criminal trespassing, smuggling, and human trafficking.”
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Texas National Guard troops scan the Mexican side of the Rio Grande for immigrants preparing to cross on April 27, 2021 in Roma, Texas.
In June, Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey asked other states to send their own law enforcement resources to the border – a call that many Republican leaders across the country answered. That same month, Abbott announced the state would start arresting migrants who trespass on private property.
To detain all the people arrested as a result of this increased enforcement, Texas began emptying out a prison that holds up to 1,000 people, the Texas Tribune reported.
As part of his disaster declaration, Abbott also directed a state agency to revoke the licenses of shelters that contract with the federal government to house migrant children.
Shortly after, Texas officials sent notices to the state-licensed facilities that serve unaccompanied minors, asking them to “wind down” operations by August 30, Houston Public Media and CNN reported. The state has up to 52 such facilities that house about 4,200 children as of mid-May, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The Biden administration threatened to sue Texas over the move. But in a June 11 letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, Abbott indicated he had no intention of backing down.
Biden halted construction on Trump’s border wall on his first day in office. He also moved to end the national emergency declaration that had allowed Trump to dip into additional federal funds for the wall.
That wouldn’t be the end of the project, however.
Former President Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visit an unfinished section of border wall in Pharr, Texas, on June 30.
Abbott assumed the mantle in June when he announced Texas would begin building its own barrier between the state and Mexico. Later that month, Abbott, Trump and other Republicans paid a visit to the border and discussed efforts to build the wall.
The governor said the state would direct about $250 million from its budget toward the wall as a “down payment,” while more than $450,000 had come in from private donations as of late June, the Texas Tribune reported.
Abbott hasn’t yet said how much the project will cost in total or when and how exactly it would be constructed, and significant practical and legal questions remain. But he’s making every effort to keep Trump’s border wall dream alive.
Abbott’s office says that his challenges to the federal government are “nothing new, dating back to the Obama administration” and that border security is simply a matter of public safety.
“In just five months, the Biden Administration has done everything it can to reverse President Trump’s border strategy, and President Biden’s reckless open border policies have led to a disaster at our southern border,” the governor’s press secretary Renae Eze said in a statement to CNN. “Until the Biden Administration starts doing their job, Texas is stepping up to secure our southern border and protect Texans.”
Indeed, if you consider how much Texans care about immigration and border security, the state’s recent actions might not be so surprising.
Texas voters in June named immigration and border security as the two most important issues facing the state, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. That’s even more true for Republican voters.
Lynda M. Gonzalez/Pool//Getty Images
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. His office says, “Texas is stepping up to secure our southern border and protect Texans.”
It’s also difficult to ignore that Abbott is up for re-election in 2022 and faces primary challenges from within his party.
Those realities may help explain some of his more recent actions, including moving to revoke licenses for shelters housing migrant children and deploying more state police to the border, which don’t necessarily carry a broad appeal.
“When I see behavior like that anywhere, when somebody takes these very public positions on something where they’re tacking to the right, it’s because they’re worried about a primary,” said Ruth Wasem, a professor of public policy practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
Some political observers believe Abbott is also setting the stage for a 2024 presidential run if Trump stays out of the race. It’s why he’s gone further than just anti-immigrant rhetoric, said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University and a longtime expert on Texas politics.
“Abbott has taken the view that while talk is an important and necessary part of performative politics, of capturing the attention and retaining the support of your Republican base, since Trump became president you actually benefit by doing something,” he said.
But whether Abbott’s plans can meaningfully be implemented is another story, Chishti said.
Building a contiguous border wall would require Texas to acquire land from private landowners – something that the state’s laws on eminent domain could make difficult. And a wall would do little to deter the increasing number of families and unaccompanied children arriving at the border to seek asylum. Revoking the state licenses of facilities that house migrant children, meanwhile, wouldn’t affect levels of unauthorized immigration.
What’s clear to the experts CNN spoke to is that Texas’ recent actions around the border have a lot to do with politics. And in Texas, getting tough on immigration is often a way to score political points.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez, Ariane de Vogue and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.