Greg Abbott’s Anti-Migrant Standoff at the Border

One of the first people I ran into at the “Take Our Border Back” convoy in Quemado, Texas, a small town less than a mile from the Rio Grande, was Ronald Solomon, a tall, cheerful man I’d first met at a Trump rally in Arizona, two years before. Solomon lives between Las Vegas and Florida

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One of the first people I ran into at the “Take Our Border Back” convoy in Quemado, Texas, a small town less than a mile from the Rio Grande, was Ronald Solomon, a tall, cheerful man I’d first met at a Trump rally in Arizona, two years before. Solomon lives between Las Vegas and Florida, and leads “a nice life, a very nice life,” he assured me. He was early to recognize the potential of Trump-branded gear, particularly baseball caps, an insight he’s parlayed into a small merchandise empire. The array of embroidered hats that Solomon sells at right-wing events is always changing. In 2src22, when election denial was the most pressing issue among his customer base, he sold Stop the Steal and Make Elections Fair Again merch. Neither slogan featured in Solomon’s display this past weekend. He wore one of his newer designs, one he added to his stock last year. “DEFEND THE BORDER,” it said in large block letters across the front; on the back, “SAVE LIVES.” Whose lives, and how they would be saved, was unclear, but the message fit the tone of the convoy event: urgent, righteous, and with a hint of vigilante menace.

The convoy arrived on a supporter’s land in Quemado on Friday evening. By Saturday afternoon, when I arrived, there were several hundred people milling around, listening to guest speakers and getting slowly sunburned; simultaneous rallies held in Yuma, Arizona, and San Ysidro, California, appear to have been less well attended. The event was sparked in part by the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, and his aggressive defiance of the federal government. Immigration and border enforcement are federal responsibilities; with the launch of his state-run security initiative, Operation Lone Star, in 2src21, Abbott has increasingly encroached on that territory, dispatching troopers and National Guard soldiers to border towns, taking steps to build a wall, and signing a law, almost certainly unconstitutional, which allows state law enforcement to arrest and deport people they deem to be in the state illegally. In the aftermath of the El Paso mass shooting, which was committed by a man fuelled by anti-immigrant ideology, Abbott had refrained from using words like “invasion” when he spoke about migrants. These days, it’s a word he uses freely.

The MAGA wing of the Republican Party used to be skeptical of Abbott; things have changed. “Better late than never,” as one speaker said at Saturday’s rally. In the most recent legislative session, Abbott tried and failed to strong-arm Texas Republicans into passing a universal-school-voucher bill. The border is a better issue for him. Under Abbott, the state has spent around ten billion dollars on border enforcement. Abbott’s programs haven’t had the deterrent effect that he promised—border crossings in Texas have increased since Operation Lone Star began—but Texas Republicans nonetheless seem to have a bottomless appetite for them. Eighty-seven per cent of those surveyed think it is either “extremely” or “very” important to increase funding for border-security operations.

Recently, Abbott has focussed his attention on a municipal park in Eagle Pass, a small border city some two hours southwest of San Antonio. As migration has reached historic levels, Eagle Pass has intermittently been a center of crossings from Mexico. (During one week in December, twelve thousand migrants crossed at Eagle Pass; at other times, weekly crossings have amounted to a few hundred people.) The state began using Shelby Park, a broad grassy field by the Rio Grande, as a place to demonstrate what a Texas-controlled border might look like, installing various types of barriers in the river—chains of buoys, concertina wire—without authorization from the federal government. The results have been alarming: drownings, lacerations, and state troopers reportedly ordered to push injured migrants, including small children and their mothers, back into the water. (The Governor’s office issued a statement, saying, “No orders or directions have been given under Operation Lone Star that would compromise the lives of those attempting to cross the border illegally.”) Abbott seems not to be moved by the idea that the government has legal, or humanitarian, responsibilities to people crossing the border. “The only thing that we’re not doing is we’re not shooting people who come across the border, because of course, the Biden Administration would charge us with murder,” he said in a January radio interview. The conflict over the park came to a head after federal Border Patrol agents cut through the concertina wire; Texas troopers restrung it.Then, in January, they began blocking the Border Patrol’s access to two and a half miles of the river. The state takeover of Shelby Park comes over the objections of the city of Eagle Pass, which owns the land. “This is not something that we wanted. This is not something that we asked for as a city,” the Eagle Pass mayor, Rolando Salinas, said in a video statement.The Supreme Court has ruled that Texas must allow federal agents to remove the wire, but Abbott has so far defied the ruling, issuing a letter claiming that Texas is under invasion and has the right to defend itself; twenty-five Republican governors have written a statement in support.

In Quemado, around twenty miles north of Eagle Pass, the “Take Our Border Back” convoy congregated at Cornerstone Children’s Ranch, the headquarters of a nonprofit organization where, according to its Web site, “it is All About God’s Children.” The atmosphere was part revival meeting, part fund-raiser, and part family reunion. A group of men dished out rice and beans to raise money on behalf of someone “being sued by a Soros-funded group,” according to their sign. Speakers stood next to a twelve-foot cross and talked about the walls of Jericho; nearby, a pastor live-streamed himself baptizing attendees in an aluminum trough. But there were just as many invocations of combat as of faith. “We are in a spiritual battle for the survival of our Republic,” the Texas congressman Keith Self told the crowd. “And Texas is on the front line of this battle for freedom and states’ rights, for their constitutional right to close the border.”

Abbott’s insurrection-adjacent rhetoric seems to have breathed new energy into a movement that was thrown off by the events of January 6th. Ryan Zink, who served sixty days in jail for his actions at the Capitol, paced the stage wearing a black blazer and jeans, excoriating his fellow-Republicans for their disloyalty. “What I laugh about is, the same people have ‘1776’ stickers on their truck and were yelling, ‘We gotta take our country back!’—well, some people actually went into the United States Capitol and had something to say about stolen elections, and you rejected them. Mainstream America rejected us all.” His jokes about the F.B.I. tracking him drew only tepid laughs; the crowd seemed less eager for a rehash of the Capitol riot than for speakers who linked the arrival of migrants to various right-wing preoccupations: fentanyl smuggling, human trafficking, terrorism, and other breakdowns in law and order.

As the sun slowly lowered over the field, I chatted with a rough-voiced woman who told me to call her Boots. She said that, for most of her life, she wasn’t particularly political. She lived near Denver, where she used to work as a caregiver for an elderly psychiatrist. “He passed away, and I was depressed about it, because I’d worked for him for twelve years, and he took very good care of me,” she said. “And I sat at home and watched the Canadian truck drivers day after day after day, and I cried, and I was depressed, and I was upset at how the government could treat them so bad.” Canadian truckers angry about Covid-19 restrictions had formed a protest convoy; when a similar group gathered in California and then drove to Hagerstown, Maryland, in 2src22, Boots joined them. She painted “We the people are pissed” on her pickup truck’s tailgate and spent five months sleeping in the back seat. It was, she said, “a blast.” “I’ve never smiled so much in my life, never felt so comfortable with other people, other patriots.”

She returned to Colorado when she learned her house was being foreclosed on. But the news of the border convoy inspired her to make the fourteen-hour trip to Quemado, driving through the night, fuelled by European energy drinks. She was parked among a cluster of old friends. “That’s Soupmama—she was one of the cooks there at Hagerstown,” she said, pointing out a van with a “freedom isn’t free” decal on the back. “And his name’s Joe, and then Linda.” Onstage, a speaker was saying something about child trafficking across the border. But Boots had more obscure conspiracies on her mind: chemtrails, ancient giants. If this convoy was anything like the previous one she’d been on, the real fun started after dark. “Somebody around here is going to have a karaoke machine, and probably some beer, or shots. Maybe we’re considered Southern Baptists,” she said, letting out a raspy laugh. “Go out on Saturday night, repent on Sunday.”

The rogue energies and tailgate vibes of the convoy took a more sobering form the following day in Shelby Park, where Greg Abbott and thirteen other Republican governors spoke in front of a backdrop of camo-clad troopers, armored vehicles, and spools of concertina wire. The Rio Grande was somewhere behind them, hidden behind a wall of shipping containers. The wind kicked up a cloud of dust, and the governors squinted into the sun. “Every state is a border state,” Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, was saying. “It’s ruining our communities, and it’s taken a toll on our families. And it’s time that something was done about this.” ♦

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