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Politics

Gov. Abbott is betting on anti-immigration policies to win reelection. Will it work?

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Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT
Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott launched Operation Lone Star, a multibillion-dollar border mission the governor claims has helped catch drug smugglers crossing from Mexico.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest — and potentially most controversial controversial to date — immigration-related proposal would “resurrect” a U.S. Supreme Court case that requires states to educate all children, including students who are undocumented.

Abbott, who is running for reelection in November, recently hinted the state was going to challenge Plyler v. Doe — the landmark 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In an interview last week with conservative radio talk show host Joe Pags, the Republican governor said the challenges put on the state’s public education system by children who don’t speak English is “extraordinary.” Abbott did not elaborate or provide evidence backing up his comments.

“Think about what they are trying to grapple with in our schools — It’s not just Spanish that teachers have to deal with, it’s multiple languages,” Abbott said. “The expenses are extraordinary and the times are different than when Plyler v. Doe was issued many decades ago.”

Abbott’s comments came the same day as Politico released a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion where a majority of the justices voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The governor has made immigration a cornerstone of his gubernatorial reelection campaign, and it seems he's not afraid of implementing policies that even stir backlash from members of his own party. Whether his policies will help him win reelection remains to be seen.

“By keeping attention on immigration and border security you have a campaign issue that puts Democrats on the defensive, plays into the national narrative and the national environment that is providing significant headwinds for Democrats, but also highlights an issue that really activates and speaks to your base voters."
Joshua Blank, research director at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas-Austin

However, Joshua Blank, the research director at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas-Austin, told The Texas Newsroom that Abbott’s overpolitization of immigration could help him.

“By keeping attention on immigration and border security you have a campaign issue that puts Democrats on the defensive, plays into the national narrative and the national environment that is providing significant headwinds for Democrats, but also highlights an issue that really activates and speaks to your base voters,” Blank said.

Even though immigration laws are enforced by the federal government, Blank said polling shows the majority of Texans see it as a state issue.

According to a recent survey by the Texas Politics Project, nearly 60% of Republican voters consider immigration or border security as the number one issue facing the state. Only four percent of Democratic voters agree.

Independent voters are also frustrated with how President Joe Biden has handled immigration and border security, Blank said.

This could boost Abbott’s reelection efforts.

It’s unclear, however, what a challenge to Plyler v. Doe would look like.

Some experts think that even considering the issue sets a concerning precedent.

“We’ve just assumed that this has been a kind of law and the policy for quite some time,” said Jacob Kirksey, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University who studies education and immigration policy. “So this is definitely the most significant effort since the initial ruling.”

Kirksey said many children who are in the country illegally don’t know it, so changing the law could instantly change their reality.

It could also have a negative impact on their U.S. citizen peers.

“We know from the research that immigrant students actually tend to outperform native-born students because of their context,” Kirksey said. “So, it would be taking schooling away from a population that certainly benefits from it ... and pays other forms of taxes, like property taxes, that fund the school buildings themselves and not actually having a right to those services.”

‘Explicitly racist’

Some political experts see Gov. Greg Abbott’s moves on immigration as calculated.

Last year, Abbott launched Operation Lone Star, a multi-billion border mission the governor claims has helped catch drug smugglers crossing from Mexico. In practice, the program has allowed the state to arrest people crossing the border on state criminal trespassing charges.

Abbott claims the mission is filling a gap left by the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

Fatma Marouf, the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M, called Operation Lone Star “explicitly racist.”

“Only people who are perceived to be undocumented immigrants crossing the border are being criminally charged with trespass,” Marouf said. “It’s because of their nationality, because of their color. It’s very clear it's not a neutrally applied policy.”

Those apprehended under Operation Lone Star go through a different justice system — including separate booking and holding facilities funded by the state.

As part of Operation Lone Star, Abbott recently started a program to bus out of state migrants awaiting their immigration court procedures.

But one of the most controversial aspects of the border mission was Abbott’s decision to temporarily implement additional inspections of all commercial vehicles crossing from Mexico into Texas.

This led to hours-long backups at the border’s checkpoints, and protests by Mexican truckers. According to the Waco-based economic research firm Perryman Group, Abbott’s enhanced inspections cost the state about $470 million a day.

Abbott lifted the inspections after signing symbolic agreements with Mexican governors that included inspections on their side of the border, something they were already doing.

“Some of these policies that he’s trying to do to make a point have really not served him well and not helped the state,” Marouf said.

Democrats are hoping Abbott’s controversial policy proposals can galvanize voters.

During a recent press conference in Austin, Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat running against Abbott in November, was asked about Abbott’s proposal to challenge Plyler v. Doe.

“This is very telling, and I want everybody to pay specific attention to the phrasing of this: Gov. Abbot is against providing public education to all the children of the state of Texas,” O’Rourke said.

It could backfire

Abbott is not the first governor — nor the last — to use immigration as a core part of his campaign.

In 1994, California passed a ballot proposal that would prohibit unauthorized migrants from having access to public services, including schools. Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson was the face of the proposal.

A federal court blocked the proposal from going into effect.

Meanwhile, in 2010, former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed Senate Bill 1070 which required state law enforcement agents to verify the immigration status of all arrested individuals, and allowed the agents to arrest people without a warrant if they suspected the individual was in the country illegally.

Two years after going into effect, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most of the provisions of the law.

Thomas Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), said Abbott should look at Brewer and Wilson’s legacy before making decisions like this.

“In both cases, while it was a successful short–term tactic, in the long run that anti-immigrant theme ended the political careers of both,” Saenz said.

Wilson unsuccessfully ran for president. His campaign lasted just one month.

Meanwhile, Brewer has not been as prolific in Republican politics.

“This tactic of targeting immigrants is an extremely perilous one becuase you are doing damage to the state … and you're doing damage to your own political prospects, particularly in a state like Texas, ” said Saenz.

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