The Texas governor rejecting federal immigration laws has echoes of the Confederate states
We’re not even a full month into a crucial election year in the United States, and it already feels like the country is coming apart at the seams.
In a standoff that has dragged on for weeks now, Texas governor Greg Abbott, a right-wing Catholic, has refused to allow federal Border Patrol agents to enter a public park along the Rio Grande where refugees and asylum seekers are known to cross. As summarised by Camilo Montoya-Galvez, reporting for CBS: “Federal law requires Border Patrol to process migrants who enter the US illegally to determine whether they should be deported, transferred to another federal agency, sent to a long-term immigration detention centre or released pending a review of their asylum claims.”
Operating outside that chain of command, Abbott ordered the Texas National Guard to deploy razor wire as a gruesome “deterrent” to migrant crossings, and these troops have refused to allow the Biden administration to remove the razor wire. While states can have their own laws on many things in the American federal system, federal supremacy in immigration and border enforcement is a long-established precedent. Troublingly, only five of the nine justices currently occupying seats on the illegitimately stacked, right-wing partisan Supreme Court proved willing to uphold this precedent in a recent decision on Texas’s defiance.
That narrow decision preserved federal control over immigration policy, but Abbott continues to deny federal agents entry to the park in direct defiance of the Supreme Court.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but these kinds of actions smack of the nullification of federal law that southern politicians employed in the years preceding the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865. To make matters worse, the Republican governors of 25 other states, including Indiana, where I grew up, have signed a statement in support of Texas’s actions that accuses the Biden administration of “attacking” Texas and invokes the notion of state sovereignty that southern states used as a “justification” for secession when they formed the Confederate States of America.
The statement, published by the Republican Governors Association, also cited states’ “right of self-defence,” implying that border states are facing an “invasion” and explicitly claiming that the Biden administration is refusing to protect Americans from “terrorists entering our country.”
As journalist Brooke Binkowski has shown, this kind of extreme anti-immigration rhetoric has its roots in racism and eugenics, and has been successfully deployed by a network of right-wing activists over decades to manufacture a “crisis” at the border they then employ effectively as a political wedge. This has unfortunately caused the Democratic establishment to move to the right on immigration, making the passing of even moderate, common-sense immigration reform in Congress impossible.
That rank racism is the root of a movement now reviving antebellum tactics and rhetoric in defiance of the federal government should, of course, come as no surprise. But it does serve as yet further confirmation that the radicalised Republican Party is essentially neo-Confederate in character, even if a significant number of the states Republicans control are located outside the South.
Just like the Confederates of yore, today’s right-wing Americans like to give lip service to a vision of highly decentralised federalism under the rallying cry of “state’s rights.” It is easy, however, to show that they want absolute control, whether the issue is the border, or abortion, or transgender access to healthcare.
Another troubling parallel we’re seeing between antebellum American authoritarians and those of the present day is their willingness to attempt to enforce their own state laws targeting marginalised individuals outside their state borders. The major historical example is the Fugitive Slave Act, which required free states to return runaway slaves to slaveholders in the south. Today, Republican state legislators and officials are attempting to enforce their punitive abortion bans across state lines and appear to be scheming to do the same thing with respect to their bans and restrictions on gender-affirming healthcare for trans minors and adults.
For their part, a small number of Democrat-controlled “blue” states have been stockpiling mifepristone in case Republicans manage to ban this safe, effective, and most commonly prescribed medication abortion drug nationwide. And 14 states have passed legislation declaring themselves transgender refuges, stipulating that they will not comply with out-of-state bans on gender-affirming care or with subpoenas for the medical records of transgender patients.
I support these blue states, of course, because I support democracy, human rights, and pluralism. And while the states undertaking these actions do not represent a majority of states, the views that prevail in them do represent a majority of Americans; as I’ve belaboured in past columns, the right here has unfair political advantages in the forms of equal Senate representation by state and the undemocratic Electoral College, which means presidential candidates can lose the popular vote but still win the presidency because it’s actually the states’ electoral votes, and not those of individual citizens, that count.
That being said, the major structural reforms that would make the US a more fair and democratic country, relegating the authoritarian bigots to the political margins where they belong, will not be easy to achieve. There is no clear path to their passage within the current system, which is stuck in a vicious cycle that keeps tensions and resentments high.
While I cannot predict in what ways or at what time these deep divisions will boil over, it’s clear that a patchwork of states defying each other and/or the federal government represents an unsustainable pressure cooker. At some point, something has to give.
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