Texas Gov. Abbott and the Border: Photo Ops vs Reality (OPINION)

Texas Gov. Abbott and the Border: Photo Ops vs Reality (OPINION)

La Frontera, by Carlos Sanchez, TruthDAO opinion columnist

I recently boarded a plane in South Texas’s McAllen Miller International Airport and was astonished by what I saw: In a county that the U.S. Census Bureau says is just one percent Black or African American, the passenger load was easily one-third Black.

As I took my seat, I heard people around me speaking Haitian French. Many carried big manila envelopes with large-print type on the outside declaring they did not speak English. I knew then that they were part of the surge of Haitian migrants now crossing into Texas from Mexico to claim political asylum as their country falls apart. Migrant aid workers now estimate there are more than 12,000 migrants amassing in Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen – and growing numbers are Haitian.

Underscoring what seems to be the new normal for these flights were the flight attendants. Many openly complained that it was impossible to communicate with the Haitian contingent, making it difficult, impossible, really, to convey instructions, or even take beverage orders.

As the flight attendants worked their way down the aisle handing out complimentary drinks, they held up laminated cards to these passengers showing the various choices. All declined. That is until one of the Haitians who spoke English asked the cost. When the attendant said they were free, he pivoted and made an announcement in his native language, speaking loud enough so the others could hear. That sparked a run on soft drinks by those who had previously declined.

Virtually all of these migrants could likely recite travel tales of taking months to traverse territories controlled by some of the most notorious criminal enterprises in the world. But the migrants on this flight were among the lucky ones, because they had the financial resources, or knew somebody who did, to pay for the airline ticket that got them onboard this flight.

Most migrants don’t have the resources, so they take buses, a far more economical alternative to travel inland to relatives, friends or sponsors across the country. Those who make it promise an overwhelmed U.S. judicial system that they will appear in court months later to formally argue their cases for asylum and the opportunity to stay in our country.

Many will never keep those promises, and most will be denied asylum.

But the thousands of migrants boarding planes or buses at the border are doing so legally. They may have broken the law when they entered our country, but the moment they declared to immigration authorities that they had a well-founded fear of death or persecution if they returned to their homeland and were, therefore, seeking political asylum, they triggered U.S.  laws that allow them to stay until they have had an opportunity to plead their case in an immigration court.

It’s a highly nuanced dance played out among a thicket of immigration laws to a chorus of critics who see them simply as invaders. Politicians routinely use the public misunderstanding of immigration and asylum laws – which are admittedly complex -- to their advantage, especially in the midst of election cycles like the one that just passed.

Take Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who rode the issue of immigration to a decisive re-election victory and a third term in office recently. Since Joe Biden was sworn in as president, Abbott has masterfully turned immigration into a national bullhorn and a defining issue of his tenure as the state’s chief executive.

Abbott says his immigration campaign is designed to bring national attention to the chaos at the southern border. But according to immigration advocates, that isn’t the message trickling down to immigrants who are making their way to Texas. What they hear Abbott saying, more or less, goes something like this: Come to Texas and get a free ride to a new life in America.

In other words, Abbott’s high-profile campaign, aimed at curtailing the number of immigrants headed north, is actually causing more immigrants to come our way. And here’s why: “Abbott is one of the only state actors that is giving immigrants a free benefit, a free ride,” Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, explained to Texas Tribune earlier this year.

Instead, Abbott has routinely posted a border security report card on social media that highlights the number of migrants who have been bused from Texas to “sanctuary” cities such as New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago to the tune of 12,900 migrants transported at taxpayer cost of more than $12 million. That may seem a pittance compared to a state biennial budget of $250 billion. But critics note that it’s beginning to add up: since Abbott began taking on what he calls the federal role of securing our borders, his Operation Lone Star – which encapsulates his immigration efforts – has rung up costs of more than $4 billion.

What’s really interesting is that Abbott may be improving the chances that these migrants will be granted asylum, as indicated by data provided by TRAC Immigration, a Syracuse University-based clearinghouse of immigration information. During the current fiscal year, if the asylum cases had been decided in immigration court in Harlingen in deep South Texas near where many of these migrants enter our country, 42.7% would have had their request granted. In Chicago and the DC area, TRAC says, the percentage of asylum requests granted is 55%. In New York, an astonishing 72% have been granted asylum.

Carlos Sanchez is director of Public Affairs for Hidalgo County, Texas. Prior to making the leap to government in 2020, he was a journalist for 37 years. He has worked as a contributor and/or staffer at The Washington Post, Texas Monthly magazine, the New Orleans Times Picayune and other top publications. Earlier in his career, Carlos oversaw newsrooms in Waco and McAllen, Texas, as executive editor. He is on Twitter @carlosasanchez