‘Texas Is Fighting for Its Right To Lay Concertina Wire’
Janine Jackson: Many see a looming constitutional crisis in Texas, where, as the New York Times put it, Gov. Greg Abbott has been “testing the legal limits of what a state can do to enforce immigration law,” with things like installing razor wire along the banks of the Rio Grande, and physically barring border patrol agents from responding to reports of migrants in distress—in one case, two weeks ago, of a woman and two children who subsequently drowned.
The tone of much corporate news reporting, outside of gleefully racist outlets like Fox, is critical of Texas’ defiance of federal law, but conveys an idea that, yes, there’s a crisis at the border, but this isn’t the way to handle it.
But what if their definition of crisis employs some of the same assumptions and frameworks that drive Abbott’s actions? Precisely how big a leap is it from Biden’s promise that, if he gets a deal for money to Ukraine, he would “shut down the border right now and fix it quickly,” to razor wire in the Rio Grande?
Defining a crisis shapes the ideas of appropriate response. So, is there a crisis at the US Southern border, and for whom?
We’re joined now by Aron Thorn. He’s senior staff attorney at the Beyond Borders program of the Texas Civil Rights Project. He joins us now by phone from the Rio Grande Valley. Welcome to CounterSpin, Aron Thorn.
Aron Thorn: Thank you.
JJ: I want to ask about US immigration policy broadly, but all eyes are on Texas now for a reason. And from a distance, it just looks wild. As an attorney, as a Texan, what are the legal stakes that you see here? It feels a little bit like uncharted territory, even if it has historical echoes, but how alarmed should we be, legally, about what’s happening right now?
Texas Tribune (3/30/22)
AT: Yeah, I think that is the billion-dollar question for all of us seeing this issue bubble up from the ground, frankly, as a slow boil from a couple of years ago, when Governor Abbott began to establish the Operation Lone Star program, in which he spent billions of Texas taxpayer money to send troops, and put a ton of resources into this state hardening of the US/Mexico border.
We’ve seen an increasing, frankly, level of aggression of the state, towards not only migrants, who are the ones who are caught in the day-to-day violence of being caught up in the razor wire, being met with officers, things like that. But the aggression from the state to the federal government has increased intensely over the last year or so. It is difficult to say that this constitutional crisis, between what a state and the federal government can do, it’s hard to say that that is overblown.
I would say that Texas is absolutely challenging the limits of federalism, to see just how far it can go. And immigration is a perfect vehicle for this kind of test. How far can I push the federal government to act the way that I want the federal government to, on things like immigration, on any other sort of federal issue where the feds are the ones who are responsible under our system? How far can I go?
Immigration is controversial. It’s very sensitive to a lot of folks. A lot of folks do not know a lot about it, and so the images that come out, as you mentioned, they seem chaotic, but this has ramifications for something much beyond immigration.
So when I think of the constitutional crisis, I think about it in this larger sense of, what does this really mean for federalism in this country, right? If the federal government is not able to stand up and assert its dominion over anything—immigration is just the hot topic now—what does that say for the government of our country? And the next time another state doesn’t like what the United States does on, say, environmental regulations, or other things that are cross-border or national, how far can that state take their agenda?
These are questions baked into our political system, they don’t have any solid answers, and Texas is running into that gap to assert that the state, at the end of the day, can assert itself over the federal government when it wants to.
JJ: So it’s important to stay on top of, but for a lot of folks, it’s just kind of a story in the paper. It’s about feds versus states, and it’s kind of about red states and blue states, and I think it’s a little bit abstract—but it’s not abstract or potential or theoretical. There are communities of human beings, as you’ve pointed out, not just at the border, but elsewhere that are being impacted. And I just wonder, how would you maybe have us redefine the scope of impact, so that folks could understand that we’re not talking about a few border communities?
AT: Yeah, absolutely. I think one angle of this story that we don’t always see, it’s been heartbreaking to see, for example, the state’s rhetoric of “come and cut it,” be very aggressive, “we have a right to defend ourselves,” etc., etc. The, in my opinion, overblown claims about just how many cartel members are among people, just how many drugs they’re finding on people, for example.
The very vast majority of folks who are showing up to the US/Mexico border are folks who are in need of protection, they’re in need of safety, they’re in need of stability. That is the very vast majority of people.
And so something that does not often show up in these stories that is particularly pertinent right now is, let’s be clear, Texas is fighting for its right to lay concertina wire so that people can get caught in it for hours, and get injured and languish there as punishment for trying to seek safety.
And what they want to do is push people back into Mexico where they are kidnapped, assaulted, raped, worse, as punishment for wanting to seek safety. That is what Texas is asserting its right to do. That’s what the Trump administration’s primary goal was on the US/Mexico border. That’s what Greg Abbott’s primary goal is at the US/Mexico border. And we don’t talk about that, as a country, of what that actually looks like every day, what that looks like on the ground.
What we talk about are US communities, we talk about people “taking our jobs,” we talk about the fentanyl that’s coming in—all real issues that are not touched, not controlled, by people who are desperate and are trying to seek safety. So to me, that is one of the biggest holes that I always see in these stories, that we don’t really take: our right to defend our border, but from what?
As a Texan, I don’t think what Texas is doing on the border day-to-day will actually improve the lives of Texans. We are spending billions of dollars of our own tax money for this political ploy that we are improving the lives of Texans, while we are stripping Texans off of Medicaid faster than any other state in the country. Texans are very strapped in an economy where inflation is still an issue, and nothing that we’re doing at our border is going to affect that.
So we don’t talk about where the rubber meets the road for basically anybody in this story. It’s just simply in the political cacophony.
ABC News (12/19/23)
JJ: When you were on ABC News in December, talking about SB4, which you can talk about, the setup talked about a “tidal wave” of people coming over the southern border—let’s be clear, we’re talking about the southern border, right—the strain on US resources being “unprecedented,” and all of these people were crossing the border “illegally.” And that was the intro for you. And in media, generally, migration itself is sort of pre-framed as a problem, as a crisis; but we haven’t always seen it that way, and we don’t have to see it that way, do we? We kind of need a paradigm shift, it seems like here.
AT: I think you’re absolutely right, and one thing that I sometimes will tell people is, take a step back and really think about it. Migration is one of the most constant things in the entirety of human existence. This is one of the most fundamentally human things that someone can do. If you are suffering in one place for whatever reason, X number of reasons, throughout literal human history, you migrate to a place where you will do better.
Aron Thorn: “We will continue down this really ugly road of, how violent are we willing to get with people? That’s the question we’re at in 2024.” (image: ABC News)
Let’s not let the federal government get off the hook. The idea that you can law-enforce your way out of human instinct and human behavior is absurd, and it’s been very present in, obviously, Texas, but the federal government’s policies on the US/Mexico border, for at least 30 years, since at least the early ’90s. This idea that there is such a strain on resources, but yet we have a blank check for enforcement-only policies, that if we are just a little more violent and a little more aggressive towards people trying to come in to get more stability in their lives, then we can prevent something that is a fundamentally human behavior, is absurd.
And we need to have more of a discussion about why we’re sitting here, 30 years later, and we’re at a point where if we lay a hundred more yards of concertina wire, and we cut up a few more women and children, they will stop coming. That is the argument we’re having now, and it’s absurd.
So I absolutely agree that without this paradigm shift of: what are we doing? we will continue down this really ugly road of, how violent are we willing to get with people? That’s the question we’re at in 2024.
JJ: Yeah, I harbor hatred for corporate media for many reasons, but one of them is this PBS NewsHour, real politic for the smart people, that I saw recently, which basically said, calm down, Biden is just “seeking to disarm criticism of his handling of migration at the border as immigration becomes an increasing matter of concern to Americans in the lead up to the presidential election.”
So we’re supposed to just think of it as part of a chess game, and I guess ignore the actual human impact of what these moves are going to be. But I just really resent this media coverage that says, “This is just shadows on the cave wall; it’s really about the election, you don’t really need to worry about it.” I just wonder what you would like to see news media, well, I guess I’m saying do less of, but what could they do more of that would move this issue forward in a humane way?
PBS NewsHour (1/29/24)
AT: Yeah, I mean, hearkening back to the last question about a paradigm shift, I think as somebody who has done this work on the ground for many years, started doing this in the middle of the Trump administration, now has seen this through the Biden administration, something that we often remark to each other on the ground is that so much of the Biden administration’s policies have the exact same effect as what the Trump administration was doing, just in a less visceral way.
And so when that is raised to folks—he’s having the same exact effect on the daily lives of migrants—people who would be outraged and out in the streets to protest against Donald Trump, look at the Biden administration having the exact same effect, saying, “Well, he’s trying his best.”
So the idea that it still boils down to the politics of it all: “I just don’t like this person who’s in office, and so anything that he does, if he breathes wrong, I’m going to criticize him,” but yet somebody who has the same effect… It really brings to bear how many folks in this country, this is a theoretical issue for them. When the rubber meets the road, we don’t have a great track record of being truly empathetic and truly smart on migration. “It’s a political football in the right hands, and so I’m going to just agree with whatever the administration does, and I’m certainly not going to critique him,” is not the way that we really get to actual solutions on immigration in this country.
JJ: Are there any policies that are in the works, or about to be in the works? Is there anything that folks can be pulling for, either in Texas or nationally?
AT: That is also a really complicated answer. But one thing I will say, I always raise for folks to think about the guest worker program in this country, and it’s complicated to say in a soundbite type of answer, because labor has its own issues, right? Labor is very exploited in the United States, and so sometimes I don’t want to have this discussion about bringing migrants here just to be exploited by abusive employers, right? That’s not the answer.
However, it is true that economics is one of the biggest drivers of migration trends over the last couple of centuries that we can see, right? Bad economies in other parts of the world encourage people to migrate to the US, and a bad economy in the US actually encourages people to go home. The numbers are there.
And so that is actually true, that a lot of people are coming to seek stability in their lives, or in the lives of people who are still at home. And yet the United States has done everything in its power to either gum up the works of its guest worker program—slashing visas, making things more difficult for whatever reasons—and we are still sitting here with the reality that a significant slice of people would love to come to the United States, make money and go home.
To me, that seems like a no-brainer that both parties could get behind, of “let’s confront that reality,” and if we do not want to absorb these people into our society, let’s allow people to come in, benefit us, benefit themselves, and then return.
There is a significant slice of people who would like to do that, and we do have a guest worker visa program, but every year we make it more difficult, or we don’t want to expand it. An expanded guest worker program, I think, is a step in the right direction, if we don’t want so many people showing up at the US/Mexico border saying, “OK, I have no other viable options. Let me take the way that I need to to protect myself and my family.”
JJ: Ari Paul wrote for FAIR.org recently about how news media—he was writing about the New York Times, but they weren’t alone—make this fake consensus. They had a front-page piece that said, “Biden Faces Pressure on Immigration, and Not Just From Republicans.” And it was the idea that even Democratic mayors and leaders are agreeing: Too many South Americans are trying to get into this land of milk and honey. And what that reporting involves is manipulating statements of local officials who are saying, “We want to welcome immigrants, but we don’t have the resources,” and turning that into, “Nobody wants immigrants in their community.”
And I guess my big beef, among others, with that is that media do us a disservice, confusing people about what we believe and what we are capable of and what we really think. And it just kind of breaks my heart, because it tells people their neighbors think differently than they do. It misleads us about public opinion about the welcoming of immigrants.
And I guess I should have put a question on that, but I can’t think of one, except to say that when communities say, “We need more resources to address this,” that is not the same as them saying, “Migrants out.”
AT: Having worked in immigration now for many years, immigration is such a difficult topic, because underneath the banner of immigration are so many other debates, about US society and culture and race, class, our place in the world, right, foreign policy—the list goes on and on and on. Immigration hits on so many of those realities.
And it hearkens back to, many other different types of groups of folks can tell you about—people of color, for example—having white colleagues who say prejudiced things until they know a person of color, or they say xenophobic things until they know an immigrant.
And I think that this is so deeply challenging because people are stepping to this without having any actual access, easy access, to folks who have gone through this process, and specifically on class, and also on the way that the United States government works, right? I don’t know the exact figure, but DHS’s budget is colossal, and Texas is spending billions of dollars with its own money.
And so everybody’s stepping to this debate of whether this person should “have not broken the law.” But we have gotten to this place by spending all of this money we could use welcoming people, putting welcoming infrastructure in place, we’re using it on enforcement. No wonder we don’t have any money to welcome people into our communities, and that’s frustrating and hurtful to you. And then also you’re stepping with all of these biases, because that’s a real challenge we have in our society.
Yeah, no wonder, it’s very easy to point fingers at that person. It is the culmination of all of these other real societal ills that we grapple with every single day. No other issue hits on so many at the same time.
JJ: All right, then. We’ve been speaking with Aron Thorn; he’s senior staff attorney at the Beyond Borders program at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Aron Thorn, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
AT: Yes, thank you.
Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director and producer/host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR’s newsletter Extra!, and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the ’90s (Westview Press).
FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. As an anti-censorship organization, we expose neglected news stories and defend working journalists when they are muzzled. As a progressive group, FAIR believes that structural reform is ultimately needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting and promote strong non-profit sources of information. FAIR’s work is sustained by our generous contributors, who allow us to remain independent. Donate today to be a part of this important mission.