By PAUL J. WEBER
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday authorized state forces to apprehend and transport migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming the enforcement powers of federal agents and pushing the legal boundaries of the Republican’s escalating efforts to curb the rising number of crossings.
The federal government is responsible for enforcement of immigration laws, but for more than a year Texas has patrolled the border with an increasingly heavier hand.
Abbott stopped short of authorizing Texas troopers and National Guard members — who he has already deployed to the border by the thousands — to take migrants across the ports of entry and into Mexico. That disappointed former Trump administration officials who for months have pressured Abbott to declare an “invasion” and order state forces to forcibly take migrants out of the country.
But the action is still a significant and untested expansion of the normal powers of the National Guard and state police, who until now have turned migrants over to Border Patrol agents, and in some cases, made arrests on state trespassing charges. It raises questions over the training they have to detain and transport migrants and is likely to invite legal challenges.
Crossings are at or near the highest in about two decades. On the Texas border, U.S. authorities stopped migrants from crossing illegally 523,000 times between January and May, up from 417,000 over the same span a year ago.
Abbott has blamed the Biden administration and spent more than $3 billion in state funds on a massive border security apparatus. But the state operation has not stemmed the flow of migrants.
“As the challenges on the border continue to increase, Texas will continue to take action to address those challenges caused by the Biden Administration.” Abbott said.
Officials with U.S. Custom and Border Protection did not immediately return request for comment.
The announcement comes two days after former Trump administration officials and sheriffs in several South Texas called on Abbott to declare that that the state is being invaded and use extraordinary powers normally reserved for war. Their plan involves a novel interpretation of the U.S. Constitution to have the National Guard or state police forcibly send migrants to Mexico, without regard to immigration laws and law enforcement procedures.
The idea has existed on the right fringes of the GOP for years but has gained traction among conservatives since Biden took office.
The Center for Renewing America, a conservative policy think tank led by former Trump administration officials, has been driving the effort and criticized Abbott’s order since it does not call for expelling migrants.
“That is critical. Otherwise this is still catch and release,” the group said in a statement.
U.S. border authorities are stopping migrants more often on the southern border than at any time in at least two decades. Migrants were stopped nearly 240,000 times in May, up by one-third from a year ago.
Comparisons to pre-pandemic levels are complicated because migrants expelled under a public health authority known as Title 42 face no legal consequences, encouraging repeat attempts. Authorities say 25% of encounters in May were with people who had been stopped at least once in the previous year.