Abbott embraces “invasion” language about border, evoking memories of El Paso massacre

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott(KLTV)
Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 7:26 PM CST
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(TEXAS TRIBUNE) - To many Hispanic and Latino Texans, the word “invasion” brings a particular horror to mind. It’s the same word the gunman in El Paso invoked in 2019 in a hate-filled manifesto about immigration — posted just before he killed 23 people.

To many hardline conservatives in the state, the word is at the heart of a legal theory they’ve embraced — one legal scholars say simply isn’t true. If the governor were to declare that Texas is under invasion due to open borders, the conservatives claim, he could deport migrants without the federal government.

This week, coming off a wide victory over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, Gov. Greg Abbott has embraced the word like never before. In letters to the state’s county judges and President Joe Biden, Abbott has described the record number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as an invasion.

In a memo to the Department of Public Safety and the National Guard urging them to step up their border security efforts, he used the subject line “Defend Texas Against Invasion.” And on social media, he declared that he “invoked the Invasion Clauses of the U.S. & Texas Constitutions” to justify his border efforts.

Abbott’s statements have again stoked emotions surrounding the word. His use of it led many conservatives to believe he took major action when he hadn’t really changed any of his policies. And it prompted immigrant rights advocates to again warn he’s using a dangerous and hateful trope.

Abbott created his biggest stir on Twitter when he posted about invoking the invasion clauses in the state and federal constitutions. For months, conservatives have pointed to the part of the U.S. Constitution that says states cannot “lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded.” If Abbott declares an invasion, they say, he can begin deportations — normally something only the federal government can do — on his own.

Legal scholars say that’s a misreading of the clause, which refers to invasions by foreign armies, not people crossing the board in large numbers in search of asylum.

“The central problem for Abbott is that Texas is not being invaded,” wrote Joseph Nunn, a lawyer at the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program at New York University School of Law. “On multiple occasions, the federal courts have rejected the argument that an influx of undocumented individuals into the U.S. could constitute an ‘invasion.’”

Still, upon first hearing of Abbott’s intentions, conservatives cheered his declaration. Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller tweeted “thank you” to Abbott. “This is huge,” wrote hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“The federal government has neglected its primary and constitutionally assigned responsibility to its citizens — protecting them. Texas has no choice but to lead,” read a statement from Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Many conservatives seemed to think that Abbott was introducing dramatic new measures. But soon it became clear that wasn’t entirely true. Abbott’s tweet was highlighting measures taken over more than a year. His mention of invoking an invasion was a reference to a line in a July executive order, in which Abbott directed state officials to bus migrants they had detained back to ports of entry along the border — but not to the other side.

Abbott hasn’t issued any new executive orders this week. And when asked about his invasion tweet at a legislative hearing, his budget director told lawmakers that “I don’t think it is a change in overall tactic as much as it is a reminder to all of us, to Congress and to the members working the issue that this is serious and it demands a full and serious response.”

Some conservatives who cheered Abbott for taking action soon after expressed disappointment when it became clear he hadn’t actually transformed his immigration policy.

“@GovAbbott offers a big nothingburger on #bordersecurity… again,” Sullivan wrote less than two hours after his first tweet.

But for many who remember the racist attack in El Paso and the shooter’s manifesto, the word still held meaning.

Then, Abbott faced criticism for the rhetoric he used in a fundraising letter sent one day before the shooter targeted and shot Hispanics at a Walmart. The letter called on supporters to “DEFEND” the border against efforts by Democrats to “transform” Texas through illegal immigration.

Abbott later apologized about the mailer and said “mistakes were made.” He said he talked to members of the El Paso legislative delegation in the shooting’s aftermath and “emphasized the importance of making sure that rhetoric will not be used in any dangerous way.”

Abbott’s repetitive use of the word comes after years of similar messaging from other national Republican figures, most notably former President Donald Trump, who stoked fears about immigration by using the term invasion and referring to Hispanic migrants as criminals or “bad hombres.”

Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M University professor who researches political rhetoric, said Abbott’s embrace of the word matches the intense language of his peers in the Republican party.

“It’s a kind of keeping up with the Joneses,” she said.

Mercieca said the language used around immigration has shifted dramatically since 2015, when Trump announced his presidential ambitions, using shocking language to describe migrants from Mexico.

“It was seen as indecorous. It was seen as evidence, proof that he was unqualified for office,” Mercieca said. “A lot has changed in seven years.”

Since then, she said, rhetoric from GOP leaders has increasingly mirrored that of the Great Replacement Theory, a conspiracy theory purported by white nationalist groups who believe immigrants are attempting to replace white, European populations. Abbott’s tweet came the same day Trump announced another bid for president.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked about Abbott’s use of rhetoric associated with white nationalist movements, a TPPF spokesperson dismissed the allegation.

“It goes without saying that is a deeply absurd assertion and whomever is claiming such a thing is a race-baiting halfwit,” Brian Phillips, the chief communications officer for the think tank, said in an email.

Immigrant rights advocates said Abbott’s use of the term is particularly damaging given his role as governor of the third-most-populous state in the country — and one where Hispanics account for more than 40% of residents.

“He knows what he’s doing, and he’s courting political violence for his own political fortunes,” said Zachary Mueller, a political director with immigration rights group America’s Voice.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.