Just hours after President Obama announced his executive order on immigration last November, a news release hit reporters’ in-boxes. It came from the office of Greg Abbott, who was Texas’s attorney general at the time and is now governor. Abbott accused Obama of “eroding the very foundation of our nation’s Constitution and bestowing a legacy of lawlessness,” and pledged to challenge the order in court.
Abbott’s response didn’t get much national attention at the time. After all, most experts have said there’s little doubt about the president’s authority to enforce immigration laws as he sees fit. But it’s getting plenty of attention now.
Late Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen blocked the order — which offers work permits and protection from deportation to an estimated 4.1 million undocumented immigrants — while he mulls a final ruling. In response, the Obama administration said Tuesday it would delay implementing the order, just a day before it was scheduled to go into effect.
Most legal experts expect the administration will ultimately prevail on appeal. But the ruling nonetheless represented a major victory for Abbott. And on Tuesday, Abbott wasted little time in touting the win, saying in a statement that Hanen's ruling “rightly stops the president’s over-reach in its tracks.”
Meanwhile, the Latino Victory Project, a Hispanic political group, accused not only Hanen, but also Abbott and his allies, of “standing on the wrong side of history.”
Abbott’s victory lap is deserved. The lawsuit is now being handled by Ken Paxton, Abbott’s Republican successor as attorney general. But there’s no doubt that Abbott, a staunch conservative and shrewd political operator who was overwhelmingly elected governor last fall after 14 years as attorney general, has been the driving force behind it.
Abbott quickly put together a coalition of 16 mostly GOP-controlled states to challenge the immigration order—a number that has since grown to 26, surprising observers on both sides of the issue for its size. At a press conference in December to unveil the lawsuit, Abbott accused Obama of acting by “presidential fiat.” A few days later, Abbott appeared on NBC’s "Meet the Press," where he compared the lawsuit to the anti-Obamacare action that in 2012 nearly undid the president’s signature legislative accomplishment. “It's the Constitution itself that is under assault by the president of the United States by this executive order,” Abbott warned.
President Reagan and other past presidents issued executive orders on immigration. But Abbott has argued that those were in response to actions by Congress.
The lawsuit is certainly in keeping with Abbott’s record. In his time as attorney general, Abbott sued Obama at least 30 times in defense of conservative causes—everything from obstructing efforts to tackle climate change, to fighting to narrow a federal law barring housing discrimination, to asserting the state’s right to display a statue of the Ten Commandments at the capitol building. “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home,” Abbott has said.
It’s also consistent with Abbott’s approach to issues affecting Texas’s soaring Hispanic community. Though he was evasive on the subject during last year’s campaign for governor, Abbott ultimately said he’d sign legislation to repeal the state’s DREAM Act, a goal of many Texas conservatives. That measure offers in-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants, and it was embraced by his predecessor as governor, Rick Perry—no one’s idea of a bleeding heart liberal. (Perry, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, has vocally supported the immigration lawsuit.) And Abbott has gone to the legal mat to fight for Texas’s redistricting plan and its voter ID law, both of which were found by federal courts to have intentionally discriminated against Hispanics.
Abbott’s goal, his detractors say, has been to find ways to quietly reduce Hispanic political participation and appeal to his party’s nativist base without risking being labeled an extremist. That means rhetoric that's generally benign and welcoming—at public events, he often holds up his Latina wife as implicit evidence of his goodwill toward Texas’s Hispanic community—while using lawsuits to appeal to conservative voters below the radar of much of the press and public.
“It’s something they can talk about to the tea party base, to the anti-Hispanic base within their party, and they know that the general public gets bored pretty quickly with litigation talk,” said Matt Angle, a Texas Democratic consultant and prominent Abbott critic. “It’s a pretty cowardly way to approach your Hispanic politics. To smile and do happy talk in their faces, and stick a knife in their ribs in the courts.”