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Texas' attack on migrant children is all about Greg Abbott's re-election

The Texas governor got Trump's endorsement. But at what cost?
Photo illustration: Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaking against the background of the Texas state map with the image of asylum seeking migrants.
Gov. Greg Abbott's order could affect as many as 4,000 unaccompanied minors in Texas.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Reuters

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday night ordered state child-care regulators to pull licenses from the 52 Texas facilities that house unaccompanied minors. In doing so, he threatens a quarter of the 200 facilities that the federal government contracts with to provide safe environments for children who have crossed the southern border without their parents.

Abbott justified the move in an emergency declaration — citing the "ongoing surge of individuals crossing the Texas-Mexico border" — which gives the state's Health and Human Services Commission 90 days to finalize shutting down these facilities.

It's not clear how this tracks with Abbott's letter this year slamming the Biden administration for the "inhumane" conditions that unaccompanied minors were being held in at Border Patrol facilities. But those kids were there only because the federal government lacked enough space to hold them in facilities like the ones Abbott is now forcing to shutter.

It's also not clear yet what will happen to the roughly 4,000 kids housed in Texas' facilities or the unaccompanied minors who cross the border three months from now. But concern for "what happens next" only rarely seems to play a role in Abbott's policy decisions. Unless we're talking about what happens when he's up for re-election next year. That question seems to be central in how Abbott governs, appearing to utterly ignore the growing populations in Texas' liberal enclaves and instead choosing to treat the state like the deep red bastion he wants it to be.

On basically every issue of national importance, Abbott is a poster child for right-wing ideals, and he's frequently seen on Fox News burnishing those credentials. During a freak winter storm in February, Abbott was quick to appear on Sean Hannity's show to blame an overreliance on alternative energy and the still-hypothetical Green New Deal as the cause of rolling blackouts throughout Texas. (The state's wind and solar energy production sites were not, in fact, the source of the blackouts.) The Legislature last week passed only limited reforms in response to the crisis, which still await Abbott's signature.

On basically every issue of national importance, Abbott is a poster child for right-wing ideals.

In dealing with the pandemic, Texas was one of the first states to rush to reopen again in March, allowing nonessential businesses to operate at 100 percent capacity. Abbott rescinded the state's mask mandate and then followed that up with an executive order banning state, county and local government entities from mandating masks. Days later, Abbott signed into law a ban on all abortions starting six weeks after a woman has missed her period. MSNBC columnist Laura Bassett noted Abbott's clear hypocrisy at the time:

The self-described “pro-life” governor scribbled his name on this legislation just one day after banning local government entities, including public schools, from enforcing Covid-19 mask mandates. So even schools where many children have not received the vaccine yet, and which have decided for themselves that a mask requirement continues to make sense in a continuing deadly pandemic, will not be able to enforce that rule.

Abbott is also prepared to sign a bill that would make carrying guns much easier. House Bill 1927 would make it so that anyone legally able to possess a handgun could do so in public beginning in September without the current background checks, safety classes or demonstrations of shooting proficiency. Is the state prepared to handle a potential surge of untrained Texans with sidearms strapped to their hips at all times? That's exactly the kind of question Abbott is uninterested in answering.

And finally, Abbott has vowed to resurrect a bill that would make it harder for Texans to vote after state Democrats dramatically walked out of the legislative session Sunday night. On Monday, the governor threatened to veto the section of the state budget used to fund the Legislature if Democrats block the bill again.

But for all the restrictions in the bill, it's not even a guarantee that it would be particularly helpful for the Texas GOP as written. New York Magazine's Eric Levitz writes that pushing the bill may actually be "contrary to the GOP's best interests":

The primary threat to Republican power in the Lone Star State is the leftward drift of highly educated suburbanites, who are exceptionally difficult to disenfranchise through voting restrictions due to their social power and economic security (there aren’t many lawyers who lack photo ID, or middle managers who will struggle to find transportation to a polling place). Of course, simply invalidating adverse election results is one solution to the party’s suburban challenge. But it’s a pretty elaborate and dicey approach to the problem. And if it doesn’t succeed, then pursuing blatantly anti-democratic measures, in tacit support of Trump’s insurrectionary cause, will only reinforce college-educated moderates’ alienation from red America.

That's the kind of potential backlash that might give a rational politician pause. But for Abbott, the gambit seems to be paying off. The governor is expected to be challenged from the right for the Republican nomination next year; former state Sen. Don Huffines has already declared himself a candidate. Other potential challengers include Texas GOP Chair Allen West, who basically endorsed secession after last year's election, and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who is working with Stephen Miller to sue President Joe Biden for helping Black Texas farmers.

Their campaigns might be harder after former President Donald Trump endorsed Abbott's re-election Tuesday. "Governor Greg Abbott will continue to be a great leader for the Lone Star State, and has my Complete and Total Endorsement for re-election," Trump wrote in his statement, released on his now-defunct blog. "He will never let you down!" Trump also made sure to add that the governor is "all in on Election Integrity."

That’s the kind of potential backlash that might give a rational politician pause. But for Abbott, the gambit seems to be paying off.

What a great trade for Abbott. All he has to do is make life harder for facilities that want to safeguard migrant children and easier for people who want to carry guns without licenses, all while backing election restrictions that might not even help his party win more elections. In exchange, he gets the approval of the first one-term president since 1992, a man who apparently believes he'll somehow become president again in August.

It's clear that Abbott will hurt whatever segment of the state's population it takes to stay in power. The clock is ticking, though, until November 2022, when we'll see whether Texas is still as deep red as he wants to believe it is.