Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Beto O’Rourke: One Person Can End Cruelty at the Border

Gov. Greg Abbott’s escalating political stunts have killed migrants at the Texas-Mexico border. Operation Lone Star — the dangerous, illegal and ineffective border mission that Mr. Abbott has been running separately from the federal government for over two years — must be stopped. It’s time for President Biden to step up.

The Supreme Court has consistently upheld that immigration enforcement is a power exclusive to the federal government — not the states. Elements of Mr. Abbott’s border operations have been found unconstitutional, violate federal law and conflict with U.S. treaty obligations to Mexico. Mr. Biden has every right — in fact, every responsibility — to intervene and enforce the federal government’s clear authority to regulate the border without state interference.

The lawsuit that the Department of Justice filed on Monday calls on Mr. Abbott to remove the dangerous floating barrier of buoys that he has installed in the Rio Grande. It is a good first step, but it is far from sufficient. Mr. Abbott has made clear that he does not intend to comply and isn’t going to wait for litigation to move through the courts to add to the gantlet of misery he’s constructed on the border.

Every day that Mr. Biden fails to stop Mr. Abbott leads to unnecessary, preventable suffering — and often death. Last week, a medic with the Texas Department of Public Safety blew the whistle on the governor’s deadly border operation, reporting that troopers have been ordered “to push small children and nursing babies back into the Rio Grande.”

Texas troopers have also installed razor “traps” in addition to a floating wall of buoys that are funneling asylum seekers into more dangerous parts of the river. The whistle-blower medic also reported cases in which the obstructions have contributed to drownings, maimed young children, snapped migrants’ legs and entangled a pregnant woman who ultimately miscarried her baby.

The Houston Chronicle recently published an internal memo from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection that states Operation Lone Star is preventing Border Patrol agents from carrying out their legal duties to process migrants and provide humanitarian aid. The memo was written just days before four migrants — including an infant — all drowned within a short period of one another while trying to cross to safety near Eagle Pass, Texas.

That tragedy wasn’t an isolated incident. Last fiscal year, U.S. authorities recovered the remains of 890 deceased migrants along the border — the highest number ever recorded — in large part owing to drownings.

It’s clear that this suffering is the goal of Mr. Abbott’s border mission. He might claim that it’s to “secure the border,” but by every measure that matters, it’s only making things worse. According to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal, “​​the area of the border most heavily targeted by Operation Lone Star has seen the most rapid increases in illegal border crossings in the state since the operation began.”

While this mission is clearly not working, we know that Mr. Abbott will continue to take the next step in his campaign of cruelty if left unchallenged. Before the razor wire and booby traps, he loaded up buses full of migrants to drop them on the vice president’s doorstep in Washington, D.C., and launched a scheme to imprison asylum seekers on illegal and falsified trespassing charges. Instead of checking Mr. Abbott’s worst impulses, the Republican-majority Texas Legislature has only encouraged him, appropriating at least $10 billion to continue these operations.

It’s on Mr. Biden to stop this madness. In fact, promoting a humane immigration and asylum system is exactly what Mr. Biden promised to do when he ran for office.

On the campaign trail and early in his presidency, Mr. Biden vowed to put an end to the “cruel and reckless immigration policies” of his predecessor Donald Trump and build a “fair and humane immigration system in the United States that welcomes immigrants” and “keeps families together.”

I know that President Biden is a good man who has the ability to tackle conflict head-on by leading with moral clarity. Just look at his success in confronting climate change, reducing child poverty and rallying the Western democracies to attempt to stop Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

And to his credit, the president has taken steps to undo some of the most harmful elements of Mr. Trump’s immigration policies. Mr. Biden has taken executive action to reunite families who were victims of the Trump administration’s barbaric crusade to separate children from their parents at the border. And he has opened up asylum pathways for many asylum seekers fleeing extraordinary violence in Central America and elsewhere.

But he has also imposed new asylum restrictions that cut off access to protection for far too many, while leaving thousands more to wait for weeks or months in squalid tent camps in Mexican border towns, where they suffer alarming rates of kidnapping, sexual assault or worse. This “prevention through deterrence” framework risks worsening the humanitarian crisis at the border. When those who simply can’t return home for fear of violence or death are prevented from applying for asylum at legal ports of entry, they’re left with little choice but to take dangerous, illegal routes into the United States and walk right into Mr. Abbott’s death trap.

Mr. Biden must change course, and that begins by stopping Mr. Abbott. The president should order the immediate removal of the lethal razor wire and obstructions in the Rio Grande and ensure that Border Patrol are unimpeded by Texas Department of Public Safety officers— today. He must then take prompt action to replace Mr. Abbott’s disregard for human life with leadership that upholds our values as Americans, including by providing better legal pathways for those with valid asylum claims to safely and in an orderly fashion apply for refuge at legal ports of entry instead of desperately crossing dangerous stretches of the river. This is the president’s chance to show Americans that a humane approach is not only the right thing to do, it is also the best way to establish order and safety at our southern border.

I know that the politics on this aren’t easy. And I can see why it might be tempting to allow the governor to assume ownership over the Texas border rather than pursue a public confrontation on an issue that is this politically charged. But if the president fails to enforce the federal government’s clear supremacy on matters of immigration, he will allow this challenge to grow as both a humanitarian crisis and as a political liability for his administration as he heads into 2024.

Be on the right side of history, demonstrate the kind of strong, decisive leadership that Americans are desperate for, and the politics will follow. After all, when Mr. Biden won his presidential election, he did so in part on the promise to “restore our moral standing in the world and our historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers.”

Now is his chance to deliver.

Beto O’Rourke served as the U.S. representative for Texas’ 16th Congressional District from 2013 to 2019.

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