Despite tensions over the economy and the coronavirus pandemic dominating politics in the United States, immigration remains a powerful galvanising issue for the Republican Party, particularly in the state of Texas.
In the past year, Texas’s Republican Governor Greg Abbott has deployed thousands of National Guard troops to the southern US border with Mexico to stem arrivals, begun building a new border barrier, and arrested migrants for allegedly trespassing on private property.
The two-term governor has taken the lead in opposing Democratic President Joe Biden’s immigration reforms, earning him an endorsement by former President Donald Trump.
But as Abbott runs for a third term, conservative candidates challenging him in a March 1 Republican nominating contest contend he is still not tough enough on immigration.
Allen West, a former Republican US congressman, says Texas should arrest and deport immigrants who enter the US without documentation – something states do not have the power to do – if the federal government refuses to act.
The “porous border” shows how Abbott’s approach has failed, West has said.
Don Huffines, a businessman and former state senator, wants to close Texas’s bridges with Mexico to most inbound traffic and deploy the entirety of the state’s National Guard to the border.
Observers say the tougher border proposals pushed by Abbott’s challengers demonstrate how Republican candidates are trying to out-Trump each other on an issue that remains a powerful galvanising force for the party’s voters.
“No issue grabs the attention of Republicans like immigration and border security do,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, who added that Republican primary voters have a seemingly “unlimited appetite” for tough immigration measures.
Trump rewrote the party’s immigration playbook after he successfully campaigned in 2016 on building a border wall with Mexico to stop migrants from coming, banning Muslims from the US, and blocking the entry of refugees.
The current election cycle shows Trump’s influence persists even after losing the presidency in 2020, and that some candidates are going further.
Meanwhile, arrivals of asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border have reached record highs.
Although Biden has kept in place several Trump-era immigration restrictions that allow the US to turn away most people arriving at the border, Republican officials have seized on Biden’s policy changes and the growing number of arrivals.
Biden has dropped a Trump-era rule that would have denied green cards to immigrants who use public benefits, abandoned plans for a border wall, and eliminated a travel ban on visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries.
But the Biden administration has also received sharp criticism from progressives for continuing to expel asylum seekers under a pandemic-related authority first invoked by Trump and for continuing to make them wait in Mexico for hearings in US court.
Some 68 percent of Republicans in Texas say border security or immigration are the top issues facing the state, according to an October 2021 University of Texas poll. And while Republicans broadly approve of Abbott’s immigration policies, according to surveys, the polling suggests they want even more action.
Republicans across the country have made immigration a major focus heading into the November 8 congressional election, where Democrats risk losing control of Congress, stymieing Biden’s legislative agenda.
Liberal advocacy groups, meanwhile, say Republicans are demonising asylum seekers who come to the US seeking refuge, distorting the economic effects of immigration, and trying to capitalise on xenophobic sentiment.