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How Texas Gov. Abbott's Immigration Rhetoric Flipped


The governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott, has been among those who blame President Biden for the current surge in arrivals at the border. Recently, Abbott even linked the issue to the pandemic.


GREG ABBOTT: The Biden administration has been releasing immigrants in South Texas that have been exposing Texans to COVID.

MARTIN: That kind of rhetoric is a dramatic turnaround from Abbott's work two decades ago, when he was the state's attorney general. Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive has this report.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Abbott's recent comments about COVID-spreading immigrants are just the latest. From suing the Obama administration over DACA to penalizing Texas cities refusing to work with Trump's immigration agencies, the governor has aligned himself with hardline immigration stances. Here's Abbott on "Fox & Friends" in 2017 talking about Texas's sanctuary cities law.


ABBOTT: Under this new law, if you have a public official, including a sheriff, who continues to adopt sanctuary city policies after this ban goes into place, they could be criminally prosecuted and themselves wind up in jail.

FLAHIVE: Supporters of limiting local law enforcement's work with immigration argue it encourages undocumented victims of crime to come forward. Abbott knows that. He made it in 2005.


ABBOTT: Many who were victimized were sometimes reluctant to speak up.

FLAHIVE: Unlike Governor Abbott, Attorney General Abbott spent significant resources and time fighting for unauthorized immigrants. The governor's office didn't respond to our request for comment. But John Owens was deputy chief of the consumer protection division for the attorney general until 2011.

JOHN OWENS: Governor Abbott used to say when he was attorney general that I don't care about the status of someone, whether or not they are a citizen or a permanent resident or have documents. If they're a victim in Texas, we're going to go after them.

FLAHIVE: He and others say protecting immigrants from fraud was a priority for a decade, one that Abbott made a point of emphasizing through press conferences and other media. Here's part of a video produced by Abbott's office in 2005.


ABBOTT: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Recognized by the national media and the National Hispanic Caucus for his perseverance to protect all people who call Texas home...

OWENS: Abbott's office went after fake immigration lawyers, sellers of phony international driver's licenses. Owens says they even called employers who didn't pay their unauthorized workforce. Here's Abbott in 2005 again.


ABBOTT: Hispanic consumers must know that the doors of our justice system are open to everyone, regardless of where you may live, regardless of where you may be born, regardless of what language you speak or what your last name is.

FLAHIVE: As AG, Abbott derailed an entire anti-immigrant legislative agenda in 2007, including one bill allowing local law enforcement to ask about a person's immigration status because, as he said for years, immigration enforcement is not Texas' job. Nativist sentiment has been rising in Texas and across the country since Governor Abbott was sworn in, so, Owens says, Abbott's rhetoric around the unauthorized immigrants flipped.

OWENS: I can only attribute that to politics.

FLAHIVE: Southern Methodist University politics professor Cal Jillson says that tracks. The so-called compassionate conservatism pushed by governor and then-President George W. Bush pitched a path to citizenship for the group. Meanwhile, Texas passed in-state tuition for those in the country illegally.

CAL JILLSON: Now a lot of that is gone, and the rhetoric is designed to maximize sort of Anglo support for a more conservative, certainly more socially conservative, Republican Party.

FLAHIVE: But it's also that the AG is about enforcing the law, and the governor's office is more about policy and politics.

JILLSON: I think that as he prepares to run for reelection in 2022 and maybe run for president beyond that, he's very much in his political mold.

FLAHIVE: So there are few reasons to tamp down on his anti-immigrant rhetoric anytime soon.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio.


Paul Flahive
Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.
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