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Texas Gov. Abbott defends controversial effort to deter illegal border crossings

Barricades and battles on the Texas border
With barricades, soldiers and new laws, Texas tries to deter illegal border crossings 13:25

In January, Texas commandeered a border town's park — once the site of ballgames and flea markets — and blocked the U.S. Border Patrol from freely entering the area.

Shelby Park, in the border town of Eagle Pass, has become a focal point in the border crisis and the political clashes between Republicans and the Biden administration, as migrants have crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, frustrated by what he sees as the Biden administration's failure to enforce federal immigration law, has deployed thousands of state police officers and national guard troops to Eagle Pass to deter the illegal border crossings.

"We're going to be barricading every area where people are crossing," Abbot said during an interview in Shelby Park. "Every area where the cartels use as a crossing, we intend to be barricading."

How Shelby Park in Eagle Pass became the center of a border dispute

In December, "60 Minutes" was on the banks of the Rio Grande, along with soldiers from the Texas National Guard, as migrants crossed from Mexico. The soldiers told the migrants that it was illegal and dangerous to cross.

"Help us," some of the migrants begged. 

Some of the women cried out: "We have children."

A young man groaned as he tried to force his way through coils of sharp wire on the riverbank.

Border wire
Migrants at the border are confronted by wire. 60 Minutes

"Stay calm," some migrants said, as they pushed children through the wire. 

Nearly everyone "60 Minutes" saw made it across and into the U.S.  Thousands of people a day crossed the river into Texas in late December, a record for that section of the border, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. There were so many people crossing that the Border Patrol transformed Shelby Park into an open-air holding center.

Weeks later, once the surge died down, Abbott ordered his Texas National Guard to block the Border Patrol from entering the park without permission. Abbott argued that the federal government had failed to fulfill its obligation to protect the border.

Texas Department of Public Safety Lt. Christopher Olivarez explained why the state doesn't want Border Patrol processing migrants in the park. 

"The issue is trying to prevent another influx, because when Border Patrol is here setting up a processing center, it's going to attract, it's going to encourage more migrants to cross the river because they know where to go," Olivarez said.

Texas' history of border enforcement actions

Gov. Abbott sees Shelby Park, with its new barriers, as a model for what the Texas border can be. 

Raul Ortiz, who served as chief of the U.S. Border Patrol under President Biden and as deputy chief under former President Trump, criticized Abbott for not cooperating with the Border Patrol. Ortiz, now retired, criticized Abbott for playing politics with immigration. 

"You don't just plant a flag just to plant a flag," Ortiz said. "It's got to be strategic, and it's got to make sense."

Shelby Park is just one of many spots along the Texas border where coils of sharp wire have gone up since Gov. Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March of 2021. Since then, thousands of migrants have been arrested and detained on trespassing charges. State troopers have cracked down on human smuggling rings. 

The state has also spent more than $150 million sending migrants on buses to cities like New York and Chicago, turning the trouble at the border into a political and financial headache for Democratic mayors.

Ongoing challenges in Texas

So far, Abbott has committed over $11 billion to Operation Lone Star. And while the number of people crossing the border illegally into Texas over the last three years has dropped, there are still more than a million illegal border crossings in Texas every year. 

"60 Minutes" spoke with former border patrol chief Ortiz in an area just four miles south of Shelby Park. The ground was littered with wet clothes that migrants had changed out of and left behind after crossing the Rio Grande. 

Clothing left behind by migrants
Clothing is left behind by migrants. 60 Minutes

About seven miles north of Shelby Park, "60 Minutes" came upon a group of migrants who'd just crossed and were being picked up by Border Patrol.

A mother and her two sons were among the migrants. She said the soldiers on the U.S. side of the border weren't much of a deterrent — she feared the cartels in Mexico more. 

"Sometimes, they kidnap you and expect payment," the mom said in Spanish. 

Governor Abbott describes the border as a war zone. 

"That's what Joe Biden has created for the United States of America," he said. 

Clashing with the Biden administration

There are at least a dozen lawsuits being fought between Texas and the federal government over immigration issues. All that infighting worries Ortiz.

"The National Guardsmen — even, to some degree, the Border Patrol agents have become pawns in this political game between the two sides," he said. 

Ortiz said the fights between Texas and the federal government ultimately weaken border security, helping the cartels and criminal organizations involved in smuggling operations.

"They're sitting back reaping all the benefits while they watch the state of Texas and Washington D.C. go at it," Ortiz said.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that border enforcement is the job of the federal government. Some critics say Texas is creating and enforcing its own border policy.

"We are not imposing a Texas border policy," Abbott said. "Texas, very simply, is enforcing the laws that are the policy of the United States Congress."

Ortiz expressed his own frustrations with the federal government. He said that he didn't have a single conversation with President Biden or Vice President Harris during his time as chief of the border patrol. 

Raul Ortiz
Raul Ortiz served as chief of the U.S. Border Patrol under President Biden and deputy chief under President Trump. He retired last year. 60 Minutes

Over the past three years, the Biden administration has carried out 4 million expulsions and deportations – more than the Trump administration, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. But it has also allowed a record 3 million people to remain in the country for years while their immigration cases are heard. And the Border Patrol estimates another 1.6 million people have entered the country illegally without getting caught. 

President Biden says that if Republicans were serious about securing the border, they would not have rejected a bipartisan immigration deal in the Senate last month. That deal would have increased funding for the Border Patrol and required the president to expel all migrants crossing illegally during surges like the one at Shelby Park in December.

The latest front in the battle between Texas and Washington is a new law Abbott signed authorizing Texas's more than 2,700 law enforcement agencies to arrest migrants for illegally crossing the border. Texas judges could then order migrants to return to Mexico or serve time — bypassing the federal immigration system entirely. 

Critics say the law is so broadly written that it fails to define when authorities can stop someone. They worry it could lead to racial profiling.

"I can tell you that our troopers are not gonna be stopping cars and checking for immigration status. They're not," Lieutenant Olivarez, of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said.

But Olivarez acknowledged that "there could be some issues where maybe some other agency outside of a border area" could take immigration status into account.

"It's probable," Olivarez said, "because there's a lot of agencies here in Texas that operate, right? But I would think that every chief at a police agency would have to implement some type of policy and procedure to actually enforce this new law."

This past week, a federal judge temporarily stopped the new law from taking effect while it's being challenged in court. The Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing Texas, arguing the law interferes with the federal government's authority over immigration.

But Gov. Abbott argues Texas is being invaded and has the right to defend its borders. Texas will appeal the judge's decision, he says.

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