Eagle Pass stand-off: what’s really behind the border dispute?

U.S. Border Patrol has been engaged in a stand-off with the Texas Department of Public Safety and National Guard over control of Shelby Park, a small park in the usually quiet town of Eagle Pass. Right-wing media is portraying this as a heroic stand by cops and state forces under the control of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The Biden administration is claiming to have a more humanitarian border policy, even as they incarcerate and deport record numbers of immigrants.

What is really going on? Is this a further continuation of a racist political stunt? Is this a battle between state and federal authority, a fissure in ruling-class power, or something else entirely? And just as importantly, what should working-class people do about it?

What is the nature of the current crisis at the border?

The current crisis has its roots with the DPS occupation of Eagle Pass which started last year. The Eagle Pass occupation is part of Operation Lone Star, a parallel immigration system set up by Abbott that is so unpopular, some National Guard soldiers enforcing it have even committed suicide. Residents have spoken out repeatedly about the occupation and the racist border stunt involving deadly razor wire and netting systems. But this stunt has real, terrible human stakes.

On the night of Jan. 12, Mexican immigration officials alerted U.S. Border Patrol that two people were in distress on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. Border Patrol agents informed National Guard troops, who responded that they had orders to deny Border Patrol agents access to the river. Paxton has disputed this version of events, claiming that the Border Patrol agents “did not ask for admission to Shelby Park to respond to an emergency, nor did they advise either the Guardsmen or the Staff Sergeant that any ‘emergency’ situation existed.” While federal and state forces bickered, Mexican authorities recovered the bodies of three additional drowning victims and rescued the two people in distress.

The National Guard has since granted Border Patrol access to both sides of the fence and the boat ramp at the park. But this set into motion a chain of legal challenges as to whether the federal government has the right to access the entire park and/or remove the razor wire. On Jan. 22, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled (5-4) in favor of DHS that Border Patrol should be allowed to access the park and remove razor wire.

The ruling has led to Paxton doubling down on denying entry to some areas of the park and grandstanding about preventing “terrorism.” He claimed on Fox News that Joe Biden is “not just cooperating, but he is literally in partnership with [Mexican] cartels,” and has claimed in the past that “Hamas” may sneak across the border. The current “showdown,” as right-wing media has put it, is over access to only part of the park.

Is Biden’s federal border policy pro-immigrant?

The federal government under Biden has the right under the Constitution to enforce border policy. The current “showdown” rests on Abbott’s claim that Biden is pursuing a “reckless open border policy.” But what is Biden’s border policy?

The Biden administration has worked to continue Trump’s border wall by any means necessary, including waiving dozens of federal laws to keep the wall going. In 2022 and 2023, Southwest border apprehensions skyrocketed to over 2 million per year, more than double any year during the Trump administration. Deportations increased to 142,000 in 2023, nearly double from the year before. Nor do the optics of border enforcement look any better for Biden and the federal government. While Biden lifted the incredibly unpopular Title 42, the administration quickly enacted a nearly identical mass deportation policy. This is the same racist Border Patrol that deployed whips against Haitian refugees, and whose off-duty member lynched a group of immigrants in west Texas, both under Biden’s term in office.

What is unique about the far right’s immigration policy is its explicitly racist rhetoric. While Democrats cloak their justifications for Border Patrol violence in high-minded language about rule of law, Paxton, Abbott, Trump, and the far right openly employ far more racist, dehumanizing, and even genocidal language. Describing the refugee situation in militarized terms such as “invasion” and “terrorism,” Abbott has laid clear the far right’s homicidal intent. “The only thing that we’re not doing is we’re not shooting people who come across the border, because of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder,” he said in a recent radio interview. Texas has recently passed a heinous anti-immigrant “show me your papers” bill which will enable police all across the state to enact the racist violence he is stoking at the border.

What are the stakes of the stand-off?

Despite the spectacle of the Texas National Guard “standing off” against federal Border Patrol agents, and the real problem of a vigilante militia calling itself “God’s Army” heading to the border, the more immediate stakes for this standoff relate to the center of power in U.S. imperialism.

It is indisputable that according to U.S. law, the federal government, not state governments, has the right to enforce immigration policy. The far right is framing this as a “states’ rights” issue. Abbott claims the right to enforce border policy through Operation Lone Star. At the same time, he and other Republicans are claiming that they are only enforcing the law because of the alleged failure of Biden to do so.

Despite Texas politicians’ grandiose claims, this is not primarily a question of federal versus state power. Many of the same Republican political figures involved in this battle are affiliated with the groups behind Project 2025, which would massively expand federal executive power if Donald Trump is reelected. The mantle of “states’ rights,” as in the Civil War and Civil Rights eras, is a cover to push their agenda.

The true reason for this “stand-off” is the same divide in the ruling class that has been fermenting for years about how to manage a declining U.S. empire. The faction lined up behind Abbott and Paxton believes that the key to managing the empire is rolling back the clock on formal democratic rights, while scapegoating national minorities to divide workers. The other, “liberal” faction holds many of the same policy views, but believes that the far right’s openly racist rhetoric will actually destabilize the empire further. Neither faction truly cares about workers of any nationality or immigration status. After all, is Biden’s Border Patrol fighting to “open the border?” No, they are lobbying to keep the same violent anti-immigrant crackdowns, but with less razor wire.

Historically, in moments of ruling-class divide between hyper-reactionary state governments and less reactionary federal governments, there is some precedent for the masses of working-class people to intervene, to “take a side.” But these moments, such as the Civil Rights era, emerged only after oppressed people rose up in independent mass movements – well-organized, militant, and ready to fight – for the goal of liberation. Concessions are won in struggle, not granted by benevolent authorities. Lining up behind either side in this border scuffle would be a slap in the face to the millions of immigrants affected by the U.S.’s racist, sexist, anti-worker border enforcement regime.

In this struggle, it is necessary to reject both factions and build an independent, working-class, pro-immigrant mass movement. We need to reject the entire premise behind U.S. “border security,” which is that immigrants and refugees are a threat to prosperity and well-being for non-immigrants. No, the threat to prosperity comes from the capitalists who report record profits even as they lay off more workers! The main threat to life and well-being is from the armed agents of the state: the police, military, and Border Patrol, who kill and destroy to protect the ill-gotten gains of the wealthy elites. Only a united working class, uncompromising in our defense of each other and unrelenting in our fight for collective liberation, can defeat the far right.

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