Unpacking the Recent American Border Standoff


The border between the United States and Mexico has long been a political issue within both states, particularly the former. The 3,145-kilometer boundary is one of the busiest in the world, with a 2010 figure of “approximately 350 million (legal) crossings per year.” Due to the two countries’ status as strong political and economic allies, Washington and Mexico City have frequently worked together to ensure as little friction and tension as possible at the partition. In recent years, the debate has been heavily stoked by controversial figures such as former President Donald Trump, who opened his 2016 campaign with inflammatory remarks, stating at a rally that, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. (…) They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems [with them]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” During Trump’s subsequent presidency, the immigration issue was often at the center of domestic political discourse, most notably due to his claim that he would build a wall on the Southern border and make Mexico pay for the construction.

American policy regarding land-based immigration is typically centered around the United States Border Patrol, established in 1924 as “the mobile, uniformed law enforcement arm of U.S. Customs Border Protection within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS),”  whose mission statement is to “protect the American people, safeguard our borders, and enhance the nation’s economic prosperity.” The Border Patrol, as well as the DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have long been subjected to heavy criticism from various rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, following high-profile reports from outlets such as NPR, describing “barbaric and negligent treatment” in US-run detention centers. Despite these controversies, border encounters have remained at high levels, and increased exponentially at the beginning of 2021. Coupled with the nation’s estimated 2021 total of  “10.5 million unauthorized immigrants,” the numbers have led to quiet discomfort and domestic unease, prompting a response from both sides of the political aisle. 

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A graph from The Economist showcasing border crossing trends – monthly encounters increased sharply from the end of 2020, but have plateaued and even decreased in the past year or so.

After debate had been simmering for multiple political cycles within the US, there was a flashpoint toward the beginning of January when the Texas National Guard, under orders from Governor Greg Abbott, seized control of Shelby Park in the city of Eagle Pass, on the American side of the US-Mexico border along the Rio Grande. Two days later, on 12th January, Border Patrol was informed by Mexican officials of “two migrants in distress on the U.S. side of the river in the area near the Shelby Park boat ramp,” and were later informed that “three migrants — one woman and two children — had drowned at approximately 8:00 p.m. in the same area.” According to a Supreme Court docket on the matter, an Acting Supervisory Border Patrol Agent was sent to the Shelby Park entrance gate in order to inform the guardsmen of the situation at hand, but was refused entry as the National Guard “had been ordered not to allow Border Patrol access to the park (…) even in emergency situations.” The following day, Border Patrol agents were allowed access to the Shelby Park boat ramp, “but (…) only with restrictions such as requiring information about each individual Border Patrol agent entering the area.” On 15th January, the Biden Administration submitted a formal filing to the Supreme Court, arguing that the drownings “underscore that Texas is firm in its continued efforts to exercise complete control of the border and land (…) even in emergency circumstances”, and that it was “impossible to say what might have happened if Border Patrol had had its former access to the area.”.

That same day, the Federal Government – through the DHS – sent a cease and desist letter to Texas Attorney General (A.G) Ken Paxton, arguing that the state’s actions “impeded operations of border patrol”, and were in “conflict with the authority and duties of Border Patrol under federal law.” A deadline of January 15th was set by the Biden Administration, by which the Texan state government had to remove all barriers to access by Border Patrol, with the federal government threatening to “refer the matter to the Department of Justice for appropriate action and consider all other options available to restore Border Patrol’s access to the border.” Texas, and A.G Paxton in particular, refused to budge, arguing in response that “rather than addressing Texas’s urgent requests for protection, President Biden has authorized DHS to send a threatening letter through its lawyers,” and that Texas would “stand up for (their) constitutional powers of self-defense” and “not surrender to Biden’s destructive open-border policies.

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A Texas National Guardsman stands at the entrance of Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, on 11th January 2024. Three migrants drowned in the same area the following day.

The following week, on 22nd January, the Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 ruling the allowance of Border Patrol agents to remove barbed wire in the area, which had been erected following orders from Governor Abbott, a decision welcomed by the DHS. The order was rebuffed by Abbott, who railed against the decision on social media, arguing that “Texas’ razor wire is an effective deterrent to the illegal crossings Biden encourages,” and that he would “continue to defend Texas’ constitutional authority to secure the border.” Abbott’s persistent defiance was highlighted by many as a potential violation of the supremacy clause, a principle found within Article VI of the U.S Constitution, ensuring that decisions made by the federal government take legal primacy over those made by individual states. Governor Abbott and A.G Paxton, determined to drag out the fight for as long as possible, made the decision to sue the Biden Administration over the wire-cutting decision, arguing that “By cutting Texas’s concertina wire, the federal government has not only illegally destroyed property owned by the State of Texas; it has also disrupted the State’s border security efforts, leaving gaps in Texas’s border barriers and damaging Texas’s ability to effectively deter illegal entry into its territory,”.

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Texan-installed concertina wire along the US-Mexico border at the Rio Grande in the city of Eagle Pass. Governor Abbott and A.G Paxton were openly defiant of the federal government’s allowance for the removal of the barriers.

The Texan defiance received support from across the nation, most notably through a letter signed by 26 attorneys general, including those of Florida, Ohio, and Georgia as well as the leadership of the Arizona State Legislature. In the letter, which was addressed to President Biden and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the coalition stressed that the efforts of Abbott and Paxton “must be supported rather than opposed,” and that “we are a nation of laws, and without a border, we would quickly cease to be a nation at all.” While the tensions between Texas and the Biden Administration seemed to have cooled somewhat since their height a few weeks ago, the issue shows no signs of subsiding, as various bills involving border funding continue to fail in both chambers of the U.S. government.

Cover Image: Governor Abbott announces the new Texas Border Czar who will oversee border security.

Toby Tilley
Toby Tilley
Hi! I'm Toby, a 2nd-Year International Relations student, currently in Segovia. My family is mostly from the United Kingdom, but I was born and raised in the United States, just outside of New York City.

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