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The race for Texas governor between Abbott and O'Rourke ramps up


Recent polls show the race between Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke is closer than ever before. Both candidates are ramping up their messaging, and Abbott is turning to immigration. The Texas Newsroom's Sergio Martínez-Beltrán has the story.

SERGIO MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN, BYLINE: Throughout his tenure, Governor Greg Abbott has helped grow the economy and has protected gun rights. Now running for his third term, Abbott has taken unprecedented steps to curb unauthorized migration into Texas. For example, he's called for Texas state troopers to perform additional commercial vehicle inspections along the Texas-Mexico border.


GREG ABBOTT: In Texas, we, once again, are going to try to step up and play a role by the state to address this catastrophe that President Biden is responsible for.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: That was Abbott speaking after 53 migrants died in a sweltering truck found in San Antonio last month. In April, he implemented a similar policy of inspecting commercial trucks crossing from Mexico. That cost the state millions of dollars and ended up clogging the international crossings for days before Abbott called the initiative off. Many, however, have said Abbott is just trying to score political points.

AILEEN TEAGUE: What goes on at the border is heavily exaggerated.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: This is Aileen Teague, an assistant professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University.

TEAGUE: It's political theater.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: Teague says Abbott's policies may not be effective at all. She says history has shown that the over-policing at the border doesn't prevent migrants from crossing.

TEAGUE: There are so many historical examples on this. For example, between 1994 and 2000, right after the passage of NAFTA, the United States doubled the size of its border patrol. And at the same time, illegal immigration between Mexico and the United States reached its apex.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: To put it in context, in June, the number of apprehensions at the border was much lower than the month before, but still very high compared to past years. In an election year, Abbott seems to know what could work for him and his supporters. More than half of Republican voters in Texas consider immigration or border security the No. 1 issue facing the state. That's according to the Texas Politics Project. Joshua Blank is the group's research director.

JOSHUA BLANK: By keeping attention on immigration and border security, you have a campaign issue that puts the Democrats on the defensive but also highlight an issue that really activates and speaks to your base voters.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: Earlier this month, Abbott signed an executive order authorizing the Texas National Guard and the Department of Public Safety to apprehend migrants and return them to the ports of entry. Still, some hardline Republicans have criticized Abbott for stopping short of invoking a, quote, "invasion under the U.S. Constitution." That's the same language used by a white man in 2019 before killing 23 people, most of them Hispanic, in El Paso. It's important to note that the enforcement of immigration laws is the responsibility of the federal government. Abbott is doing anything he can to win reelection against arguably the most well-known Democrat in Texas.


BETO O'ROURKE: Very few generations are afforded the opportunity to fight for the state of Texas when everything - and I mean everything - that we care about is on the line.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: On immigration, guns, abortion and just about every other issue, Beto O'Rourke and Abbott have polar opposite views. And O'Rourke is trying to get the votes of Republicans and independents who are turned off by Abbott's rhetoric. O'Rourke is seeing some gains. The latest statewide polls show him trailing Abbott by just five points. O'Rourke also outraised Abbott by $4 million in the last fundraising period. However, Abbott has more money than O'Rourke.

Now, Abbott is not the first Republican governor nor the last to push for ultraconservative immigration policies. In 1994, California passed a ballot proposal that targeted people who were undocumented, preventing them from using public services, including schools. Former Governor Pete Wilson was the face of the proposal.


PETE WILSON: And I'm working to deny state services to illegal immigrants. Enough is enough.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: In 2010, former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a Senate bill that required state law enforcement agents to verify the immigration status of all arrested individuals.


JAN BREWER: Though many people disagree, I firmly believe it represents what's best for Arizona.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: But a look at Wilson and Brewer's legacy might give Abbott an idea of what could happen to him in the long run. Wilson tried to run for president, and his campaign lasted just one month. Meanwhile, since she left office, Brewer has not been a major player in Republican politics.

For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martínez-Beltrán in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán | The Texas Newsroom
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