Since he launched Operation Lone Star last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has attracted criticism from rights groups and advocates over the controversial border clampdown. But his latest idea — pressuring the federal government to cut off baby formula to migrant children — is possibly his harshest yet.
On Thursday, Abbott’s office put out a joint statement with the National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd blasting President Joe Biden’s administration for “providing baby formula to illegal immigrant holding facilities as American parents scramble amid a nationwide shortage of the product.”
Accusing Biden of turning “a blind eye to parents across America who are facing the nightmare of a nationwide baby formula shortage,” the statement claims the president “is happy to provide baby formula to illegal immigrants coming across our southern border.”
Abbott’s insinuation that the federal government shouldn’t provide baby formula to migrant children flies in the face of the law.
“The federal government has a legal duty to ensure every single person in its custody is fed,” said Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “When the government locks people up, it must ensure that people are fed.”
For his part, the governor didn’t mention that the shortage is related a major baby formula manufacturer, a company called Abbott (no relation), having to close a factory due to contamination.
In recent months, Abbott has ramped up the anti-migrant rhetoric, referring to arrivals on the U.S.-Mexico border as an “invasion” and introducing a slate of controversial policies.
Abbott ordered additional inspections of trucks crossing into Texas from Mexico, which caused bottlenecking at the border and drew criticism from Democrats and some Republicans. He’s also put migrants on buses to Washington, D.C., as part of a stunt that, in some cases, seemed to backfire when the migrants themselves expressed gratitude for the free ride.
“Gov. Abbott’s comments are appalling and outrageous.” – Kate Huddleston, ACLU of Texas
Huddleston described the baby formula statement as “just the latest in a long line in anti-immigrant actions Gov. Abbott has taken,” adding: “Gov. Abbott’s comments are appalling and outrageous. They are a continued escalation of his efforts to scapegoat the most vulnerable, including migrants, and in this case, literally babies.”
Last year, around the same time Abbott ditched the mask mandate, he claimed the Biden administration had “recklessly” released migrants into Texas communities and put residents at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Angelica Luna Kaufman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, said Abbott’s “hateful position” on baby formula is “racist and morally disgraceful.”
Arguing that Abbott should focus on issues like healthcare and fixing the power grid, Kaufman said: “His hypocrisy and deflection are tactics that he and other Republicans have come to rely on to distract from their failed leadership and continued incompetence.”
In Thursday’s statement, Abbott and Judd pitted American and undocumented children against one another. “Our children deserve a president who puts their needs and survival first – not one who gives critical supplies to illegal immigrants before the very people he took an oath to serve,” the statement says.
Last week, Abbott sparked national backlash after he said Texas might challenge the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe, which prevents states from withholding education from certain children, including undocumented ones.
“I think we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again, because the expenses are extraordinary and the times are different than when Plyler v. Doe was issued many decades ago,” Abbott said at the time.
To Cal Jillson, an expert on Texas politics and a professor at Southern Methodist University, Abbott’s uptick in anti-migrant rhetoric is part of a strategy to keep Texas voters focused on the border rather than other hot-button issues. Abbott is up for reelection in November, when he will face off with Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke.
“It is certainly playing with the base Republican electorate, but he’s out of the primary now, so he and his advisers have to calculate whether this messaging will continue to be productive into the general electorate season,” Jillson explained.
Meanwhile, Abbott is happy to keep Texans’ minds off less popular issues like abortion, Jillson argued. Earlier this month, Politico published a leaked, nonbinding U.S. Supreme Court draft in which justices voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that affirmed the right to have an abortion. But polls suggest a majority Americans still believe abortion should be allowed in most circumstances.
“He’s sort of double-timing his focus on border related issues, hoping he doesn’t have to get involved in this conversation about Roe v. Wade.” – Cal Jillson, SMU
In fact, although Abbott spearheaded legislation last year that effectively outlawed abortion at six weeks, only 15% of Texans say the procedure should be entirely outlawed, according to a recent poll published by the University of Texas at Austin.
“He’s sort of double-timing his focus on border related issues, hoping he doesn’t have to get involved in this conversation about Roe v. Wade,” Jillson added.
One in five Texans rank border security as the most important issue facing the state, according to a new poll by the University of Texas and Texas Politics Project. When narrowed down to Republicans, that number grows to 37%.
But Operation Lone Star hasn’t been the smashing success Abbott makes it out to be. Earlier this week, a federal watchdog opened a review into Texas’ use of COVID-19 relief funds to pay for its border crackdown.
Earlier this month, Abbott announced that another $495 million would go to keep Operation Lone Star moving forward.
The news come as the government’s “catch and jail” initiative to prosecute migrants who cross the border racked up its first conviction since the operation was launched last March. In Kinney County, 39-year-old Lester Hidalgo Aguilar received a one-year sentence for trespassing on private property, as reported by the Texas Tribune.
“We’ve repeatedly seen Gov. Abbott attempt to blame migrants for problems facing the state of Texas,” the ACLU of Texas’ Huddleston said, but the governor’s latest statement shows “a complete disregard for the wellbeing and safety of immigrant children and babies.”