Opinion | The Ugly History at the Root of the Border Standoff

On Thursday, President Biden and Donald Trump separately toured strips of the border, flanked by federal and state agents. For both, there was an eerily similar use of border security backdrop, signaling the decisive role it and immigration will play in the election.

Their visits were but another reminder of how the border is used for political theater. Across South Texas, where I lived in recent years, I have repeatedly witnessed federal and state agents convert tiny slivers of the border into sites of violent spectacle. On a stretch of the Rio Grande where I went bird-watching, congressional delegations cruised the river in gunboats, wearing flak jackets.

To the west, in Eagle Pass, Gov. Greg Abbott authorized the installation of razor wire. He has accused Mr. Biden of attacking Texas and branded asylum seekers as invaders. He prevented federal Border Patrol agents from routine access to the riverbank, even after a Supreme Court ruling in January allowed agents to cut or remove the wire. In short order, Eagle Pass’s Shelby Park, where the drama has been centered, became a destination for militias and religious zealots.

The Wild West-style politics surrounding the standoff between Texas and the federal government over Shelby Park has once again cast the border as a political theater, a place where the nation’s violent frontier history has been enacted time and again. The re-creation of that history has made the routine processing of asylum seekers into a menacing scene.

Pleas for the humanity of immigrants, as are so often made by Democrats who note we are a nation of immigrants, do little to combat today’s border war mentality. Immigration policy appears to be ancillary or even irrelevant to the border warriors’ goals. “The goal should be zero illegal crossings a day,” said the House speaker, Mike Johnson, who criticized the bipartisan border deal that was dead on arrival.

To understand the political and cultural forces that inspire this mentality, we can look to the slogan “Come and take it,” used by Republicans to express the ethos behind Texas’ intransigence. The slogan refers to the 1835 confrontation between white immigrants in the town of Gonzales and Mexico, the governing nation, after Mexican soldiers attempted to reclaim a cannon.

With this war cry, the immigrants launched a rebellion; today, Republicans use it to defend razor wire.

The sentiment echoes through Representative Chip Roy’s characterization of upholding asylum law as an effort to “deluge our society and to undermine our way of life.” In 1836, Stephen F. Austin, one of Texas’ founders and an ideological ancestor of Mr. Roy and those who think like him, said this in his appeal for U.S. aid during the Texas war of independence: “A war of extermination is raging in Texas — a war of barbarism and of despotic principles waged by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race.”

Traces of Mr. Austin’s doctrine are discernible in the photographs publicized last year by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, seemingly boasting about the number of asylum seekers arrested in a wildlife refuge in Brownsville.

It was also there in the images of state troopers posed in front of a crowd of Haitian asylum seekers in 2021, who were made to wait for processing for days under a Del Rio bridge — images that positioned the people as trophies, conquered.

These scenes, though not comparable, evoke the postcards created more than a century ago depicting Texas Rangers as warriors mounted on horseback, their ropes tied around the ankles of dead men, above the caption “Dead Mexican bandits.”

So many of these myths stem from distorted facts: The insurrectionists in Gonzales had no real claim to the cannon that inspired their battle cry; it belonged to the Mexican government. The “dead Mexican bandits” were in reality victims of land grabs or resisters against Jim Crow-style governing. And last year’s images of lined-up asylum seekers in the wildlife refuge were taken after they had peacefully turned themselves in.

Mr. Abbott regularly poses in front of cowboy-hat-wearing troopers. He boasts that the state is securing the border by apprehending immigrants under Operation Lone Star, the governor’s border-enforcement program. But much of the state’s immigration reporting is shrouded in secrecy. When I tried to obtain once publicly available records of immigrant apprehensions, I discovered that the state had reclassified them, placing them beyond scrutiny. When law clinics at Southern Methodist University and Cornell University fought for their release, the state refused, citing “homeland security.”

In the meantime, the governor recently announced that the state is building an 80-acre base camp in Eagle Pass for Texas National Guard members who are deployed for Operation Lone Star. The state attorney general, Ken Paxton, has moved to shut down Annunciation House, a 46-year-old Catholic-affiliated humanitarian center in El Paso that welcomes newly arrived migrants, claiming it is a “stash house.”

For their part, Democrats and their strategists are urging candidates to lean into the border issue by accurately pinning the recent failure of the bipartisan border bill on Republicans’ enforcement-first strategy.

The Democratic Party appears to be staking its claim on a vision of the border that ensures the conflict continues unabated. While proposals by immigration experts and activists envision a border where new migrant centers manage the influx of asylum seekers.

Currently, asylum seekers must make an appointment through an app run by Customs and Border Protection to present themselves at the customary ports of entry. The experts and activists argue that increasing the number who use the app will reroute people from the Rio Grande to those ports.

After living within view of the border’s natural beauty and a portion of the border wall built during the Obama administration, I have come to understand when South Texans defend their parks and riverfronts they are resisting a mentality that makes violence seem inevitable and that now threatens to upturn our political landscape. They are reminding Americans that we are not condemned to recreate our past. “The governor is not a dictator. He doesn’t have a right to come to our community and tell us how to behave, to tell us not to go to our parks,” said one Eagle Pass resident, Jessie Fuentes.

If the coming election is about defending the nation’s democracy, as Democrats claim, then the party must decide if the vision it is selling us is built with razor wire.

Michelle García is a journalist and the author of the forthcoming book “Anima Sola.”

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