We hear a lot of fears these days about civil war or major political unrest in the United States. It’s less clear precisely how something like this would happen. There’s no lack of polarization and anger. But how precisely does it come about? Despite the blue and red maps we show on TV screens, U.S. politics is highly polarized by region even within most states. Something happened in Texas yesterday that struck me as a possible leading edge of some form of it.
Under the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott (R), Texas has made recent moves to try to take over certain aspects of patrol and enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border. This is of course primarily a political move. It’s for show. But the actions assert new rights or powers which are fraught with the potential for abuse and possible used for a sort of slow-motion insurrection. This weekend things went to a new level.
U.S. borders agents tried to access a portion of the Rio Grande Friday night in Eagle Pass, Texas where migrants who were trying to cross the river were reportedly in distress. Members of the Texas National Guard physically prevented Border Patrol agents from accessing that portion of the river and rendering aid. A DHS spokesman told NBC News: “In responding to a distress call from the Mexican government, Border Patrol agents were physically barred by Texas officials from entering the area.”
A woman and two children subsequently drowned.
Let me get into a few technical points here. Federal law is superior to state law. That’s right there in the U.S. constitution. That doesn’t mean, though, that federal officials can dictate what state agents can do in every case. I don’t know the specific case and statute law tied to the U.S. Border Patrol and enforcement along the border. But there is no Texas-Mexico border. That is the U.S.-Mexico border and I would be very surprised if current law doesn’t recognize issues specifically affecting transit over an international border as an area where federal law and federal agents are supreme. The fact that three people, two of them children, appear to have died due to the actions of agents acting at the direction of Greg Abbott just elevates the nature of the offense.
Note that the agents barring access were apparently Texas National Guard troops. National Guard troops can be federalized by the President. They then take orders from the president, as commander-in-chief, rather than the governor. So there are things President Biden can do here.
We should watch closely how this plays out because it’s the possible leading edge of far more dangerous actions and this one itself apparently led to the deaths of three people. We’re also treading on to ground that could become highly dangerous in other contexts. A reelected President Trump could also nationalize state national guards and with far darker motives. Let’s keep an eye on how this is dealt with.