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Texas Gov. Abbott's migration crackdown hasn't exactly gone as he planned

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Texas Governor Greg Abbott is criticizing the White House over baby formula. He's calling the president, quote, "reckless" for giving formula to migrant children during a national shortage, migrant children being held in U.S. detention facilities. It's the latest example of the Republican governor's effort to test the limits of Texas' hard line against unauthorized migration. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, Abbott's sweeping crackdown hasn't always gone as planned.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's a little after 6 in the morning when the bus pulls into Washington after a two-day drive from the border and stops a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

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ROSE: About two dozen sleepy migrants climb off, mostly from Venezuela, Cuba and Angola. Local volunteers are waiting to help them get to their final destinations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bienvenidos.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Gracias.

ROSE: These migrants got a free ride to D.C. on a bus chartered by the state of Texas. Governor Greg Abbott announced with much fanfare that his state, quote, "should not have to bear the burden," unquote, of migrants crossing into Texas.

But most of those migrants were leaving the state anyway, like Javier, a young man from Venezuela who's trying to get to New York. He didn't want to give us his last name because he's in immigration proceedings. Javier says he's been traveling on foot across Central America since January...

JAVIER: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras...

ROSE: ...Until he crossed the border into Texas and caught the bus.

JAVIER: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "Thank you," he says, "for this service to immigrants who arrive at your border."

Texas has now sent more than 30 buses like this - not exactly how Governor Abbott sold the plan last month.

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GREG ABBOTT: Texas will be taking its own unprecedented actions to do what no state in America has ever done in the history of this country - to better secure our state as well as our nation.

ROSE: Abbott has been taking unprecedented actions. He's deployed thousands of National Guard troops to the border and ordered state troopers to inspect commercial vehicles at ports of entry. He's threatened to challenge a decades-old Supreme Court ruling that says states must provide an education to undocumented children.

This crackdown has brought Abbott plenty of attention, especially in right-wing media. But critics say the results don't match the hype.

MARY GONZALEZ: On the ground, it's not working.

ROSE: Mary Gonzalez is a Democratic state representative from a border district near El Paso. She's very skeptical about Abbott's Operation Lone Star, which has deployed 10,000 state troopers and National Guard forces to the border at a cost of more than $3.5 billion.

GONZALEZ: We have very real concerns about human rights violations when it comes to Operation Lone Star. We have very real concerns about the price tag that the taxpayers are having to pay.

ROSE: It's not just Democrats who have concerns. Last month, Governor Abbott ordered Texas state troopers to stop every commercial truck crossing the border from Mexico for a safety inspection. That drew complaints from the state's agriculture commissioner, Republican Sid Miller, speaking here to NPR's Morning Edition.

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SID MILLER: This caused a lot of economic hardship, a backlog, clogged up all of our ports, completely shut them down for a while. But they don't inspect the trucks. They just do a safety inspection. They do nothing to stop the old flow of illegal immigration or illegal drugs - I mean, absolutely zero.

ROSE: Abbott dropped the safety inspections after a week, citing a deal with Mexican governors. Political observers say Abbott has often played on fears about immigration when he's up for reelection, but this cycle feels different.

TONY PAYAN: It wasn't lost on him that it worked for Trump.

ROSE: Tony Payan directs the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University in Houston. Payan thinks Abbott is looking past his reelection campaign in the fall to a possible run for president.

PAYAN: He clearly has stepped up the rhetoric because he sees that it finds an echo in certain bases within the Republican Party.

ROSE: But there is one thing Abbott has not been willing to do - that is to officially declare an invasion at the southern border. Supporters of the idea say that would allow Texas to deport migrants directly to Mexico, something only the federal government can do normally. Critics say the invasion rhetoric is inflammatory and way off the mark. Nearly all border crossers are unarmed migrants who are fleeing from violence, corruption and poverty. Here's what Abbott said last month about declaring an invasion.

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ABBOT: Is it something we're looking into? Yes.

ROSE: But he warned that it could lead to clashes between Texas law enforcement and federal authorities.

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ABBOT: It could expose law enforcement in the state of Texas to being prosecuted if they were to take someone without authority and immediately return them across the border.

ROSE: Maybe Abbott has found the limit of what he'll do to look tough on the border. Then again, he hasn't ruled out the idea either.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.