Greg Abbott has long saluted U.S. Border Patrol. Just a few years ago, he made it clear that he’d stand by them, even if the man in the White House did not. In September 2021, Joe Biden condemned a crew of Border Patrol agents on horseback in Del Rio, on the Texas border, for charging at a group of Haitian migrants. Abbott was disgusted when he learned the agents—who “risk their lives to secure the border”—were under official investigation. “I have worked side by side with those Border Patrol agents. I want them to know something: if they are at risk of losing their job . . . you have a job in the state of Texas,” he said on Fox News. “I will hire you to help Texas secure our border.”

That offer, it seems, no longer stands. In the last couple weeks, the governor has ordered Texas Army National Guard and Department of Public Safety officers to impede Border Patrol’s operation in Eagle Pass, the small border town southwest of San Antonio. Texas forces have already spent $11 million to lay razor wire along the U.S.-Mexico border, but in January they began laying that wire inland, directly in Border Patrol’s path. They’ve blocked off a boat ramp that federal agents used to launch their vessels into the river. They’ve refused to allow Border Patrol to get to the river to reach migrants. And they’ve even gone so far as to wire off a field that Border Patrol agents use as an open-air jail to detain and process the migrants they arrest.

Abbott and Biden share the same goal in Eagle Pass: arresting migrants. But now Abbott has placed Texas troops between migrants and the Border Patrol agents, and has stood defiant when the feds have tried to cross his line in the sand. “Come and take them” is his new message to the feds trying to arrest migrants. “President Biden has violated his oath to faithfully execute immigration laws enacted by Congress,” Abbott wrote in a statement on January 24. He went on to say that Texas was exercising its constitutional right to defend itself against “invasion,” rejecting federal jurisdiction.  

Abbott is too experienced a lawyer to believe there’s an invasion occurring at the border, at least in the way the framers conceived of one in drafting the Constitution. Indeed, under Biden, the number of migrants crossing the southern border has reached historic levels, with more than twice as many people crossing now than under Trump. But spend one second looking at who is crossing, and you see migrant families, not Russian tanks pushing for the capital. Abbott’s hope with all the razor wire is that these migrants will see it and turn back into Mexico before anyone even needs to arrest them. That plan has failed: a Wall Street Journal investigation found the area of the border where Abbott has most heavily invested in restricting migration has seen the largest increase in crossings. 

Abbott is correct, though, that the federal government has not responded at the scale of the crisis. The administration’s ever-shifting improvisations on whom it paroles and whom it detains, and its strange mix of mercy and deterrence, has created an unclear, overstressed immigration system. Border cities once welcoming to migrants, such as El Paso, Eagle Pass, and Del Rio, have been entirely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of arrivals, many of whom trespass through private property on their way north. Texas forces are, at times, filling in the gap left by overstretched Border Patrol agents.

What makes Abbott’s recent actions most bizarre, though, is his target: Border Patrol. The agents actually trying to secure the border have become the unlucky children of the messy feud between Abbott and Joe Biden.

While the showdown between Abbott and Biden this past month has all the sound and fury of a civil war, the battle basically comes down to a small city recreation area: Shelby Park, in Eagle Pass. Earlier in January, Texas began blocking the feds—which is to say, Border Patrol—from accessing Shelby, a 2.5-mile stretch of grass along the banks of the Rio Grande. “Texas has the legal authority to control ingress and egress into any geographic location in the state,” Abbott told reporters, as Texas National Guard and Department of Public Safety agents laid razor wire and barriers around the park. When the Biden administration sued for Border Patrol to regain access, Abbott went nuclear, declaring his intention to disobey any edicts from the feds. 

State and federal troopers, until recently, had a chummy relationship. In March 2021, Abbott launched Operation Lone Star, Texas’s unprecedented $4.5 billion push to police immigration along its border with Mexico. National Guard and DPS agents went to the border, where they helped arrest and prosecute thousands of migrants for trespassing on private land. The operation has almost entirely focused on small, low-resource border towns (mainly Eagle Pass and Del Rio), and many border residents have welcomed the surge in troops and resources. 

Early on, there was some question of whether Texas troopers had the standing, constitutionally, to enforce federal border laws. Some believed the Department of Justice might sue, but that disguised the truth: the feds welcomed the extra support as well. Border Patrol, with a staff of fewer than 10,000 in Texas to patrol a 1,245-mile border being crossed by as many as 164,314 migrants a month, simply does not have enough manpower to detain and jail everyone crossing the border. DPS immediately began to help. Texas troopers regularly radio Border Patrol to coordinate arrests—for instance, advising them when and where Texas-operated thermal cameras have picked up migrants.

Border Patrol, for its part, returned the favor. It seems unlikely that Operation Lone Star would’ve ever gotten off the ground without the agency’s close cooperation. In May of 2022, DPS corporal Eric Michael Ortiz testified in a trespassing case for a migrant the department had arrested. Ortiz explained how much DPS leans on Border Patrol to carry out OLS. “In the beginning—and we still do this—but in the beginning we heavily relied on Border Patrol. A lot of work they do coincides with the work we do,” Ortiz testified. “So we leaned on the Border Patrol heavily to help teach us what to look for and how to track people down after they’re trespassing on the properties.”

But bad press soon ruined the partnership. Last summer, a DPS trooper blew the whistle on being ordered to push migrant children back into the Rio Grande, and images emerged of migrant families stuck in concertina wire, bleeding as they struggled to get out. Some once supportive border residents soured on Operation Lone Star as wire blocked them from accessing parts of their own towns.

Then, in the fall, right-wing media began to circulate videos of Border Patrol cutting down concertina wire that Texas had laid in Eagle Pass and aiding migrants stuck on the other side. A message spread in the conservative-media sphere: Border Patrol is helping illegal immigrants get into the country. 

Art Del Cueto, the vice president of the National Border Patrol Council—the deeply conservative and stridently anti-Biden union that represents agents—made it clear that wasn’t what was happening. “The reality of the law is that once they’re in the United States, they have to be taken into custody,” Del Cueto told NewsNation. “When those individuals reach the barbed wire, it is the job of the agents to detain them and protect them into custody. Now the agent ain’t gonna go through the barbed wire fence and get cut up and stuff. So the only recourse you have is to actually cut those pieces of [wire].” In other words: the only reason Border Patrol was cutting the wire was because it needed to get through to arrest migrants, who were already on U.S. soil. 

An image, though, is worth a thousand words, and as the videos stoked conservative outrage, Texas officials felt pressed to act. In October, Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration, accusing the feds of unlawfully destroying state property. The lawsuit simmered in the federal legal system, going all the way to the Supreme Court. Though the case is ongoing, the Supreme Court recently removed a lower court’s injunction that prevented Border Patrol from cutting wire, indicating that a majority of justices sympathized with the feds.  

Then, two weeks ago, the Biden administration made a stunning accusation of its own. In a legal filing, U.S. solicitor general Elizabeth Prelogar claimed that on January 12, Mexican authorities alerted Border Patrol that three migrants had just died in the river and two others were in immediate distress. According to Prelogar, Border Patrol agents rushed to Shelby Park to try to access the river to perform a search and rescue. They were stopped. “Speaking through the closed gate, the [Texas] guardsmen refused to let the Acting Supervisor enter because they had been ordered not to allow Border Patrol access to the park,” Prelogar’s filing reads. Mexican authorities in an airboat managed to rescue the two struggling migrants as they attempted to swim back to the Mexican side of the river. 

Prelogar seemed to imply that Texas would have been at fault if the migrants had drowned. “It is impossible to say what might have happened if Border Patrol had had its former access to the area—including through its surveillance trucks that assisted in monitoring the area,” she wrote.

Men tend not to react gently when you tacitly accuse them of manslaughter, and Abbott’s response has been understandably fierce. Rather than relent and allow Border Patrol access to Shelby Park, Abbott has doubled down, laying down even more wire and more barriers. Abbott has long had “states’ rights” at the center of his political identity, and his standoff with the feds has galvanized a secessionist-curious conservative base with his impression of Thomas Jefferson (or, less flatteringly, George Wallace). 

How is Border Patrol reacting to this? By all accounts, it’s angry—at a lot of different sources. In a long, unsigned blog post on Monday, the National Border Patrol Council leadership excoriated those accusing agents of breaking the law by cutting wire, or even of purposely allowing migrants to illegally cross into the United States. But the Border Patrol union leadership—which officially endorsed Trump in 2020—also sympathized with Texas. The state “is attempting to do what Border Patrol attemped [sic] to do up until this administration took over—deter unlawful entries, increase the likelihood of apprehension of those unlawfully entering, and redirect people to the ports of entry,” the post reads. “For this reason, the National Border Patrol Council supports Texas and its efforts to secure the border.”

Both state and federal forces seem eager to resume cooperating. But Abbott and Biden are unwilling to back down, willing instead to sacrifice a slightly more orderly, secure border to score political points.