Analysis: Groundhog Day in Texas

A migrant child waits with his family in front of the Catholic Charities RGV Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen on July 27, 2021.

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School starts in August, just as what could have been a return to normal has become the resurrection of the pandemic in the new guise of the delta variant.

Texas back-to-school preparations once again include debate over in-person or virtual classes, over crowds at games and other big events, over masks and vaccinations.

It feels like we’ve done this before, doesn’t it? That’s not the only thing that feels that way. The conversations about classes started more than a year ago. The Texas Legislature is stuck in a lather-rinse-repeat cycle. The resurgence of the pandemic has relit debate over responses, and state leaders are recycling an accusation that migrants are helping spread COVID-19.

At the end of the week, Texas legislators will end a 30-day special session that really lasted less than a week because House Democrats, who were convinced in just four days that they had done all they could to change a voting bill they oppose, frustrated the Republican majority by decamping to Washington, D.C., for the rest of the session. That effectively blocked further consideration of any legislation.

Presumably, those Democrats will come back, even though the governor has said he’ll immediately call another session, and another, and so on, until he gets legislators to vote out the bills on his wish list.

Maybe things will go better for Gov. Greg Abbott next time. Lawmakers have less than a month to restore their own two-year budget, which was vetoed by Abbott as retribution after Democrats killed the voting bill during this year’s regular legislative session. Lawmakers of all stripes want that fixed, so their 2,100 employees will still have jobs and paychecks and benefits after the end of August. And the Republicans and the governor want to complete their latest attempt to tighten Texas voting laws.

They’re rebooting after their summer standoff, effectively going back to July 8 to try the special legislative session all over again.

The resurgence of COVID-19 has reignited arguments over vaccinations, masks and government restrictions — and also the dubious notion that the spread is related to huge increases in the number of migrants coming over the U.S.-Mexico border.

Abbott is on both sides of that argument, telling local governments they can’t impose restrictions and mandates in response to rising caseloads and hospitalizations, and also citing the risk of spread as his rationale for ordering law enforcement officers to stop vehicles in Texas that they think might have migrants inside and to turn those back to the border.

The limits on local government restrictions developed over the first year of the pandemic, with the governor finally deciding he didn’t want cities and counties to require masks or impose occupancy limits on restaurants and other businesses, whether or not local outbreaks are worse than in other parts of the state or the U.S. The locals can ask people to observe such limits, but can’t force them to.

Abbott used the spread of COVID-19 as his public rationale for stopping vehicles with migrants and turning them back to the border, but that order is also part of his effort to slow crossings of undocumented immigrants, which have been heavy since early 2021. The Republican governor has turned that problem into a political battlefield between him and the Democratic Biden administration.

The governor’s order immediately raised questions from the U.S. Department of Justice of racial profiling, as it encouraged state police to stop vehicles “upon reasonable suspicion” they’re transporting migrants, to reroute them back to their point of entry into the U.S. or to seize the vehicles if a violation is confirmed. Local officials in some border counties have complained about migrants released by immigration officials, and worry that those migrants might be contributing to the spread of COVID-19. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland wrote Abbott to say the policy violates federal law and to threaten legal action. On Friday, DOJ filed suit to block that policy.

You’ll remember that rationale from over a year ago, when the Trump administration cited COVID-19 as a rationale for a crackdown on migration and issued orders — still in effect under the Biden administration — to rapidly expel migrants who have it.

That news is all from the last week of July. It might seem older than that, and the déjà vu isn’t surprising. It’s all happened before.

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