Texas National Guard soldiers set up concertina wire east of the Bridge of the Americas on April 10. (Credit: Omar Ornelas/El Paso Times)
By John C. Moritz/Corpus Christi Caller-Times

AUSTIN — With the grinding roar of four idling Air Force C-130 cargo jets nearly drowning out his message, Gov. Greg Abbott early Monday announced that he was deploying a specially trained elite unit of the National Guard that he called the Texas Tactical Border Force to El Paso and other hot spots along the Rio Grande as a record jump in unlawful immigration is expected.

The show of military muscle on a landing strip adjacent to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport comes as federal immigration authorities and Abbott’s top advisers prepare for the May 11 end to the Trump-era pandemic policy restrictions ordered under Title 42 public health authority. His made-for-television news conference played out as members of the elite unit carrying M-16 rifles and assorted tactical gear filed behind the governor and boarded the idling aircraft.

“They will be deployed to hot spots along the border to intercept, repel and to turn back” migrants who cross into Texas without legal authorization, Abbott said.

Already in places like El Paso, where immigrants have overwhelmed relief shelters and have been seen sleeping on Downtown sidewalks, Guard soldiers and troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety as part of Abbott’s Operation Lone Star have laid what the governor called “miles of concertina wire” along open spaces on the Texas side of the international river.

And like he has done at nearly every media availability since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the three-term Republican laid the blame at the doorstep of the Democratic administration for what he predicted will be an unprecedented flow of migrants into Texas and other states that share a border with Mexico.

“President Biden is laying down a welcome mat to the entire world,” Abbott said.

A Texas National Guard soldier tells migrants to use a port of entry after they had crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso in March.

The governor also downplayed the administration’s recent announcement that 1,500 active-duty soldiers were being sent to the border to assist federal immigration and border authorities on the ground, saying the troops would be doing mostly administrative tasks.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, over the past few days sought to both acknowledge the coming immigration upswing and present a tone of readiness in the face of what could shape up as a major and prolonged humanitarian crisis.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas during a border tour in Brownsville on Friday rejected the oft-repeated assertion by Abbott that Biden has operated an open-borders approach to unlawful migration and vowed to promptly expel those caught unlawfully coming into the United States. Still, the secretary acknowledged the situation at the border remains “extremely challenging.”

“The border is not open, it has not been open, and it will not be open subsequent to May 11,” Mayorkas told reporters in South Texas. “And the smugglers who exploit vulnerable migrants are spreading misinformation. They are spreading false information, lies, in a way to lure vulnerable people to the southern border, and those individuals will only be returned.”

Title 42 was imposed in March 2020 under the declared public health emergency as a tool to blunt the spread of COVID-19 by returning to Mexico immigrants who came into the United States to legally seek asylum on the assumption that some might have been carrying the virus. The policy is a public health measure, not an immigration measure. The public health emergency ends on May 11, which also triggers the end of Title 42 restrictions.

Texas Army National Guard troops deploy from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Monday to secure the Texas-Mexico border in anticipation of the end of Title 42 later this week. (Jay Jenner/American-Statesman)

Abbott, citing administration figures, said lifting Title 42 restrictions is likely to have the effect of enticing as many as 13,000 migrants per day to cross the border, many of whom have paid smugglers to guide them on their journey.

Texas lawmakers, meanwhile, are considering Abbott-backed legislation that would make entering Texas without legal authorization a state-level felony and a measure that would make it a felony to operate or work in a so-called stash house for immigrants.

“Texas is doing more than any state in the history of the United States of America to defend our border,” Abbott said.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.