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No, Texas Can't Secede, and the Border Fight Is About Politics More Than Policy

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott displays a signed border security bill on June 08, 2023 in Austin Credit - Brandon Bell—Getty Images

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First up, a necessary fact check before we go any further: Texas cannot just up and quit the United States. Even so, here we go… Again.

It was 15 years ago that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had heads snapping across the country for pushing the idea that his state could secede. “We were a republic. We were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave any time we want,” Perry wrongly told tech visitors in Austin back in 2009. “So we're kind of thinking about that again." His vague comments were initially met with laughter, as if he must have been joking.

A few months later, fewer were laughing when Perry tossed an off-handed dog whistle for Tea Party-styled activists when asked about secession. “If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that? But Texas is a very unique place and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot,” he told my then-Associated Press colleague Kelley Shannon.

Again, to be clear, there’s no basis in this notion that Texas could ditch its ties to the United States on a whim. Yet the myth has endured and Perry’s successor, Greg Abbott, has not only picked up that break-away pluck in recent weeks, he’s escalated it to the point of belligerence.

“The federal government has broken the compact between the United States” and Texas, Abbott said as he invoked a novel theory that Texas is currently under invasion and thus has the right to self-defense, even if that means defying federal authority. That statement was the latest volley in a fight that had already reached the U.S. Supreme Court, after Texas blocked federal officials from cutting razor wire installed along the border so they could reach migrants, some in need of medical aid.

Abbott also ordered local officials to step up their work to police migrants crossing into Texas—a move that is as provocative as it is likely beyond the scope of his power. Last year, the state legislature established what is basically a state-level deportation system outside the federal system meant to vet those seeking to emigrate as refugees.

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To be sure, that federal system is under a crush of migrants. Border apprehensions topped 2 million in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 alike. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported more than 142,000 individuals during the most recent fiscal year. Almost 18,000 of those were families—surpassing the 14,400 whom President Donald Trump deported in his last fiscal year in office. It was a far cry from how Candidate Joe Biden sought the White House with pledges of pausing deportations while working with Congress to handle an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.

Abbott’s posture is doing a lot more than just causing headaches in the White House. It is resonating powerfully with the GOP’s far-right faction, while sending scholars and historians alike scrambling to disprove his wrong depictions of Texas and American history, only to come back to the real world with a tinge of regret for even humoring it.

Abbott’s allies have fallen over themselves to join in on the standoff. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Wednesday offered to send her state National Guard troops as backup. “The United States of America is in a time of invasion,” Noem said. “The invasion is coming over our southern border. The 50 states have a common enemy, and that enemy is the Mexican drug cartels. They are waging war against our nation, and these cartels are perpetuating violence in each of our states, even right here in South Dakota.”

Every GOP Governor except Vermont’s Phil Scott concurred to varying degrees of intensity. Altogether, 25 Republican-led states have signaled support for what Abbott is trying to provoke. So, too, has Trump.

And, in the echo chamber of conservative media, you can practically hear the clanging pitchforks readying for the revolution and unspooling even more razor wire.

If all of this spikes your blood pressure, it’s entirely justifiable. The rhetoric harkens directly back to Civil War-era division. America’s deadliest war should have settled the question of whether states could defy federal law, be it in defense of slavery or stricter border laws. Yet, in Texas, that is viewed less as history than hype.

Defying Washington is a merit badge of its own in the South. During the Civil Rights era, governors used their opposition to integration to become celebrities and launch national campaigns. Schoolhouse steps became the must-have photograph for Southerners who wanted to prove they were tough in defense of white voters’ power.

These days, Abbott and his imitators are looking to leverage the cause to promote their own national brands inside a party that, in recent years, has been defined by a hostility toward any capitulation toward immigrants’ rights. In last year’s exit polls, 83% of Republicans said immigrants hurt the country. When asked their most important issue in those midterms, 73% of GOP voters cited immigration—besting abortion by a 3-to-1 margin.

It’s against the backdrop that local law enforcement near the Texas border blocked their federal counterparts from the U.S. Border Patrol from reaching parts of the border. The Supreme Court, halfheartedly stepped in with a 5-4 ruling to say that federal officials could remove the razor wire that Abbott had ordered installed. Abbott declined to heed it. Democrats said Abbott was illegally ignoring the Court and Republicans, just as predictably, cheered him on.

Nonetheless, the Constitution is pretty clear on the questions in play here. Washington sets the policies about immigration and the feds are tasked with implementing them. While states can pitch in, they cannot replace Washington’s judgment. And, given the impasse over immigration legislation that is embedded in Washington, that often means Presidents get to dictate the agenda and hope their successors keep some form of what they installed in place.

Yet Abbott sees little downside to this fight and is clearly betting Biden will find a way to biff it, especially if he were to heed calls to send the National Guard to dislodge Abbott’s roving force.

“This is the number-one issue in America,” Abbott said on Monday. “Americans want a secure border. If Joe Biden federalizes our National Guard, that would be the biggest political blunder that you can make, and that’s why I think he will not do it.”

All of this, of course, is playing out against a backdrop of Abbott signing off on billions of dollars in state spending with little to show for it. Thousands of Texas National Guard members and local law enforcement have blanketed the southern border but it is not stemming—let alone stopping—the migrants who are heading north in search of asylum. Critics have called the approach cruel if not criminal. For his part, Abbott says he would have officials shoot border crossers if he thought he could protect the officers from prosecution by the feds.

All of it feeds Abbott’s standing inside a GOP that still hews toward Trump’s hostility but could be in need of a new face for the effort in the coming years. That’s why Abbott is trying—as Perry did more than a decade earlier, priming the pump for White House runs in 2012 and 2016—to cast himself as the new face of a tough border. For someone talking so openly about seceding from the country, Abbott also is putting in place component parts of his profile to lead it.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.