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DEL RIO — George P. Bush stood less than the length of a football field from the Rio Grande in early December and pointed at the river’s calm current, which he said allowed for easy passage for migrants trying to cross into Texas from Mexico.
Wearing a white “George P. Bush for Attorney General” polo shirt and surrounded by Border Patrol agents, he said Texans all along the border are having their lands, livelihood and safety threatened by migrants and violent smugglers who trespass on their property.
“That would be grounds for prosecution under state law,” said Bush, currently the Texas land commissioner, who is running to be the state’s top law enforcement official. “[But] we haven’t promptly processed a lot of these cases that are being brought by private landowners, farmers [and] ranchers.”
Bush said that’s because fellow Republican incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton has failed to deploy resources to help overwhelmed county officials process the hundreds of migrants charged with state crimes, like trespassing, under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order to crack down on immigration.
But under his leadership, Bush said, the attorney general’s office would deploy a “mobile prosecution unit” to help local officials process and prosecute the border-crossers arrested for state crimes, he told reporters during a recently completed border tour.
“Texans have through and through said this is the No. 1 issue wherever we traveled to the state,” he said. Paxton declined to comment for this story.
As he ramps up his campaign to unseat Paxton, Bush is making border security one of his top priorities. In July, he used his authority as land commissioner to sue the Biden administration for halting construction of the border wall in South Texas. Last month, he authorized construction of a state-funded border wall on state land.
Earlier this month, his campaign went on a “Secure the Border” tour through El Paso, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo and McAllen that focused on the need for a border wall and stricter immigration enforcement by federal authorities. This weekend, Bush stood next to Abbott and other state lawmakers to tout the start of construction on a state-funded border wall on state land in Starr County.
But Bush isn’t the only one in the crowded Republican primary race talking about the border. Political watchers say it’s a risk to pitch himself as the border candidate when Paxton has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement and a record of suing the Biden and Obama administrations on immigration policies.
“If you’re someone who really cares about border security, you’re probably pretty satisfied with Paxton’s commitment there, so I don’t know how much margin there is for him to gain,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP political consultant. “The land commissioner is playing catch-up.”
The other two Republicans in the race, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, also support bolstering security at the border.
Guzman questioned Bush’s ability to successfully tackle border issues, criticizing the land office’s response to Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts and its struggles on the plan to redesign the Alamo.
“The border is more than a photo op or a Republican Primary talking point, it’s an issue that affects Texas for decades to come and it will take an attorney with skill and experience to hold the Biden Administration accountable for fulfilling its responsibility and securing the border,” Guzman said in a statement, pitching similar proposals. “That is not George P. Bush.”
Gohmert declined to comment for this story.
Republican officials throughout the state have blamed the Biden administration’s policies for an increase in the number of migrants coming across the border this year. Nearly every month this year, Border Patrol has had more than 100,000 apprehensions at the country’s southwest border, with a high of 213,000 in July.
Republicans say that increase from the numbers seen during the Trump administration, which had a high of 144,000 apprehensions in May 2019, shows why the border wall must be completed and policies like “remain in Mexico,” which requires asylum-seekers to wait outside of the U.S. while their claims are processed, must stay in place. The Biden administration recently restarted the program after a federal judge ordered it.
Bush said he’s the first candidate in the attorney general race who has proposed ideas to bolster how the state helps federal authorities deal with migrants. As attorney general, he said, he would free up state lawyers to aid local officials prosecuting migrants arrested for state offenses, and would institute tougher criminal penalties for drug smugglers and human traffickers.
“The AG has got to lead on this, and that’s where Ken, unfortunately, has not stepped up to the plate,” he said, adding that Paxton is too busy dealing with his securities fraud indictment and an FBI investigation into accusations of malfeasance.
To some, Bush’s border security strategy appears to be a ploy to score points with immigration hardliners who often swing the Republican primaries.
“He’s got to win over some social conservatives if he has any chance of winning the nomination,” said Juan Carlos Huerta, a political scientist at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. “[For] anybody seeking the Republican nomination for statewide office in Texas, if they’re not running tough on the border, they’re not going to do well.”
His opponents have also taken notice of his focus on the issue. Rochelle Garza, a Brownsville Democrat who is running for attorney general, blasted his border visit as political theater that ignored the region’s other serious problems.
“George P. Bush, along with the rest of the Texas GOP, use the Rio Grande Valley and border communities as a scapegoat for their failed leadership,” she said. “As an RGV native, I’ve seen what our communities need. We need Medicaid expansion, diversification of job opportunities, investment in infrastructure, including rural broadband, and affordable housing. We deserve better than to be treated as a pawn for the GOP’s divisive politics.”
But Bush said he has always supported tough border security and immigration enforcement. Those who question his commitment to the issue, he said, have not been paying attention.
He points to his endorsement by the National Border Patrol Council, the Border Patrol’s 18,000-member union, as proof that he has backed up his talk with action. Brandon Judd, the union’s president, said Bush has long pushed for the state to become more involved in helping federal immigration authorities deter migrant crossings.
“This has been an issue for him for an awful long time, not just during the election,” Judd said. “This is something that he’s wanted to accomplish from day one. That’s the reason why we supported him.”
Border balancing act
Bush’s border tour also gives him an opportunity to visit with conservative Latino voters he’s cultivated for years in the Rio Grande Valley — ones who, like him, want tougher border security.
“George P. is counting on South Texas and the RGV to be a major area where he can overperfrom in the March primary,” Mackowiak said. “It gives him the opportunity to earn media, show them he’s in their community and he’s focused on issues that affect their lives.”
But it also forces him into a careful balancing act between playing up his border security credentials and the vision he’s pushed for years of a more diverse GOP.
Bush is the son of a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico. During his eight years as land commissioner, he’s at times been outspoken about the Republican Party’s need to reach out to voters of color and has expressed compassion for immigrants.
In the aftermath of the El Paso shooting in 2019, the suspected shooter told authorities he wanted to stop the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas. Bush was the first GOP official to denounce the attack as domestic terrorism by a white extremist.
But he’s also engaged in tough-on-immigration rhetoric that blames the Biden administration’s border policies for what he called “disorder, anarchy and chaos” at the border. In July, he tweeted a video of Texas Department of Public Safety troopers chasing a car full of migrants near the border and wrote, “This level of invasion is unsustainable.”
Critics drew parallels between Bush’s language and that of the El Paso shooter. He later walked back the comment, saying it “lacked eloquence” and was meant to refer to the violence of drug smugglers and human traffickers.
Still, Bush is confident he can straddle the line between growing the Republican tent and securing the border.
“I think you can do both,” Bush said, adding that the Mexican trade that fuels much of Texas’ border economies depends on safe borders.
“I am the son of a legal immigrant,” he told reporters in Spanish. “If you want to come here and be part of our great country, you have to respect the law.”
That response is in line with the establishment GOP’s thinking on immigration, which Bush’s family helped popularize at the turn of the century through its call for “compassionate conservatism.” Bush’s uncle, former Texas Gov. George W. Bush, pushed for comprehensive immigration reform as president in 2007 that included a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants.
But the Republican Party’s views on the issues have shifted to the right in the years since, Mackowiak said, and George P. Bush’s stance on immigration enforcement has always been tougher than that if his uncle or father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“That’s not a question,” Mackowiak said. “But the question Republican voters are going to ask is, ‘Is he more conservative than the attorney general?’ I don’t think he’s saying that. He’s saying, ‘I’m going to give you a better option without the scandals and the legal troubles.’”
Is border enforcement working?
During his tour, Bush stopped at an unfenced part of the border in Laredo where officials say Border Patrol is understaffed and overwhelmed by frequent border crossings. In Del Rio, he visited the site of an encampment of more than 10,000 Haitians in June that brought the city to a halt. Then he visited part of former President Donald Trump’s unfinished border wall.
In Eagle Pass, he toured the so-called “Steel Curtain,” a makeshift barrier of shipping containers backed up by razor-wire fencing on the banks of the Rio Grande that is meant to deter migrant crossings. The barrier is on city property in between Eagle Pass’ two international bridges, which account for nearly half of the city’s yearly revenue.
“What does this do for the mayor, for the city manager, for the City Council, if you suddenly have another caravan of 20,000 folks shut down the bridge and close down the economy?” Bush said, recounting the havoc Del Rio officials said the Haitian migrant camp wrought on the city’s economy.
As he visited with National Guard soldiers deployed to the border by Abbott, law enforcement officials spotted a group of people on the Mexican side of the river scouting a potential crossing. They opted against it after noticing the soldiers tracking them through binoculars.
Bush says it’s proof that the deterrence tools are working.
But Scott Nicol, a McAllen activist who opposes a border wall, said the barriers are ineffective because a majority of border crossers are asylum-seekers looking to turn themselves in to federal authorities.
“They walk to it and stay there to get picked up by the Border Patrol,” Nicol said. “It doesn’t deter anybody. It doesn’t stop anybody. And the people coming aren’t bad people anyway. It’s a fake issue.
“The humane thing to do is to say OK, we have asylum seekers coming, they need our assistance, let’s try and help them out,” he added.
Bush’s border tour garnered much media attention in the cities he visited, with the land commissioner easily gliding between English and Spanish at press conferences. But Bush said he wasn’t worried about convincing anyone about his border security credentials.
“I’m not going to pander,” he said. “I’m just going to go with my agenda, my focus, and people can join us and restore integrity to this important position.”
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