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'Hypocrisy At Its Finest' — How Greg Abbott's Stance On Immigration Changed In 20 Years

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference in this KUT file photo.

Last week Gov. Greg Abbott went on a national media tour to blame the undocumented community for spreading COVID-19, in the latest move to present him as a social conservative.

“The Biden administration has been releasing immigrants in South Texas that have been exposing Texas to COVID,” he said on CNBC.

It was one of many appearances he made late last week all with the same gist: “The Biden administration must stop importing COVID into our country.”

While the xenophobic comments caused immediate uproar, they are in line with Abbott’s multiple deployments of National Guard troops to prevent border crossings, and his anti-sanctuary city laws.

When a city declares itself a “sanctuary city” it does so with the intentions to not work with federal deportation efforts.

“Under this new law, if you have a public official, including a sheriff who continues to adopt sanctuary city policies after this ban goes into place, they can be criminally prosecuted and themselves wind up in jail,” he told Fox and Friends in 2017.

Supporters of sanctuary cities, however, argue they encourage undocumented victims of crime to come forward.

Abbott knows that. He said so in 2005.

“Many, who are victimized, were sometimes reluctant to speak up,” he told a packed audience at a national forum on fraud against the undocumented held in Austin.

“(They’re) fearful sometimes that speaking out may cost their family the dream of a successful future that could otherwise be filled with opportunity.”

His recent comments on immigration stand in dramatic contrast for people who remember Abbott’s work as attorney general more than a decade ago.

Unlike Gov. Abbott, Attorney General Abbott spent significant resources and time fighting for the undocumented.

“The things he's saying now — about sanctuary cities and law enforcement not working with federal authorities to deport undocumented immigrants — he could have been accused of 10 years ago, and when he was Attorney General for doing just that,” said John Owens, deputy chief of the consumer protection division for the Attorney General’s office until 2011.

“And so it's hypocrisy at its finest,” said Owens.

Owens and others from that period said protecting immigrants — often undocumented — from fraud was a major priority for Abbott that lasted a decade.

“We helped a lot of people and prevented a lot of fraud,” said Owens.

Then Attorney General Abbott giving one of his first press conferences in El Paso with Catholic Charities and others to promote efforts protecting undocumented.
Then Attorney General Abbott giving one of his first press conferences in El Paso with Catholic Charities and others to promote efforts protecting undocumented.

One of the first press conferences AG Abbott held after being sworn in back in 2002 was in El Paso talking about fraud against the undocumented. HIs office built a pipeline of referrers that stretched across the state including immigration attorneys, labor activists, and catholic charities.

Dozens of articles were written about the effort over the years. Abbott’s office promoted the work to raise awareness, but it also was about branding Abbott, said one person with knowledge.

“(Abbott) is recognized by the national media and the national Hispanic caucus for his perseverance to protect all people who call Texas home,” said a video produced by his office featuring cuts of Spanish language television coverage of Abbott scored with the strumming of a Spanish guitar.

His office went after fake immigration lawyers, called notarios who used the mistranslation of notary from Latin America to the U.S. In much of that region notario is a name for a lawyer. These scams were prevalent in undocumented communities across the country. In Texas notarios stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from low-income immigrants promising them worker visas, green cards and citizenship.

"I will not tolerate fraudulent 'immigration consultants' who exploit the hopes and dreams of those simply wanting to call Texas home," said Attorney General Abbott in a 2005 press release.

Abbott’s office prosecuted more than 70 of the cases, often leading the country. One included $1 million judgment against Dallas-based Grupo Esca. Its founder, Fidelina Cuevas, swindled hundreds of thousands for “immigration advice” despite herself being in the country illegally.

Abbott’s office also pursued sellers of phony international drivers licenses, which explicitly targeted people without papers.

Attorney General Abbott shaking hands with Jamie Martinez, labor organizer and noted San Antonio champion of undocumented. His organization was just one of many the A.G.'s office worked with on the undocumented.
Screenshot from a state video.
Attorney General Abbott shaking hands with Jaime Martinez, labor organizer and noted San Antonio champion of undocumented. His organization was just one of many the A.G.'s office worked with on the undocumented.

California and New York were following Texas' lead on the issue, according to a Columbia University Journal of Human Rights article in 2007.

“Notably, the Texas Attorney General's Office stressed in press releases that it would not investigate the immigration status of any complaining individual, thereby demonstrating that the Office's focus is on protecting individuals who have arrived rather than usurping federal prerogatives,” reads the journal article.

Owens said Abbott’s office even called employers when they received complaints about them not paying their undocumented workforce.

"Hispanic consumers must know that the doors of our justice system are open to everyone, regardless of where you may live, regardless of where you may be born, regardless of what language you speak, or what your last name is,” said Abbott at the 2005 forum on fraud.

Publicly, the effort was often framed broadly as dealing with Hispanic consumers. But targets of their protective efforts were more often than not scams against the undocumented.

“Governor Abbott used to say when he was Attorney General, that ‘I don't care about the status of someone whether or not they are citizen or permanent residents or have documents if they're a victim in Texas, we're going to go after him,’” said Owens.

Beyond the confines enforcing the law, Abbott is credited with derailing an entire legislative agenda in 2007 that was largely anti-immigrant. Abbott was asked to evaluate the legality of a slate of bills dealing with the undocumented. He shot many down because he felt they were unconstitutional and — as he said for years — immigration enforcement is not Texas’ job.

But Texas changed in 2014. Up until then, business-friendly Republicans who saw the value of cheap Mexican labor, ran Texas. But for years, social conservatism was rising in the state and along with it nativist sentiment.

 Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, plans to attend the Republican Party's national 2020 convention in place of Gov. Greg Abbott, right, who will remain in Texas to deal with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr. | The Texas Tribune
The election of Lt. Gov Dan Patrick marked a shift in statewide politics, pushing many further to the right. Gov. Abbott appears to be one of them.

While Abbott was elected governor that year, it was social conservatives who made major inroads in statewide elections. Dan Patrick defeated business-friendly incumbent David Dewhurst in his primary for lieutenant governor. And Ken Paxton beat Dan Branch in the Republican primary for attorney general. Neither race was close.

“The social conservative won both of those 2-1,” said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “So, this was a runoff within the Republican primary, that clearly demonstrated that in a choice between a social conservative and a business friendly conservative.”

Jillson said Texas Republican officeholders saw that race and recognized what it meant. They adjusted their rhetoric accordingly.

Owens says, Abbott’s remarks around the undocumented went from viewing them as victims to villains.

“And their bringing COVID and crime and other things we don’t want to Texas… and I can only attribute that to politics,” he said.

The election of President Donald Trump brought increased pressure on undocumented communities and increased requests for state local police to assist in immigration enforcement.

The compassionate conservatism pushed by Governor and then President George W. Bush pushed a path to citizenship. Texas passed in-state tuition for the undocumented in 2002.

“Now, a lot of that has gone,” said Jillson “And the rhetoric is designed to maximize sort of Anglo support for a more conservative, certainly more socially conservative Republican Party.”

The governor's office didn’t respond to our request for comment by the time of publication.

But it’s also the fact that the AG is about enforcing the law, and the governor’s office is more about policy and politics.

“I think as he prepares for reelection in 2022 and maybe run for president beyond that, he’s very much in political mode,” said Jillson.

As a result, there are few reasons to tamp down on his anti-immigrant rhetoric anytime soon.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org