Locked in a legal battle with the Biden administration over immigration enforcement, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said on Sunday that he was expanding his effort to establish state control over areas near the Rio Grande in an effort to deter migrants.
Mr. Abbott, flanked by 13 other Republican governors, said that Texas would not limit its high-intensity efforts to the small municipal park along the river in Eagle Pass where the state has taken over and limited access for federal agents. A top Texas official said state law enforcement officers were also looking to move in on riverside ranch land north of the city that migrants have continued to use for crossing.
Texas has deployed National Guard troops and state police officers up and down the Texas border since 2021, and began stringing concertina wire along the banks of the river the next year. What changed last month in the park, known as Shelby Park, is that Texas began preventing federal agents from routine access to the riverbank or from using the park to detain and process large numbers of migrants.
“As we speak right now, the Texas National Guard, they’re undertaking operations to expand this effort,” Mr. Abbott said during a news conference at the park. “We’re not going to contain ourselves to this park. We are expanding to further areas to make sure we expand our level of deterrence and denial of illegal entry into the United States.”
Mr. Abbott described the arrival of migrants as an “invasion” that permitted Texas, under the U.S. Constitution, to take on the job of enforcing immigration laws, an area that the Supreme Court has in the past left to the federal government. Whether he has the power to do so is being contested in court by the Biden administration.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The agency has previously said that it, not the state, is responsible for detaining and processing those who have crossed the border illegally.
The Republican governors met at the border as the Senate was preparing to release details of its plan to address the high number of illegal border crossings, which topped 300,000 in December alone. The Biden administration has backed legislative action, but some Republicans have appeared unwilling to go forward after former President Donald J. Trump said that doing so would help Democrats in November.
Several Texas Democrats, in a telephone news conference on Sunday, said that Mr. Abbott’s event was about politics rather than a desire to fix the immigration system. “Democrats on this call want to make migration more legal, orderly and humane,” said U.S. Representative Greg Casar of Austin. “It is these very Republicans that want to keep it as dangerous and as illegal as possible”
The assembled governors said that they backed Texas in its confrontation with the federal government. As they spoke, scores of National Guard troops stood silently with assault-style rifles across their chests. “This is a fight that all of us have to engage in,” said Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas.
“Montana stands with Texas in this fight,” Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana said.
The nation’s Republican governors have appeared eager to align themselves with Texas in its continuing legal challenge, critical of what they say is the Biden administration’s failure to control the border. Even in states as far away as South Dakota, immigration has been a top concern among Republicans as well as some Democrats in cities that have been forced to find shelter for thousands of new arrivals.
“This is not a campaign tactic,” Gov. Brian Kemp, Republican of Georgia, said at the news conference on Sunday.
For many of the governors, it was not the first time they had stood together with Mr. Abbott at the border. In October 2021, as the Texas governor was expanding his border-enforcement program, known as Operation Lone Star, to include thousands of additional National Guard troops, he assembled a group of Republican governors in Mission, Texas.
Several states, including Florida, Tennessee and South Dakota, have sent their own state police officers and National Guard troops to help patrol the border in Texas.
But the gathering on Sunday comes at a far more tense time along the border. Not only is Texas fighting to be able to maintain the concertina wire it has put up in some areas, but the state is also preparing to enforce a new state law, taking effect in March, that will make it a state crime to enter Texas from Mexico without authorization. The Biden administration has challenged the new law in court; a hearing on whether to halt enforcement is set for Feb. 13.
The governors convened a day after hundreds of people gathered at a rally on a ranch north of Eagle Pass after arriving in a convoy that traveled through Texas, one of several convoys across the Southwest aimed at drawing attention to the situation on the border. At the rally, some said they feared the heated political divisions in the country over immigration could lead to violence.
Mr. Abbott said that any suggestion of violence over the standoff with the federal government was a “false narrative.”
“All we’re doing is enforcing the laws of the United States of America,” he said.
The number of border crossings in the area around Eagle Pass has been sharply lower since the state took over Shelby Park in January, Texas officials said. Federal Border Patrol agents have not been entirely kept out of the park by the state; they still have limited access to launch boats and respond to emergencies. But they have been prevented from patrolling.
Most migrants seek to immediately turn themselves over to Border Patrol agents for processing and a chance to stay in the United States as their immigration case is heard. But many of those around Shelby Park have instead faced arrest by the state police on charges of trespassing, which can delay and sometimes complicate their efforts to seek asylum from federal authorities.
Mike Banks, a special adviser to Mr. Abbott on border issues, said in an interview after the news conference that the state was looking to similarly edge out Border Patrol officers at other areas along the river.
“We are going to keep expanding out that way and doing everything we can to stop the illegal immigration at the line, on the river,” Mr. Banks said. “It’s fair to say that we are going to go anywhere where illegal immigration is happening, and we’re going to hit them at the point of entry to prevent them from making the entry onto the soil.”