HOUSTON — Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday ordered the Texas National Guard and the state police to begin apprehending migrants who illegally cross the border from Mexico and taking them back to ports of entry, a move that could put the state into direct conflict with the federal government over immigration.
Mr. Abbott, in a statement, said the goal was to return “illegal immigrants to the border to stop this criminal enterprise endangering our communities.”
The order, which significantly expanded the potential activity of Guard troops and state police personnel along the border, came amid mounting pressure on Mr. Abbott from conservatives and Republicans to take even more drastic action to address the record number of arrivals from Mexico. Federal agents recorded 240,000 crossings in May, the majority of those in Texas, though recently the daily numbers have gone down slightly, an official said, citing internal data.
This week, Texas officials from counties at or near the border have called on the governor to act, and the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, has urged Mr. Abbott to have state law enforcement personnel “put hands on people and send them back,” likening the numbers of migrants arriving in Mexico to the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Republicans outside Texas have also pushed Mr. Abbott. “Texas should just send them back across the border,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said during a news conference last month.
Immigration has historically been the purview of the federal government, and states have refrained from seeking to enforce federal immigration laws themselves, particularly after a Supreme Court ruling a decade ago knocked down an effort by Arizona to do so.
Mr. Abbott has so far stopped short of what many of his conservative critics have called for: a formal declaration of an “invasion” that, proponents argue, would allow the governor to seize war powers and have state law enforcement personnel not only take migrants back to the border but directly deport them.
Indeed, the first criticisms of his order came not from immigration advocates or civil rights groups but from a former top Department of Homeland Security official under the Trump administration, Ken Cuccinelli, who implied that the governor’s order did not go far enough. Mr. Cuccinelli has been actively calling for Mr. Abbott to make the invasion declaration.
“The governor does not appear to formally declare an invasion nor direct the National Guard and Department of Public Safety to remove illegals across the border directly to Mexico,” read a joint statement from Mr. Cuccinelli and Russ Vought, the president of the Center for Renewing America, a conservative nonprofit group. “That is critical. Otherwise this is still catch and release.”
RAICES, a Texas nonprofit that provides legal services to migrants, said in a statement that the order was a “disgusting political stunt” and “unlawful” and called for the Department of Justice “to intervene immediately.”
While Mr. Abbott has previously deployed thousands of National Guard members to the border, the troops have largely acted as lookouts, calling federal Border Patrol agents when they spot unauthorized migrants arriving.
In his order on Thursday, Mr. Abbott appeared ready to test the bounds of the law around immigration enforcement, declaring that the Supreme Court, in a 2012 case, had not specifically addressed whether a state could detain someone on suspicion of immigration offenses or whether federal law would prohibit that.
“This is setting up a test case,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The Supreme Court rejected a similar effort by Arizona in 2012 to set immigration enforcement priorities, he said.
“But this is a different Supreme Court,” he added. “If you’re Texas, you might think, ‘Here’s a good opportunity to see if there’s still a majority for that precedent.’”
The governor’s order went into effect immediately, but officials said the practical details of how it would be implemented were still being worked out.
It appeared likely to complicate relations between state law enforcement officers and federal agents, who routinely work together along the border.
Mr. Abbott’s office directed inquiries to the National Guard and to the Department of Public Safety, neither of which responded to a request for comment. The Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol also did not immediately comment on the order.
Several questions remain about how the order would be carried out on the ground. It was not clear, for example, how far from the border migrants would be apprehended, how they would be identified and what would happen to them once they were deposited at the ports of entry, which are at a series of bridges between Mexico and Texas.
Also unclear was how the order would dovetail with Mr. Abbott’s existing efforts to address the arrival of migrants to Texas, one of which calls for law enforcement officers to charge those found on private ranches with trespassing. It was not expected to affect a state program in which migrants already processed by the Border Patrol have been offered rides to Washington or elsewhere on buses chartered by the state.
Mr. Abbott has said that his administration is considering taking the further step of invoking war powers in order to deport unauthorized migrants but that there are legal concerns. Among them, he said, was the possibility that doing so could “expose law enforcement in the state of Texas to being prosecuted” by the federal government.
But anger among conservatives has grown, particularly among those in communities near the border.
On Tuesday, several county leaders held a news conference and declared, among themselves, that the surge of migrants constituted an invasion.
“We are here to change that,” said one of the county leaders, Tully Shahan, the top executive in Kinney County. “We don’t want to lose America. The Biden administration can stop this thing this hour. They can stop it now.”
Mike Bennett, the top executive in Goliad County, addressed Mr. Abbott directly, saying, “I ask the governor to step up today and deal with these people at the border.”
Mr. Abbott’s plan appeared similar to a tactic used recently by the sheriff of Kinney County, Brad Coe, who said he had driven several migrants from his county to a bridge in the border city of Eagle Pass and left them there.
“We returned four to the port of entry in Mexico so they could return home,” Mr. Coe said during the Tuesday news conference. “There was no deportation. We picked them up, put them in the truck and took them home.”
James Dobbins and Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.