Pillen visits Texas again, pledges more border help at Nebraska’s expense

By: - February 4, 2024 6:02 pm

A migrant family wades through the Rio Grande while crossing from Mexico into the United States on Sept. 30, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen joined more than a dozen other Republican governors in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Sunday, pledging continued state taxpayer support for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s months-long dispute with President Joe Biden over border security.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen listens to a briefing near Eagle Pass, Texas, from Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday. (Courtesy of Nebraska Governor’s Office)

Presidents of both parties have struggled to curb illegal border crossings between the United States and Mexico. Republicans in recent years have made a tradition of raising the political temperature along the nation’s Southern border during election years. The latest wrinkle under Abbott has been seeking unreimbursed help from other red-state governors.

Pillen has already spent $1 million in state funds on deploying drone pilots from the Nebraska State Patrol and 61 members of the Nebraska National Guard to South Texas. He has said he would dip into federal pandemic relief funds to offset the costs to state taxpayers but acknowledged that Nebraskans are footing part of the bill. 

On Sunday, he pledged more state help for Texas but didn’t say what type. He said he still needs to meet with National Guard leaders, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency and State Patrol leadership to see what’s needed and what’s feasible.

He and other GOP governors who have participated in Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” say they are trying to help stem the tide of illegal crossings, which ramped up to record numbers after dipping unusually low during the COVID-19 pandemic, with its tighter restrictions. In all, 25 GOP governors have committed to help Texas, Abbott said.

Why Nebraska says it is sending people

Pillen and leaders with the State Patrol have said their efforts help reduce the number of people and illegal substances being trafficked across the border. They say both end up in Nebraska and other states with disastrous consequences for people and public safety. They often point to illegal fentanyl imports and the drug’s role as a top killer of young people.

President Joe Biden, joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, delivers remarks on the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel in the State Dining Room of the White House on Oct. 10, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“We’re a border state even though we’re in the middle of the United States,” Pillen said Sunday. “We want to help secure the border.”

Pillen, in an interview after a 90-minute briefing with Abbott and the Texas Department of Public Safety, said what the governors are doing isn’t political. One of the speakers Abbott featured was Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Pillen attended but did not speak during Abbott’s press conference.

Costs of immigration rhetoric

Local Latino critics of Pillen’s approach, including the League of United Latin American Citizens of Nebraska, have said he and other elected leaders in the state unnecessarily increase negative feelings toward all Nebraska Latinos, not just immigrants without documentation.

They say he hurts some residents’ faith in law enforcement by pandering to conservative audiences with his immigration rhetoric for political gain.

Elsa Aranda of Omaha, the group’s local president, said she is disappointed by the constant emphasis on the immigration issue by elected leaders in Nebraska without pressure for solutions. 

“This is hurting people like me, people at my church, people who work,” she said.

Joe Henry, a regional director of LULAC s in neighboring Iowa, said the GOP governors are doing “political grandstanding.”

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump participates in a Fox News Town Hall on Jan. 10, 2024, in Des Moines. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Henry said if the governors are really serious about addressing border security, they ought to be telling the congressional delegation to support the immigration plan the Senate is working out. It reportedly would speed up the asylum-seeking process, streamline the process for securing work permits and give the president the authority to shut down the border if enough people cross.

House GOP leaders have expressed skepticism about the prospects for a deal.

“This is spending state tax dollars to play politics at the border while at the same time Congress has worked out a bipartisan deal at the border,” Henry said. 

Possible Senate deal, or not

Immigration rhetoric has ramped up again in recent weeks, after former President Donald Trump, campaigning for the presidency, has publicly opposed a potential deal with Senate negotiators to improve presidential authority to tamp down on border crossings and deport people rather than capturing them and releasing them until their court date.

Abbott’s disagreement with the Biden administration has escalated into a court fight over whether a state can defy federal authority over the border. Abbott has drawn criticism from migrant advocates for adding buoys and razor wire to the Rio Grande River and restoring barriers the feds have removed for environmental and safety reasons, among others.

Abbott defended the razor wire near Eagle Pass, saying it contributed to a sharp decline in crossings, from 3,000 or 4,000 a day to about three a day recently. (The port of entry at Eagle Pass has seen crossings drop into the hundreds, according to the Associated Press.) Others argued that the cartels have simply shifted their crossing points.

Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford speaks with reporters outside the U.S. Capitol about border policy negotiations on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

The Supreme Court ruled the Border Patrol could cut the razor wire, but Texas reinstalled it. Texas also has restricted the Border Patrol’s use of a riverfront park in Eagle Pass. The razor wire drew national attention last month after a mother and her two children drowned in the river. Abbott has said the Biden administration is responsible and pledged to expand the use of the wire. 

He and other GOP governors say the feds need to work harder to dissuade more people from coming. Abbott and Pillen said Sunday the administration has made things worse than they were under Trump. 

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said the State of Texas and border agents had stopped 169 people from entering the country who were on the terror watch list in 2023. 

Abbott’s legal fight has, in some instances, pushed border patrol agents off certain Texas land, citing a provision in the Constitution allowing states to protect themselves. Most legal scholars argue the federal government has primacy over immigration enforcement. Abbott and other red-state governors have drawn criticism for busing migrants to blue-led states. 

“We’re here to send a loud and clear message that we are banding together to fight to ensure … that states will be able to defend against any type of imminent danger or invasion,” Abbott said Sunday, adding later. “Joe Biden, it’s your turn now.”


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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.