Analysis: Abbott's media event at San Antonio site for immigrant kids is political theater — of the absurd

click to enlarge Ranger Dick: Gov. Greg Abbott reads from a speech in front of Freeman Coliseum as members of the Texas Rangers stand behind him. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Ranger Dick: Gov. Greg Abbott reads from a speech in front of Freeman Coliseum as members of the Texas Rangers stand behind him.
The following is Current Events, a column of opinion and analysis.

Gov. Greg Abbott's press conference Wednesday in front of Freeman Coliseum won't provide late-night comedy fodder like Rudy Giuliani's meltdown of a presser last fall in front of a dildo shop and a crematorium.

But in its own way, it was a comparably sad and bizarre spectacle.

Saying that two state agencies received tips about sexual abuse at the temporary shelter for 1,600 migrant teens on the coliseum grounds, Abbott demanded that the Biden administration stop using the site as it tries to connect those kids with their families in the U.S.

Flanked by stony faced Texas Rangers in cowboy hats, the Republican governor said he'd ordered the law-enforcement agency to investigate the allegations. The tipsters also claimed that children inside weren't eating and COVID-19-positive children came into close contact with uninfected kids, he said.

“This facility is a health and safety nightmare," Abbott declared. "The Biden administration is now presiding over the abuse of children. To end this abuse, the Biden administration must immediately shut down this facility.”

But during a Q&A period, Abbott admitted neither he nor the Rangers had yet been inside. He also declined to provide information on the tipsters or the alleged victims. Addressing the latter, he only said he was concerned "more than one" child may have been assaulted.

Claims of sexual abuse are troubling, and they demand a vigorous response. However, Abbott's demand that the White House close the site before an investigation is complete — or even underway — is laughable. As the state's top former attorney, he knows it.

Abbott also should know that airing unsubstantiated abuse allegations before conducting even the most preliminary of inquiries is irresponsible and does nothing to improve conditions for the teens housed at Freeman.

In comments following Abbott's presser, Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores said she'd been inside the shelter, both as an elected official and as a volunteer. She said she'd seen no evidence of unsafe conditions.

“From what I saw when I went in there on several occasions, it was well-staffed, the children are very happy and very excited to be here,” she said. “This is not a political issue. This is about children who deserve protection from adults.”

The sexual assault allegations should be investigated, Clay-Flores said. However, she rebutted claims that children are underfed, saying that they receive three meals daily plus two snacks. She also said COVID-positive kids are housed in a separate area to avoid contagion.

Abbott's grandstanding, cart-before-the-horse allegations are just the latest salvo in his rhetorical war with the Biden administration over this spring's surge in border crossings. He's using the situation to play to nativist fears and project a law-and-order image as he girds for reelection in 2022.

Early last month, Abbott aired unsubstantiated claims that border crossers would worsen the spread of COVID-19 — this coming shortly after his own order lifting the statewide mask mandate and capacity limits for businesses.

Then he held a border press conference in front of an armada of Department of Public Safety vehicles, saying the state was stepping up its own immigration enforcement. President Joe Biden, he declared, "does not care about Americans. He cares more about people who are not from this country.”

Immigrant aid groups have correctly called for more oversight at Freeman and other sites where the federal government is holding migrant children. But it's clear Abbott's latest attempt to grab headlines isn't motivated by seeking fair treatment for asylum seekers.

Instead, the governor is using the minors at Freeman as a political tool as he vies to keep the MAGA hat brigade in his corner should he face a primary challenge. It's also clear he sees the rise in border crossings as a means to damage Biden should his own ambitions not stop at the Governor's Mansion.

Interestingly, Abbott showed no such concern about immigrants' health and safety during the Trump era, when that administration implemented cruel family separation polices and bungled its own surges in border crossings.

Nor has the governor displayed any interest in shutting down immigrant detention facilities run by private corporations, including those in Dilley and Karnes City, which have accumulated years of allegations of abuse from detainees and civil-rights groups.

Apparently, that's because those immigrants weren't as easily weaponized for his political ambitions.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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