Fight Over Texas Law Underscores a Battle of America vs. Its States

The face-off between Texas and the federal government over whether the state can enforce its own immigration policy reflects a broader and recurring feature of American politics: a number of hot-button issues have become proxy battles over who gets to decide.

During the Trump administration, Democratic-run states like California and blue cities like New York waged legal fights over their right to pass sanctuary laws to protect migrants. Now, the conflict over whether Texas can arrest and deport migrants is just one part of a larger campaign that red states have directed at the Biden administration.

A coalition of Republican state attorneys general has also gone to court to thwart the administration’s efforts to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas drilling, to block a program that allows humanitarian entry to migrants from specific countries, and to halt an effort to crack down on gun accessories, among others.

The balance of power between the national government and states has been a source of tensions in the United States since its founding, leading to the Civil War. But in the 21st century, as partisan polarization has intensified, it has morphed into a new dynamic, with states controlled by the party opposed to the president regularly testing the boundaries.

The political issues run the gamut — and include topics like abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage and even marijuana legalization — but the larger pattern is clear: Whenever one party wins control of the central government, the other party uses its control of various states to try to resist national policies.

“We’re seeing stuff we’ve never seen in the modern era,” said Heather K. Gerken, the dean of Yale Law School who has written about contemporary federalism. “It’s really stunning what kind of proxy war is taking place. It’s all because the vicious partisanship that has long been a feature of Washington has now filtered down to the states.”

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