Cameron County judge reacts to Abbott’s border plans

Gov. Greg Abbott’s attempts to solicit cooperation from Rio Grande Valley county judges for his border plans will prove challenging. Judges from Hidalgo, Starr and Cameron Counties are not convinced the increase in migrants apprehended at the border elicits a declaration of disaster.

“I do not have any plans to advocate or sign off on the disaster declaration,” Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. told The Monitor on Thursday. “I don’t think that the facts on the ground actually exist, at least here in Cameron County to that extent.”

Abbott declared a state of disaster in 34 counties on May 31 due to the challenges that arose from an increase in border apprehensions. Some counties issued their own declarations of disaster, but not all signed on. Under the declaration, migrants would be arrested if they trespassed into private property as they entered the country through ports of entry.

Not all county judges, like Treviño, plan to declare their regions a disaster.

It remains unclear if the governor can override the county judge’s will, who serves as an emergency manager. But, in the Rio Grande Valley — an area that’s seen migration increases for years — questions linger about the need for a declaration of disaster.

Treviño was sworn into office in 2016, and has since seen two migration peaks, including the increase in asylum seekers released into the community in 2019.

At the time, homeless shelters were rapidly renovated and expanded to make room for migrants and Brownsville police resources were used to facilitate the process. Nonprofit organizations also formed to address the humanitarian crisis.

In 2020 and 2021, an unprecedented number of children were sent to the U.S. without their parents, a strategy they tried after learning that, unlike families or single adults, unaccompanied children cannot be turned away from seeking asylum under a federal public health code known as Title 42.

The increase in children in federal custody at Border Patrol facilities and the inability to quickly shift them into Health and Human Services facilities caused overcrowding in the Rio Grande Valley. HHS built multiple intake sites where migrant children could be sheltered, and Border Patrol began to see an ease in overcrowding at their facilities.

“I think there are a lot of questions and issues being raised by the governor’s declaration and his plans,” Treviño said, echoing similar concerns raised by Starr County Judge Eloy Vera.

Vera is concerned about the money they receive from housing inmates outside of their county in the Starr County jail.

“We can stand to lose revenues of up to $3 million or more,” Vera told The Monitor earlier this week. “Plus, now we can have an expenditure of $3 million in addition. That would be a disaster for us. We couldn’t handle that.”

Others worry that apprehending migrants, who often cross with children, and charging them for trespassing could result in family separation.

Hidalgo County Richard Cortez said he raised this question to the governor.

“I asked him [if] he had considered the fact that some of these arrests would separate families,” Cortez said. “He said that the arrests would not separate any families. That was his simple answer.”

LULAC is considering suing Abbott for abuse of power.

Treviño said they’ll be watching the legal developments.

“I think it’s safe to say that there will probably be litigation as a result of the state’s potentially taking charge, or attempting to operate on issues that are the purview of the federal government, in particular immigration and border security,” he said, though the commissioners court will likely discuss the matter in executive session in the near future.

“Really, I’m just trying to buy time,” Starr County Judge Vera said. “My understanding is if we don’t, he’s going to hold the hammer over us.”