Federal lawsuit against Abbott’s order details strain on Valley Border Patrol

Documents submitted in a lawsuit Friday by the federal government to stop an order prohibiting the transportation of migrants by anyone other than law enforcement in Texas reveal the strain Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley faced this week.

Valley Chief Patrol Agent Brian Hastings wrote a 10-page declaration to explain the “harm” the order has on operations in the Valley, the sector currently experiencing the highest number of apprehensions across the country. 

The Valley played a critical role in sparking the Texas executive order that sprung from a situation in La Joya on Monday. And it came full circle Friday when Border Patrol operations in the area were cited in the lawsuit filed to stop it.

A migrant family, which was placed by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley under quarantine after at least one member of the family tested positive for COVID-19 at a local hotel in La Joya, visited a local restaurant on Monday. A patron called police to point out the family was not wearing facial coverings and appeared sick. 

Gov. Greg Abbott spoke to La Joya Mayor Isidro Casanova the following day. By Wednesday, the governor signed an executive order limiting transportation of migrants by anyone other than a law enforcement officer.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland wrote to Abbott on Thursday to urge him to rescind the order and warned his office would seek legal remedies otherwise. The governor did not heed the warning, and on Friday, Garland filed the lawsuit in the Western District Court of Texas in El Paso. 

The suit highlighted the transportation of migrants in the Valley to illustrate CBP’s heavy reliance on contract workers who under Abbott’s order would be prohibited from transporting migrants.

“In the Rio Grande Valley Sector alone, CBP has used contactors to transport approximately 120,000 noncitizens in this fiscal year to date,” the lawsuit stated.

Chief Hastings’s declaration expanded on their current operations, including the number of people they detained, processed and moved last week, to help point out how they would be further challenged if transportation was limited.

“As of July 29, 2021, there were 8,836 migrants in the RGV Sector detention facilities. Of these, 6,459 were pending processing, and the average hold time for migrants in custody was 57.22 hours,” his declaration said. 

The number was even higher than it was over the weekend when Border Patrol called an emergency meeting among its top officials.

Other sectors, including Laredo, Del Rio and El Paso are also facing increased apprehensions, but not as high as the Valley.

Border Patrol uses contract drivers to transport migrants to processing facilities like the ‘soft-sided’ site in Donna. 

“However, with the large number of migrants being apprehended this facility currently faces significant capacity constraints,” the declaration stated. 

A temporary outdoor processing site under the Anzalduas International Bridge is another option.

By law, the agency is required to process migrants under 72 hours and to prioritize families and children who entered the country without their parents. Some are released from custody. Nongovernmental organizations like Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley will help facilitate their release.

“In RGV Sector during this fiscal year, Border Patrol has released approximately 100,700 migrants, of which approximately 9,000 were released last week,” Hastings wrote. “Nearly 8,500 family unit migrants were released from CBP custody last week after coordination with an NGO.”

The number of migrants released in McAllen overwhelmed the shelter Monday when the executive director had to call Border Patrol twice to ask them to stop taking migrants to the shelter, which reached capacity by Monday afternoon. 

Commercial bus lines like Greyhound, which sell tickets to migrants leaving the border, could also be impacted by the state order. 

If shelters would become oversaturated and buses could not move migrants out, the oversaturation would spill from Border Patrol facilities to the local communities. 

“This would likely result in migrants remaining in the local border communities without any assistance or shelter by NGOs, causing unsafe conditions for both migrants and the community,” Hastings said.

Other migrants, like single adults, are released to ICE.

“To date this fiscal year, RGV Sector has transferred approximately 33,700 migrants into the custody of Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) of ICE. Last week, RGV Sector transferred at least 3,600 migrants into the custody of ERO,” Hastings said.

Children traveling without their parents are sent to be held under the custody of the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. So far this year, about 51,000 children detained after crossing through the Valley this year were sent to ORR. Last week, it was about 2,200, according to the chief.

Overall, Hastings noted, the Valley used contracted transportation to move 120,000 migrants this year, and about 9,600 just last week. 

If DPS troopers stop federal government contract workers from moving migrants, the chief said they would need to use law enforcement officers at a time when they are not able to spare them. 

On Monday, Border Patrol agents, faced with about 7,000 migrants in custody, considered closing down certain checkpoints to reassign agents from enforcement to processing duties.

“CBP would be faced with untenable choices such as continuing operations with increased numbers of migrants in their facilities or have CBP law-enforcement officials transport these migrants,” Hastings wrote. 

He contended, using law enforcement officers to drive migrants “would severely impact CBP’s daily operations by decreasing border security enforcement at the southwest border thereby increasing threats to national security; decreasing enforcement at checkpoints; and increasing duration for processing.”

The suit argues the order “directly interferes with the administration of federal immigration law.”

It also accuses it of “jeopardizing the health and safety of noncitizens in federal custody, risking the safety of federal law enforcement personnel and their families, and exacerbating the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.”

Abbott remained obstinate on Friday.

“The Biden Administration has created a constitutional crisis between the federal government and the State of Texas,” the governor said in a statement in response to the lawsuit. “Until President Biden and his Administration do their jobs to enforce the laws of our nation and protect Americans, the State of Texas will continue to step up to protect our communities and uphold the rule of law.”

He sent a letter to the Attorney General on Friday in response to Garland’s previous correspondence urging to rescind the order.

Tensions in the Valley remained high Friday, prompting Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez to issue a letter inviting President Biden “to witness first-hand the challenges being created by current (immigration) policy.”

Cortez urged Biden to take “immediate and decisive action.” 

“There are two factors at play right now,” Cortez said. “One is a flawed immigration policy on top of outdated laws that are provoking a high volume of immigrants to legally seek asylum. Because of that, a local and highly regarded charity is facing capacity issues,” the judge said, referring to Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Cortez asked all cities in Hidalgo County to help Catholic Charities as it contends with capacity issues.

He prompted Congress to “move quickly to fix outdated immigration and asylum laws” and said the president “must expedite implementing a system for quickly expelling those migrants who do not qualify for asylum,” a Friday news release stated.

The federal government is asking a federal judge to issue a preliminary and permanent injunction against the implementation of Abbott’s order. 

Read the full lawsuit below: