Federal agents struggling to keep pace with surging migration on the southern border, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, will soon see an increase in state law enforcement presence, Gov. Greg Abbott announced during his visit to the region Tuesday. But while local communities assisting migrant families released from federal custody are poised to receive federal assistance, they may see those funds stalled by the governor.
Abbott and the Texas Department of Public Safety launched Operation Lone Star to target human and drug smuggling in the state by deploying 500 troopers to different areas as assigned by the governor.
“This is an example of what you’re going to be seeing up and down the border,” Abbott said, pointing to multiple trooper vehicles, a boat and various helicopters behind him at Anzalduas Park in Mission during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Troopers will cover gaps left by U.S. Border Patrol agents relocated to address rapidly growing migration rates along the southern border.
Additionally, 500 members of the Texas Military Department will also be deployed to assist with observation, Major General Tracy R. Norris announced. A hundred of them previously served along the border.
“Currently, we already have planners embedded with DPS, and we currently have soldiers already training for these events in order to establish observation posts later this week,” Norris said.
Local and state authorities began supplementing gaps on highways as early as January, according to Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra, after Border Patrol agents were pulled to the front line.
State funding will be used for Operation Lone Star.
“It’s very important to understand that what the Texas legislature has done, they provided every session $800 million for the state to be able to address the border crisis,” Abbot said. “Through that $800 million, it has allowed the Texas Department of Public Safety to hire additional officers dedicated for the purpose of focusing on the border.”
Border Patrol is encountering more adults, families and children along the border.
Last week, they had 4,700 under their custody across the southern border. About 1,400 of them were held in custody above the 72-hour period, and over 700 exceeded 120 hours in their custody, according to records obtained by The Monitor.
As of Tuesday, about 3,400 children who crossed alone into the U.S. were processed by agents.
On Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas activated the recruitment of federal employees for the Volunteer Force.
They will help support U.S. Customs and Border Patrol colleagues as they did during the 2019 surge, an email obtained by The Monitor stated.
Border Patrol union members said it will help in some areas, but critical support is still lacking.
“If they’re sending us civilian staff that can help fold, and I’m not being facetious,” said Paul Perez, president of the National Border Patrol Council in the RGV, adding, “fold towels, put up clothes, get supplies and put snacks — that kind of stuff. That’s stuff an agent doesn’t have to do. But, at the same time, that’s not helping us control the border, that’s not helping us process the people, it’s not helping us detain them and it’s not helping us transport.”
Perez said law enforcement officers pulled from agencies like CBP Office of Field Operations, as they have in the past, would help provide logistical assistance to free agents to perform duties on the field.
Agents expect the incoming military deployment will work more closely with them along the river.
“They’re going to be able to do what’s called … the military term is LPOP, Listing Post Observation Post. So they’re going to lay along the river and they can hide out and let troopers know, and even the Border Patrol know, ‘hey, five people just crossed in this zone and this area.’”
Last week, the Texas Department of Public Safety sent additional troopers to Starr County for a period of 60 days, according to county officials.
Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said he welcomed the support but was concerned about the effect on local residents who were cited multiple times by DPS surge troopers in the past.
“It got to the point that people wouldn’t go to stores or wouldn’t buy. Our economy went from bad to worse. That’s the only thing that I hope doesn’t happen,” Vera said.
The governor responded to those concerns Tuesday.
“I want to send a message to Starr County, Hidalgo County, Cameron County, to every county. The purpose of DPS officers is not to target Texas residents, it’s to protect Texas residents, and they are here to make sure they do everything they can to go after the cartels and the cartel activity and making the community safer for Starr County, for Hidalgo County, for Cameron County, etc.,” Abbott said.
DPS Director Steven C. McCraw echoed the message.
“It’s really about crime prevention. It’s not enforcement. It’s not writing tickets, it’s not citations, it’s not DWI. It’s about crime prevention, and the best way you do that is at the river and highly visible resources including troopers,” McCraw said. The support also extends to the use of tactical boats, a special operations group, technology, like drones, helicopters and aircraft.
Gov. Abbott’s visit to Mission came one day before his mask mandate expired, an end he announced a week ago. That same week, the governor expressed concern over the current release of migrants from federal custody.
“The Biden Administration is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities,” Abbott tweeted without offering statistics or other facts to support his claim. Though, some migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 continued with their travels without quarantining in the Valley.
U.S. Border Patrol policies allow them to test migrants who are symptomatic, but the majority are not tested. Testing and the quarantine process can be handled in detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
For now, migrants that started getting released since Jan. 27 in the Valley as a capacity-mitigating measure, are tested by non-governmental organizations.
Shelters in McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville take in the migrants to help them arrange their travel plans into the U.S. They use test kits from the Texas Division of Emergency Management to test migrants, but other peripheral services — transportation, city employee liaisons and equipment — are provided using city funding.
Yet, border lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, Vicente González and Henry Cuellar, believe the governor is not allowing FEMA funds to be sent to border communities for that purpose.
They pressured the governor to accept the funds via a letter they sent Monday.
“Thankfully, President Biden recognizes the crucial role these communities are filling and has directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fully reimburse communities for these services. This removes the financial burden for border communities and allows them to continue welcoming asylum-seekers safely during the pandemic,” the letter reads in part.
The Democratic congressmen also characterized the governor’s remarks about migrants as xenophobic.
“Your recent comments about asylum-seekers carrying COVID-19 into Texas ring hollow when you are the one standing in the way of sorely needed federal resources and ultimately is the same dangerous rhetoric fueling white supremacist attacks on immigrant and minority communities,” their letter stated. “Instead of spreading xenophobic claims, we urge you to accept these vital FEMA funds localities are relying on and work with the Biden Administration as they continue to look for ways to assist both asylum-seekers and Texans.”
Abbott replied to the request Tuesday stressing that immigration is a federal issue.
“They can provide that funding and equipment directly to ICE, and it’s ICE that administers those tests while the people who are here illegally are in holding,” he said.
Cuellar agreed immigration is a federal responsibility but encouraged partnerships between federal, state, local and NGOs.
“If the Governor is serious about ensuring the health and safety of Texans, then he should be utilizing all available resources, including FEMA, that will assist in COVID testing migrants at the border,” Cuellar said in a statement.
Vela did not mince words.
“That idea is almost as stupid as his ideas that led to Texans freezing to death, suffering through a winter storm, not to mention thousands who have died because of his incompetent COVID response,” Vela stated.
Local leaders like Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez stressed that federal funds Abbott has not accepted would assist the communities shouldering the burden.
“The federal government has offered reimbursement through FEMA for testing and hotels for quarantining those who test positive, as well as for any time expended by city employees,” Mendez said. “Because the governor has refused to allow this funding, cities who are testing are using their own funding and resources. Some other cities may not be testing at all. That is not in the best interest of Texans. Further, the governor has dispatched resources to the border, which will also cost Texas taxpayers.”
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling echoed those sentiments, reminding him there’s more to resources than testing.
“I appreciate the governor’s suggestion that federal authorities should pay for testing, however, unless there is agreement between the state and the administration, we get stuck with the payment locally,” Darling said. “In addition, there are more expenses than testing incurred in getting the asylum seekers off of our streets and on their way after the federal government releases them into our community.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include additional information about migrants with COVID-19 and a link to previous coverage, and to correct the name of Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez.