Hidalgo County judge meets with stakeholders ahead of Abbott’s border summit

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez is traveling to Del Rio on Thursday to attend Gov. Greg Abbott’s Border Security Summit.

And he’s going with questions in-hand.

“I take seriously the concerns that some have regarding the surge of migrants crossing our borders so I wanted to get direct feedback from local stakeholders to prepare for the summit that Governor Abbott has called in Del Rio on Thursday,” Cortez said in a news release Tuesday.

Cortez said he hosted a local summit with elected officials and community leaders where officials received updates from Border Patrol, as well as from federal, state and local levels to include nonprofits that work with migrants.

The governor’s border summit in Del Rio was announced Monday and it followed Abbott’s June 1 state of disaster declaration along the border due to the migration influx.

“Texas continues to step up to confront the border crisis in the federal government’s absence, but more must be done,” Abbott said in a news release.

The proclamation allowed the Texas Department of Public Safety to use “all available resources to enforce all applicable federal and state laws to prevent the criminal activity along the border.”

In a statement in response to the declaration, Cortez said local law enforcement has not reported levels of criminal activity that would require a disaster proclamation.

“I appreciate Governor Abbott’s concern for the safety of all Texans and I acknowledge that we are seeing a greater number of immigrants crossing into Texas to either seek asylum, to work or for other purposes,” Cortez said. “Apparently, Governor Abbott has information that we don’t have. In speaking to local law enforcement, they have not reported levels of criminal activity that would require a disaster proclamation.”

Concerns for the county regarding the proclamation include questions about Abbott’s declaration that he intended to use state resources to arrest people who are crossing illegally into the United States.

Crossing illegally is a federal offense that can either be a civil or criminal violation depending on the circumstance, and people who cross illegally often seek asylum, which is another process.

Based on the questions included in the county’s news release Tuesday, Cortez and local officials want to know who will bear the costs of these arrests and who actually has the legal standing to make the arrests, as well as COVID-19 implications.

Specifically, Cortez wants to ask Abbott what law enforcement agencies will be arresting people, what legal standing they have to make an arrest, whose custody people would be held in and for who will pay to hold people in detention.

Abbott’s proclamation allows border counties to expand jail capacity to “streamline procedures for licensing and transfers; and to address any staffing issues that may arise in expanding capacity.”

Cortez also wants to know whether local entities will be reimbursed for costs typically associated with federal jurisdiction.

He also wants information from Abbott on healthcare implications because of COVID-19 and what resources will be available for testing and treatment of COVID-19 or any other disease.

“I empathize with the concerns Governor Abbott has regarding this surge in migration. But I am responsible to the taxpayers of Hidalgo County and I want to be assured that we will not be incurring additional expense to perform the functions of the federal government,” Cortez stressed in Tuesday’s statement.

While costs associated with Abbott’s proclamation concern Cortez, another aspect of that declaration has President Joe Biden’s administration threatening legal action.

In the move, Abbott has directed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to “discontinue state licensure of any child care facility under a contract with the federal government that shelters/detains unlawful migrants.”

There are numerous such facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, including Southwest Key Casa Padre, which receives funding from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, and houses migrant children in a refurbished Walmart in Brownsville. To be legally operational Southwest Key Casa Padre must be licensed by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Abbott contends the constitution “prohibits the federal government from commandeering the State of Texas or its officials to continue administering state-licensed facilities in response to a federal migrant detention crisis caused by the acts of omissions of the federal government.”

In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, Health and Human Services Deputy General Counsel Paul Rodriguez warned Abbott not to interfere in the operations and threatened legal action if Abbott doesn’t rescind his order shutting down the federally funded shelters, calling it “a direct attack on this system.”

“(The Office of Refugee Resettlement) operates 52 state-licensed facilities in Texas, which comprise a significant portion of ORR’s total operational footprint, and represent an indispensable component of the federal immigration system,” Rodriguez said in the letter.

The Associated Press reports that the federal government argues federal law states the children “do not accrue unlawful presence” while they are in the United States while Abbott labels the children as “unlawful immigrants.”

The letter asks Abbott to clarify by Friday — a day after his Del Rio border summit — or face legal action if he carries through with shuttering the shelter doors.