AG to Abbott: Rescind migrant transportation order or face ‘legal remedies’

U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland urged Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday to rescind his order restricting civilians from providing transportation to migrants in Texas, calling it “both dangerous and unlawful.”

Signed Wednesday, the order instructs Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to stop and impound vehicles used to drive migrants by anyone who is not a law enforcement officer

“The Order would jeopardize the health and safety of noncitizens in federal government custody, federal law enforcement personnel and their families, and our communities,” Garland said in a letter to Abbott. 

The governor said the order was a response to public health concerns that surfaced in La Joya on Monday. Civil rights attorneys, however, believe it will lead to racial profiling, while nongovernmental organization leaders believe it will create overcrowding at migrant shelters.

“I can just see catastrophic problems arising because of this,” Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which operates the migrant respite center in McAllen, said Thursday.

Federal, state and local law enforcement officers can continue transporting migrants who are frequently moved from detention or holding facilities under Abbott’s order. Many are also released from federal custody to shelters like the respite center. They are required to show up to federal immigration court hearings.

Garland believes the governor’s actions would directly interfere with the implementation of federal immigration law.

Though federal law enforcement officers are not directly targeted, their operations are likely to be indirectly impacted.

“Among other harms, the Order would exacerbate and prolong overcrowding in facilities and shelters and obstruct the federal government’s arrangements with state, local, and nongovernmental partners to ensure that released individuals are transported for appropriate COVID-19 testing to address public health concerns,” the letter read.

Even before the order was issued, Border Patrol agents struggled this week to find space to hold and process those in their custody. At one point Monday, Pimentel had to call the agents twice to stop them from dropping off any more migrants at the shelter when they reached capacity by the afternoon.

Garland also raised concerns over some employees who work with the federal government but who are not law enforcement officers, including employees of the Department of Health & Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

State laws cannot control the conduct of individuals “acting under and in pursuance of the laws of the United States,” Garland cited from case law. “Likewise, Texas cannot regulate the operations of private parties performing tasks on behalf of the United States.”

Garland stressed the state was attempting to infringe on a federal law.

“In short, the Order is contrary to federal law and cannot be enforced,” the letter concluded. If the state persists, Garland said the “United States intends to pursue all appropriate legal remedies to ensure that Texas does not interfere with the functions of the federal government.”

As of Thursday, a day after the order was signed and went into effect, buses were unimpeded and still transporting migrants to overflow shelters, according to one of the church employees.

Abbott was defiant in tone in response to Garland’s letter, saying the Biden administration “fundamentally misunderstands what is truly happening at the Texas-Mexico border,” according to a statement issued from the governor’s office.

In the statement, Abbott blamed the administration for overcrowding at migrant holding facilities and for “the devastating spread of COVID-19” which the governor blamed on “non-citizens.”

“By choosing not to enforce immigration laws, removing sound policies like the Remain in Mexico program, and failing to make the most robust use of Title 42 authorities, this Administration has directly caused the unprecedented crisis Texas is facing,” Abbott wrote in the statement. “And it is increasingly a matter of grave public-health concern as unlawful migrants enter from countries with lower vaccination rates than the United States.”

While Abbott continued to criticize the administration for “jeopardizing” Texans’ health and safety, there have been no reports from health officials or government entities showing any correlation between a spike in COVID cases locally and migrants infected with the virus who are illegally crossing the border in the U.S.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include Gov. Abbott’s response.