Abbott’s migrant disaster declaration met with criticism in RGV

Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster along the southern border on Tuesday citing the migration influx, though the Hidalgo County judge disagrees with the need for the proclamation.

“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 will allow 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.”

Troopers already surged the southern border as part of Operation Lone Star, a detail targeting human smuggling that started in March.

Abbott stated that DPS has made as many as 1,300 criminal arrests and seized over 10,000 pounds of drugs and over 100 firearms since the program began. He also said the state has spent about $3.5 billion to help secure the southern border since 2014.

Several counties, though none from the Rio Grande Valley, have already issued similar declarations, and the state’s proclamation will allow them to request federal relief.

The Texas Division of Emergency Management will also be “allowed to reassign and fully utilize appropriate personnel where they are needed most.”

Some of the damage to private property is also addressed. Under the declaration, damage to private property and trespassing will carry heavier punishments.

Abbott specifically named 34 counties, including Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr, Willacy and Brooks, and stated that the influx of migrants “poses an ongoing and imminent threat of widespread and severe damage, injury, and loss of life and property.”

However, not everyone in the Valley is convinced such threats exist.

“Apparently, Governor Abbott has information that we don’t have,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said via a statement issued in direct response to the declaration. “In speaking to local law enforcement, they have not reported levels of criminal activity that would require a disaster proclamation.”

Cortez stressed the need for immigration reform and the need to reopen ports of entry to nonessential travelers, which could boost the economy.

Tuesday’s proclamation will also allow counties to expand jail capacity to “streamline procedures for licensing and transfers; and to address any staffing issues that may arise in expanding capacity.”

While most of the declaration is focused on law enforcement, resources and penalties, it also directs 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 immigrants.”

Children coming into the United States without their parents were crowding Border Patrol detention facilities, including the temporary site in Donna. The children are not allowed to be detained in those conditions for more than 72 hours, but a lack of federal shelter space created the backlog.

The lack of space prompted Border Patrol to release migrants en masse without immigration court dates.

Over time, the federal government opened up several large facilities and licensed others in Texas to move children out of Border Patrol and into HHS custody.

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,” according to the proclamation.

The HHS’ Administration for Children and Families sent a response on Wednesday.

“HHS’s top priority is the health and safety of the children in our care. We are assessing the Texas directive concerning licensed facilities providing care to unaccompanied children and do not intend to close any facilities as a result of the order,” the statement read.

Statements from TDEM and the Cameron County judge were requested but have yet to be granted.

The declaration was announced one day before the visit of a bipartisan delegation to the Valley.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn, Democratic Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and Tony Gonzales will be touring a processing center in Donna and hosting a news conference at the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge on Wednesday.

They will be addressing the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act, which they introduced in May, and will be echoing their support for the removal of non-essential traffic restrictions.