Rio Grande Valley counties and the city of McAllen joined efforts Monday to highlight the stress South Texas is experiencing due to the high number of migrants entering the country and being released into local communities.
“We only have two choices. Choice number one is `let’s change the law,’” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said, adding, “and in the interim, until the law is changed, we have no other choice but just to add capacity.”
Cortez’s local disaster declaration was signed Monday and aims to address lacking resources. It cited an increase in migrants released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a rise in COVID-19 cases, a shortage of nurses in the Valley and limited local resources to address the needs arising from the combined concerns.
“The goal is to put us in a position that would make a claim with the federal government to the situation that we have here in Hidalgo County dealing with legal immigrants,” Cortez said, noting this declaration is the first step in possibly securing federal resources and reimbursements.
McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos signed a similar disaster declaration Monday.
Both are concerned with the lack of resources and infrastructure in place to continue sheltering and facilitating the release of migrants from federal custody.
Last week, the respite center in McAllen, which can accommodate 1,200 people, ran out of room and asked Border Patrol twice to stop dropping off migrants at its shelter.
Cortez said the county recently asked the Texas Division of Emergency Management for assistance with a Valley-wide nursing shortage but were promptly denied the aid.
Although the Valley’s hospitalization rate remains low, the county judge said there aren’t enough nurses in case more beds need to be occupied.
“We didn’t budget to deal with the immigrants,” Cortez said.
Villalobos said the city has spent about $106,000 in logistical support to the respite center since February.
Hidalgo County’s expenses have not been tallied yet, the judge said.
“At some point in time, there’s going to be an effort extended in personnel and money to deal with the immigrants here should we feel that they’re endangering our communities,” Cortez said referring to the ongoing threat of COVID-19, and adding that costs associated with accommodating migrants locally should not be shouldered by local taxpayers.
Although Cameron County did not issue an emergency declaration, Judge Eddie Treviño, who serves as chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, sent Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas a request for action from the Biden administration Monday.
Treviño asked Mayorkas to implement some preliminary plans outlined by the administration last week, which include “increasing investments in border technology, modernizing the land ports of entry, reducing visa and immigration court backlogs, investing in Central America, and the congressional action to reform our nation’s broken immigration system,” the letter stated.
The coalition also asked the administration to keep enforcing a policy known as Title 42, a federal public health code leveraged to expel migrants seeking asylum.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a renewed order that effectively keeps Title 42 in place.
However, as of this weekend, Border Patrol agents have faced some pushback from Mexican officials refusing to accept certain migrant families expelled under the practice. On Saturday, over 10,000 people were held in their custody in the Valley.
“We have weakened our defense to administer to the legal immigrants because we have a lack of capacity to do that” Cortez said, referring to the reallocation of agents along the border moved from enforcement to processing duties.
Border Patrol has released around 100,700 migrants this fiscal year, with 9,000 released just last week, Chief Patrol Agent Brian Hastings of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector said in a declaration attached to a lawsuit Friday.
The orders signed by the Hidalgo County judge and McAllen mayor are different than those Gov. Greg Abbott proposed earlier this year.
Abbott’s Trumpian border plans seek to build barriers, arrest and jail trespassing migrants in an effort to dissuade them from journeying into the country. Cortez and other Valley county judges abstained from signing onto the plan.
This plan, Cortez argued, will differ from Abbott’s by targeting migrants who lawfully request asylum.
“Putting a fence, bringing more people from other states to patrol our border isn’t going to solve our problem,” Cortez said, “because these are legal immigrants.”
Both officials are keeping track of a state mandate that could lead to a greater and lengthier presence of migrants in the Valley.
Abbott signed an executive order Wednesday banning the transport of migrants by anyone other than law enforcement officers. The Biden administration responded by filing a lawsuit Friday asking for a temporary injunction.
“One of the biggest concerns we have is that the federal laws and the governor’s mandate kind of conflict,” Villalobos said. “And instead of trying to move people out, we may be stuck with people here if they can’t be transported out.”
DPS has yet to enforce Abbott’s mandate, according to a response filed in court Monday.
“The Executive Order has not yet been enforced and the precise contours of that enforcement are still being shaped,” the response read.
A decision from U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone is still pending.