On The Texas-Mexico Border, Gov. Abbott’s Disaster Declaration Rings Political
Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday issued a disaster declaration for Texas' Southern border, citing “an ongoing and imminent threat of widespread and severe damage, loss of life, property damage, human trafficking, violent crime, and threats to public health” that he attributed to a recent rise in migration.
The declaration gives the directive and the power to border security agencies to use any means necessary, including requesting the suspension of law, to cope with what the governor is calling a “violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Leaders in border communities responded quickly.
“Apparently, Governor Abbott has information that we don’t have,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez in a statement issued shortly after Abbott’s declaration. “In speaking to local law enforcement, they have not reported levels of criminal activity that would require a disaster declaration.”
Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar — whose district includes parts of the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and San Antonio — said in a statement, “I cannot in good conscience agree with the governor’s decision — this is not a disaster. As someone who lives on the border, our communities are dealing with a complex humanitarian crisis.”
Danny Diaz, Organizing Director for LUPE—a community organizing and advocacy group based in the Rio Grande Valley, told Border Report on Tuesday that, "he’s giving red meat to a base that wants to hear that. It’s unfortunate. And to use the border communities or immigration as a political punching bag, we think that’s unfair. That’s injustice."
Abbott’s declaration was the latest rhetorical lightning strike upon the landscape of immigration politics in Texas — an issue spurring statewide debates over law enforcement, economics, border security and race.
“A lot of the things Abbott’s done this particular session have been really kind of extreme statements with issues like voting, public education, Medicaid and his attack of President Biden on the infrastructure bill,” said Dr. Henry Flores, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s University. “His declaration is really a political wish more than anything else. He’s really aiming for the presidential primary in 2023.”
On the horizon looms a gubernatorial election in 2022 and a presidential election in 2024, which Flores considers “wide open” and the next logical step for Abbott.
“Abbott has been under more and more criticism at a time when the state is turning more Democratic. What he’s doing is playing to Trump’s crowd. Abbott is trying to establish himself to make a run for the 2024 presidential nomination for the Republican party.”
Flores said the disaster declaration is much more powerful politically than it is legally.
“This would have had to come from the Texas Legislature, and besides that the border itself is federal domain. It’s not state domain,” he said. “The county officials along the border can’t really violate federal law. A lot of people don’t understand that within a certain mileage of the border, the federal government has virtually total control over what goes on.”
In Gonzales, Lavaca and Goliad counties — 200 miles from the border but also included in the declaration — Abbott's announcement was welcomed. It complemented the messages county leaders have shared with their own communities.
In neighboring DeWitt County, Sheriff Carl Bowen said in a recent public town hall that “over the past several months, a number of us sheriffs have been down to a part of the border called the Rio Grande Valley. In particular, McAllen, where a lot of this illegal activity is happening.”
In April, Atascosa and Goliad counties issued their own local disaster declarations over unauthorized migrants crossing into the state. Both counties publicly released identical accounts of property damage, robberies and threats of violence as a result of an alleged migrant invasion. When alarmed residents in Atascosa County reached out in response, county officials admitted there were “no known issues.”
Over the past few weeks, counties around Goliad held a series of town halls for residents to learn more about a purported human smuggling crisis in their regions. The meetings promised to teach community members how to keep their families safe from what they said were extreme waves of organized crime moving through their communities daily.
All of the migrant crisis town halls have been organized by sheriffs who are also members of the Texas Sheriff's Regional Alliance. The group describes itself as “18 county sheriffs from the Texas Gulf Coast, raising funds to support community and legislative efforts.” Those efforts include “proposing conservative legislation.”
Jackson County Sheriff Andrew Louderback, one of the three founding members of the Alliance, warned attendees at one town hall that local car burglary by human smugglers had become pervasive and that the smugglers were “experts at stealing vehicles.” He urged the crowd to stay indoors and to use deadly force as a last resort.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has said in media releases that stolen vehicles involved in illegal activity they've encountered in the region “are usually reported stolen out of San Antonio, New Braunfels, Austin, and other Texas cities”, none of which are included in Abbott's disaster declaration.
CBP regularly publishes media releases of any human smuggling operations it finds. The agency reports on all 34,000 square miles inside its Rio Grande Valley Sector jurisdiction — including all the counties mentioned above except for Gonzales. However, a search of public CBP releases for large-scale smuggling operations like the kind the agency encounters at stash houses just miles from the border yielded no similar results in counties like Goliad and the surrounding region.
In La Salle County, which was also included in Abbott’s disaster declaration, the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office (LSCSO) released a video earlier this year showing dozens of car chases that it claimed were human smugglers tearing through Interstate 35 in Cotulla, Texas.
The eight-minute video was included in a Washington Post story in May centered around migrant car chase “bailouts.” These are car chases that end with passengers “bailing out” after purposefully crashing through a hard-to-reach area such as natural brush or a ranch fence in order to abandon the vehicle and continue on foot. The story included no reference to official reports or statistics from federal agencies, only anecdotal accounts from local law enforcement.
"If you look at the latest FBI statistics, murder, rape assault on different crimes, you will see that the border area is lower than the state average and is three times lower than the national crime rate," said Congressman Cuellar. "If you look at, let's say, Laredo my hometown, Laredo is a lot safer than some of the major cities in the state of Texas."
Several sheriff’s departments in these counties north of the border have issued statements, social media posts, videos, and declarations framing migrant apprehensions as an “invasion.” However, they have not been able to provide specific incident reports of the violence and vast amounts of property damage they often claim is being perpetrated by migrants in their communities.
In April, the LSCSO told KENS5 that it sent a letter to the parents of Cotulla ISD that stated it was encountering ten smuggling chases per day.
The number of car chases in the La Salle County Sheriff’s video could not be fully corroborated by publicly available CBP reports. There are only three available reports from CBP involving chases and stolen vehicles near Cotulla in 2021 and only one in which CBP requested assistance from Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the LSCSO.
International traffic flows directly to Cotulla from the south along Interstate 35 from Nuevo Laredo. However, there are three separate CBP check-points on every highway leading north to the town. It’s not clear how this many vehicles full of undocumented migrants would move daily through this patchwork of CBP security to then take part in chases happening in the two-mile stretch of the interstate that passes through Cotulla.
At the rate claimed in the letter to parents, that two-mile stretch would see 300 vehicles per month of undocumented migrants missed by CBP at all three check-points. This would be a continuous stream of car chases every 2.4 hours.
"[Sheriff's] have told me that they have seen more smuggling, and of course, more car chases, and I've had different sheriffs say that to me," said Congressman Cuellar. "Do we have some of the challenges and some of the increases? The answer's yes. But does it rise to a disaster? No."
Apart from warning residents about an alleged migrant crime wave happening hours away from the Mexican border, gatherings and media appearances by the Sheriff’s Alliance have centered heavily around politics.
Multiple members of the Alliance have participated in media interviews over the past few weeks on immigration policy. The political messages shared by the Alliance at events and in media appearances have been very similar to the reasoning set forth in Abbott’s disaster declaration — that the Biden administration has deeply failed by overturning former President Trump’s immigration and border policies. They both claim this has spurred a flood of alleged migrant violence and destruction of property that began in January and has never been seen before.
Many of the migrant crisis town halls are sponsored by the local county Republican parties and have felt more like election campaign stops than a gathering to discuss an urgent security crisis.
“I don’t know if anyone can tell me if we’ve ever had an Attorney General down here in Victoria, Texas talking to our public. That’s a tribute to a man!” yelled Sheriff Louderback to cheers and applause from the crowd as he introduced the special guest for the evening, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Federal law bans law officers and public employees from political appearances. But it makes an exception for any officials which are elected, such as sheriffs and constables. As such, sheriffs are law enforcement officers that can both claim to see action on the ground and participate in a political process.
In March, members of the Texas Sheriff's Regional Alliance were part of an entourage of Texas Congressmen and federal officials who visited the border region to learn more about immigration. And in April, Alliance member and Refugio County Sheriff Pinky Gonzales was tapped by Governor Gregg Abbott to serve on the state’s Commission on Jail Standards.
Just after the state Legislature approved more than $1 billion for border security and days before the border disaster declaration, Sheriff Louderback paid a visit to Abbott at the State Capitol.
“Great to have Sheriff AJ Louderback in the office to discuss strategies to better secure our border. The Biden Admin. has failed us. Texas will step up. The Texas Legislature is providing more than $1 billion to beef up border security. More details coming soon,” read the caption on a photo of the visit posted by Abbott's office.
As the Republican party has dramatically shifted far-right through the Trump era on immigration issues, so has Abbott. The governor originally made his name as someone who fights for the undocumented as Texas Attorney General two decades ago, when his office led the country in prosecuting cases of legal exploitation of migrants.
Today, Abbott's hard-line platform more closely mirrors the views of what many call “Trump conservatives.” That was not lost on former President Donald Trump. The day after Abbott issued his declaration, Trump endorsed Abbott for reelection as Texas governor in 2022. “No Governor has done more to secure the border and keep our communities safe than Governor Abbott,” Trump said.
“With Trump’s departure, there is a window of opportunity that Abbott thinks he can take advantage of. If you were Abbott, you would jump at it. Because it’s wide open,” said Flores about some of the possible motivations behind Abbott’s latest moves.
“Trump is crippled and who else is out there? Crazy Ted Cruz? Marco Rubio? Nobody’s going to go for Mitt Romney. All the big names are either tarnished or they’ve been losers in the past so I think the field is wide open this time for any Republican that’s got any kind of standing or backing to really go after it.”
In 2022, Abbott is up for reelection and the ballot will include many other statewide offices, including that of Ken Paxton’s Attorney General position. Primaries for the Presidential election begin in 2023.
Along the Southern Border with Mexico where CBP regularly documents human smuggling arrests —sometimes in the hundreds per week — the Rio Grande Valley region is home to 9 US Customs and Border Patrol stations including traffic checkpoints and bases for marine operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
It is also home to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) migrant processing centers and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.
In March, CBP arrested 369 migrants in the region in a single 48 hour period. In early May, the Executive Officer for the Rio Grande Valley Operational Programs Division for DHS, Oscar Escamilla said there had been over 30,000 apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley so far in 2021.
Leaders on the border who deal more closely with the agencies involved in the federal response have a starkly different view of the situation from the Texas Sheriff's Regional Alliance.
Hidalgo County Judge Cortez, who only a few short weeks ago took on the job of repairing levees that the federal government had left unusable during construction of the border wall, has been advocating for comprehensive immigration reform.
“We want to make sure that the federal government has a comprehensive immigration plan,” he told Border Report in April. “We cannot continue to deal in a piecemeal basis and constantly change the policy from time to time, based on the current administration. I believe the United States of America needs a comprehensive immigration plan to determine what our needs are and once determined that is the goal.”
The larger goal for many is economic recovery. Over the past several months, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) classified as non-essential anyone crossing from Mexico in order to visit loved ones or for tourism.
That fundamentally affected an expected influx of $19 billion into Texas border economies from Mexico. Economic and political leaders, including Cortez, wrote to the Biden administration, and particularly to the DHS, and asked federal officials to end the restrictions that they say devastated the local economy.
Cortez and other local leaders have pointed out that there is a disconnect in how the federal government’s border policies keep visa holders out even as it lets undocumented migrants into the country.
Since the start of the Biden administration, nearly 100 pieces of immigration-related bills have been proposed in Congress.
In March, U.S. Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Tony Gonzales (R-TX-23), and Congressman Cuellar introduced The Bipartisan Border Solutions Act. It aims to address the humanitarian crisis at the border by establishing provisions such as enhancing access to legal counsel for migrants and establishing new protections for unaccompanied children. The policy also aimed to fund 150 new immigration judge teams, 300 asylum officers, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff, ICE litigation teams, CBP officers, and Border Patrol processing coordinators.
On Wednesday, the lawmakers toured Border Patrol’s Donna Temporary Processing Center, the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Delphi Emergency Intake Site, the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, and met with local elected officials, stakeholders and law enforcement officials.
“America is a country built on migrants, but we are also a nation of laws,” said Congressman Gonzales at the press conference at the McAllen Hidalgo International Bridge. “Our sensible legislation tackles both of those aspects. Border security isn’t a new topic for us living and working along the border, but it is a growing crisis and it is growing out of control. I’m proud to be part of this group both in the Senate and the House, that have come together to roll up our sleeves to tackle this issue.”
Across the state of Texas and along the U.S.-Mexico border, thousands of migrant children separated from their families wait for asylum. Attorneys and mental health experts say some shelters provide adequate care while many are endangering children’s health and safety and exposing them to abuse every day.
Advocacy groups on both ends of the political spectrum have released statements against the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act. Some conservative groups say that the policy goes too far and will make things worse, while some immigrant rights advocates say that it does not do enough and will not solve the problem.
The authors of the bill face a contentious Congress largely divided on an issue that is likely to play a divisive role in Washington during the remainder of the Biden administration.
As lawmakers continue to descend on the border in hopes of reaching consensus on immigration reform, the door remains open for politicians to exploit the situation.
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