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West Texas Officials Join Gov. Abbott's Border Disaster Declaration, Some With Lingering Questions

Several Big Bend counties have agreed to be included in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border disaster declaration. The governor’s border plans have sparked a mix of support, hesitancy and confusion among West Texas county officials.

By Annie Rosenthal

Several Big Bend counties are among the 28 that have agreed to be included in Gov. Abbott’s amended border disaster declaration, which claims that the recent rise in migration “poses an ongoing and imminent threat” to Texans’ health, property, and safety.

  • The declaration is part of Gov. Abbott’s “border security plan,” which includes plans to build a border wall and arrest migrants for crossing unlawfully. The original declaration, issued on May 31, accuses the Biden administration of failing to secure the border, and authorizes the state to use “all necessary and available state and local resources to protect landowners in these counties from trespassers and the damage they cause to private property.” It also directs law enforcement in counties on or near the border to “enforce all federal and state criminal laws, including criminal trespassing, smuggling, and human trafficking.”

  • Declaring a local disaster gives counties the opportunity to submit two-year projected budgets to the state for “expenses related to the ongoing border crisis.” Those budgets were due on July 9.

  • Eleven of the 34 counties listed in the governor’s original declaration declined to declare local disasters –– including four counties in the Rio Grande Valley, which is the busiest area for crossings. Officials there said they didn’t see conditions that merited a declaration. The governor’s amended declaration, released on June 25, had removed those counties and included a few others not originally on the list.

  • In the Big Bend Sector –– which is the least busy sector on the southwest border, with less than a tenth of the Customs and Border Protection “encounters” that the Rio Grande Sector saw in May –– most counties signed on, including Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, Brewster, Presidio, and Terrell. Reeves County was removed from the amended declaration, as was El Paso County. Midland County, which is almost 200 miles from the border, did declare a disaster.

Officials in the Big Bend counties that signed on ranged in their responses to the declaration, from enthusiasm to hesitation.

  • Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West said his office has handled 18 migrant deaths since January, a big increase from recent years. On July 9, he said he had 42 migrants in jail for charges like burglary and human trafficking. West said the county declared a disaster so they could be reimbursed for some of the associated costs and receive new resources: “I just need more body bags, I need some ATV equipment and just some help, if we can get some help.”

  • Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara declared a local disaster in late April, before the governor’s declaration. She said Presidio County has not seen the same amount of traffic or crime as Hudspeth, but she’s worried about the county’s resources for dealing with potential deaths or jail costs down the line. Presidio County has requested more than $2 million to pay for new equipment and officers for local law enforcement agencies.

  • Jeff Davis County Sheriff Bill Kitts said he had not seen an increase in crime related to migration. He said he was not submitting costs to the governor, but instead sending questions about things like the sustainability of funding, whether participating would interfere with local discretion –– and some constitutional concerns.

The ACLU of Texas says there are constitutional concerns with the governor’s border plan.

  • On June 24, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sent letters to county judges and sheriffs in all the counties listed in the governor’s declaration, warning them that immigration enforcement is handled by the federal government and that participating in the governor’s plan could be unconstitutional. Kate Huddleston, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas, told Marfa Public Radio, “The Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit has been very clear that state and local police cannot engage in unilateral immigration enforcement and cannot arrest and detain immigrants because of their status or to seek to deter immigration.”

  • Sheriff Bill Kitts shared those concerns, while Judge Cinderela Guevara and Sheriff Arvin West echoed the governor’s rhetoric –– that the federal government was failing them, and the state needed to step in. “Yeah, it's a federal issue, but if the federal government isn't doing anything, do we just sit idly and let it happen?” Judge Guevara said.

  • Local law enforcement can’t arrest migrants for entering the country illegally because it’s a federal offense, not a local one. But the governor has claimed that building a fence along the border could make it possible to arrest migrants for trespassing when they enter the country. Officials in the Big Bend area said a wall or fence isn’t practical in this region, given the natural barriers of the landscape, and said they were waiting for more information on the details of potential trespassing charges.

  • In the meantime, sheriffs in several Big Bend counties have been arresting migrants for things like smuggling and human trafficking –– but officials in Brewster County and Presidio County said they were worried about their capacity to jail migrants going forward.

The future of the governor’s plan is unclear –– and locally, questions remain.

  • Funding for law enforcement in the participating counties was on the agenda for the governor’s special legislative session, but any action there has been stalled since Democratic lawmakers walked out this week to prevent the passage of a bill that would create new voting restrictions in the state.

  • Local officials said they had lingering questions about the governor’s plan. “There's so many things that during the meetings we've had that are really unanswered, and they tell us we’re going to get answers, going to get answers,” said Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson. “We're just going to have to wait. It's a waiting game for us.”
Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.