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Presidio County officials approve disaster declaration calling migrant crossings an “invasion”

The Big Bend county, despite its status as a rare Democrat stronghold in Texas, has become the latest county to embrace a Republican-led campaign urging Gov. Greg Abbott to declare a border “invasion” and try to assert broader immigration enforcement powers.

By Travis Bubenik

Presidio County commissioners on Wednesday voted to adopt a local disaster declaration calling the number of migrants crossing the southern border and drug smuggling activity an “invasion.”

The move came a week after County Judge Cinderela Guevara, the top local official and a former Democrat now running for reelection as a Republican, quietly signed a temporary “invasion” declaration that would have expired without the vote from commissioners.

“We are in imminent danger, it is clear,” Guevara said at Wednesday’s commissioners meeting.

Commissioner Brenda Bentley was not present for the meeting, but the commissioners who were all voted in favor of the declaration. 

In Texas, county judges have the power to issue temporary disaster declarations that expire in seven days unless ratified by local commissioners courts. Wednesday’s vote means Presidio County’s declaration will be in effect until Guevara rescinds it.

At Guevara’s invitation, a local sheriff’s deputy gave commissioners an overview of what he described as an “unprecedented” increase in smuggling activity in the area since January 2020. Federal government data show the Big Bend continues to see the lowest number of migrant crossings of any border region, though local drug seizures have in recent months been higher than in some other parts of the border.

“We’ve always been a border community, but now it actually feels like one,” said Chief Deputy Joel Nuñez. “We haven’t had these issues before.”

Nuñez told commissioners that deputies have seen an increase in everything from human and drug smuggling incidents to migrants breaking into homes and smugglers bringing guns south through the county to Mexico.

Multiple Texas border counties have in recent weeks declared an “invasion” as part of what the Texas Tribune has described as a “fringe legal theory” that seeks to give states more power to enforce immigration laws that are the jurisdiction of the federal government.

That theory, according to the Associated Press, has for months been pushed by a conservative think tank whose leaders include former Trump administration officials. 

The group has been involved in urging officials and politicians in Arizona to embrace the idea that states can declare an “invasion” and assert broader powers at the border, a proposition that others argue is legally baseless and even dangerous. Ken Cuccinelli, one of the group’s leaders and a top immigration official during the Trump administration, was present for a July 5 press conference where leaders in Kinney County and surrounding areas closer to South Texas announced their “invasion” declarations.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been feeling the political pressure as well.

The “invasion” declarations spreading across the state specifically ask the governor to “declare the existence of an invasion” and “take necessary actions to preserve and protect the sovereignty” of the state.

Abbott, who has made border security central to his reelection campaign, has walked a political tightrope on the issue in recent weeks, moving to give state police the power to transport migrants to the border while stopping short of declaring an “invasion.”

Immigrant and human rights advocates have blasted both the governor’s actions and the broader rhetoric of a migrant “invasion,” warning that such rhetoric is dangerous and fuels extremism.

The mass shooters in El Paso, Texas in 2019 and Buffalo, New York earlier this year were both motivated by the idea of an “invasion” of non-white people to the U.S. and the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory the idea stems from. 

During a press call the same day Presidio officials approved the declaration, the advocacy group America’s Voice criticized GOP politicians for embracing what they called an “invasion conspiracy.”

“Even after the horrific mass murder in Buffalo, where a gunman explicitly cited replacement and invasion conspiracies as the motivation for his attack, Republicans have refused to back off employing these racist lies,” said Zachary Mueller, one of the America’s Voice advocates.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Presidio County commissioners did not discuss concerns about the rhetoric of an “invasion.”

Nuñez, the chief sheriff’s deputy, told commissioners that the local uptick in smuggling incidents has strained law enforcement and emergency response resources in this rural county, one of the state’s largest by size. He said deputies have engaged in more high-speed pursuits with smuggling suspects who flee when encountered, incidents that have resulted in car crashes.

“We only have one ambulance in [the city of] Presidio, and a lot of these things are taking the ambulance from Presidio to respond to these accidents,” he said.

Nuñez said deputies had recently encountered a small group of migrants hiding inside a pickup truck on a hot summer day — an incident he warned could have resulted in a tragedy like one recently in San Antonio, where more than 50 people died after becoming trapped inside a sweltering tractor trailer.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show the Big Bend region of Texas continues to see the lowest levels of migrant crossings of any border area. The tiny town of Marfa, where the county courthouse is located, is a popular arts and tourist destination where locals often don’t lock their doors at home and where violent crime is relatively rare.

At the same time, drug seizure numbers in the Big Bend region have in recent months been notably higher than in other nearby border areas like El Paso and Del Rio, though still far below numbers seen in the South Texas Rio Grande Valley, CBP figures show.

The new Presidio County disaster declaration by itself is unlikely to have any immediate impact on local migrant crossings or smuggling activity, other than sending a political message to the governor.

Under Abbott’s ongoing Operation Lone Star border security program, Presidio County has long been eligible for state border security funding through the county’s inclusion in separate border security-related disaster declarations. A similar declaration commissioners adopted in May 2021, which remains in effect, referred to migrants “invading” the county, but did not describe the situation as an “invasion” as a constitutional matter as the new declaration does.

As part of his recent border security moves, Abbott announced $14 million in new funding would be made available to border-adjacent counties under that program starting in September. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is reportedly investigating the governor’s border program over alleged civil rights violations.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioner Eloy Aranda asked Guevara whether the new “invasion” declaration would lead to “more equipment, more money, more manpower” for the county.

Guevara responded by saying that the declaration would let the governor know the border situation is “just unacceptable.”

“We have a duty to go ahead and sign this declaration to try to ensure the protection of the health, safety and welfare of all our county residents,” she said.

At various times during Wednesday’s meeting, Guevara and commissioner Buddy Knight both noted they were sympathetic to migrants coming to the U.S. for a “better life,” but said they still worried about the overall uptick in smuggling activity in the area.

In an interview after Wednesday’s vote, Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton expressed skepticism about the new “invasion” declaration and said county commissioners had not asked for his legal advice on the issue.

“Nobody’s shown me what it’s going to do as a practical matter to improve safety or reduce illegal crossings,” he said. “If it’s not designed to fix a problem by bringing about a solution that wasn't otherwise there, why do it?”

Ponton acknowledged the county has seen an uptick in smuggling, but said the increase has not been as dramatic as it has been in places like Del Rio, Brackettville and Eagle Pass.

“If it’s a declaration that we have problems on the border, well hell, we can read that in the paper every week,” he said.

On Tuesday, commissioners in neighboring Jeff Davis County declined to extend a nearly identical “invasion” declaration that the county’s top official had also temporarily issued earlier this month. Citing legal concerns, commissioners said they would “support” the idea, but await guidance from the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on the matter before agreeing to extend the declaration.

State Rep. Matt Krause, a North Texas Republican, asked Paxton’s office earlier this year for a legal opinion on whether Texas can invoke “invasion” powers under the U.S. constitution. In a letter to Krause earlier this month, Paxton declined to offer an opinion on the issue.

The push for local “invasion” declarations in Texas has largely been led by officials in rural Kinney County, home to the small town of Brackettville and one of the focal points of Operation Lone Star.

At a Tuesday meeting, Jeff Davis County Judge Curtis Evans said he had been contacted directly about the idea by Tully Shahan, the top local official in Kinney County.

Matt Benacci, an administrative assistant for the Kinney County Sheriff’s Office, said Shahan had also pitched the “invasion” declaration idea to Guevara in Presidio County.

“In quite a few of the forthcoming disaster/invasion declarations, the Kinney County Judge's Office has reached out,” said Benacci, who has also served as a spokesperson for the county on border issues. 

Benacci said the language in the “invasion” declarations being passed around was drafted by Shahan and Kinney County Attorney Brent Smith.

Correction: a previous version of this story stated that separate state and local disaster declarations in Presidio County had not invoked the idea of an “invasion.” In fact, a previous declaration did say migrants were “invading” the county, though it did not describe the situation as an “invasion” as a constitutional matter as the new declaration does.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.