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A growing number of Texas rural counties are declaring local immigration “disasters”

Hopkins County officials last month approved a local disaster declaration due to the ongoing border crisis. Hopkins County, which includes Sulphur Springs, is at least an eight-hour drive to the Texas-Mexico border.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
The Texas Tribune
Hopkins County officials last month approved a local disaster declaration due to the ongoing border crisis. Hopkins County, which includes Sulphur Springs, is at least an eight-hour drive to the Texas-Mexico border.

The latest county to make a disaster declaration is an eight-hour drive away from the Texas-Mexico border, but local officials there say they’re under “invasion.”

SULPHUR SPRINGS — More than 500 miles separate Hopkins County from the Texas-Mexico border.

The distance did not stop the county commissioners from declaring a “local state of disaster” caused by an “invasion” of immigrants.

Hopkins County Judge Robert Newsom signed the resolution in mid-November at a county commissioner’s meeting in Sulphur Springs, 90 miles northeast of Dallas. Hopkins County is the latest to speak out about the situation at the border.

“The health, safety and welfare of Hopkins County residents are under an imminent threat of disaster from the unprecedented levels of illegal immigration, human trafficking, and drug smuggling coming across the U.S. border from Mexico,” the declaration states.

Neither Newsom nor any of the Hopkins County commissioners responded to requests for comment.

Kinney County, a border county tucked between the cities of Del Rio and Eagle Pass, was the first to declare a state of disaster, in April 2021, because of the “thousands of illegal aliens invading” Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott followed issuing his own broader disaster declaration the next month, which gave him the authority to use emergency powers usually reserved for natural disasters such as hurricanes or floods. That declaration helped Abbott funnel billions of dollars into his border initiative, Operation Lone Star.

Since then, at least 33 counties — including many small, rural counties — have adopted resolutions about border crossings, according to The Center Square, a nonprofit news organization that produces “free-market focused content.”

Texas counties have increasingly adopted largely symbolic resolutions, declaring themselves, for example, “sanctuaries” for the unborn or for the Second Amendment. The disaster resolutions stand apart, however, because if worded correctly, they could open the county to new funding from the state.

A local disaster declaration enables a county to apply for funding through the Operation Lone Star grant program, which provides money to support law enforcement for those counties. Abbott announced the $100 million program in September 2021 and allocated another $30 million this July.

Most counties have not gone as far as Hopkins County in declaring a local disaster. Instead they have expressed support for Operation Lone Star and for a federal border solution.

“It was an effort to help our congressman take the recognition of the problem to Washington and say ‘We need to step up,’” said Jay Knight, county judge for Liberty County, which passed a resolution in August. “It’s very expensive. It’s a mess.”

Although Liberty County’s declaration stopped short of declaring a local disaster, Knight said his county, which sits between the cities of Houston and Beaumont, has felt the impacts of the border crisis.

Since Operation Lone Star launched, Knight said his county of 98,000 people has lost six of its 12 Department of Public Safety officers because they are deployed at the border to help Border Patrol. He said the loss in personnel puts more strain on the county’s law enforcement.

“Just because we aren’t on the border doesn’t mean we aren’t impacted,” Knight said.

Other East Texas county officials who have decided to not sign resolutions said they don’t believe they have been significantly impacted by the border situation, even if they support Abbott’s security efforts.

“The border situation needs to be resolved, but I don’t care for the invasion terminology,” said Angelina County Judge Keith Wright.

Angelina County may consider a resolution next year, but that would focus on the impacts on East Texas residents, Wright said. He added that instead of spending money on border security, the state should be putting that money toward mental health initiatives and the criminal justice system.

County officials like Knight said they don’t expect to immediately see practical implications from their disaster declarations, which are more symbolic gestures of support for Abbott’s border initiative. Instead, they hope to signal to Congress that it should consider immigration policy next year and help the state cover the costs of Operation Lone Star.

Still, some immigration advocates have warned that using words like “invasion” to describe the border situation fuels anti-immigrant sentiment.

“This idea of an invasion is a distorted idea being used politically,” said Fernando García, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights.

Abbott has recently invoked similar language on social media and in memos to justify the border initiative, which so far has cost the state about $4 billion.

From The Texas Tribune