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Presidio County backs away from “invasion” rhetoric with new border security disaster declaration

A view of the Presidio County Courthouse in October 2023.
Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
A view of the Presidio County Courthouse in October 2023.

Presidio County officials on Wednesday approved a revised border security-related disaster declaration that removes references to an “invasion” of migrants at the southern border.

The move came more than a year after county commissioners adopted a similar declaration that used the “invasion” language, which immigrant rights groups have described as hateful and dangerous.

The mass shooters in El Paso, Texas in 2019 and Buffalo, New York in 2022 both claimed to be motivated by the idea of an “invasion” of nonwhite people to the U.S. and the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory the idea stems from. Still, Texas Republicans in recent years have embraced the rhetoric of an invasion in pushing for stronger border security measures.

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, County Commissioner David Beebe, who was not a commissioner at the time of last year’s vote, condemned the earlier declaration.

“This issue last year was upsetting, destructive and completely unnecessary,” he said. “I want to make it very clear that I’m not in favor of hatred toward other human beings.”

While the word “invasion” doesn’t appear in the new declaration, the order does refer to an “ongoing border crisis infiltration of illegal immigrants” in Presidio County. Still, officials acknowledged at Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting that the county has not seen the same number of migrant crossings that other parts of Texas have this year.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported just over 11,200 migrant “encounters” in the Big Bend area this fiscal year, compared to more than 389,000 encounters in the El Paso area and 292,000 in South Texas during the same time.

“We have been spared, probably because of the terrain we have here,” County Judge Joe Portillo, the top local elected official, said. “We’ve been lucky that we haven’t been hit like some of the other border communities.”

Portillo described the disaster declaration as a “preventative measure” meant to unlock state resources in the event the region did see an uptick in migrant crossings. He pointed to recent reports of Mexican railroads shutting down operations because of multiple deaths and injuries as large numbers of migrants hopped onto trains heading to El Paso and South Texas.

Local officials would be “ill-prepared” if large numbers of migrants crossed into Presidio County, Portillo said.

“We would be ill-prepared to give them even water, let alone food,” he said. “This just puts us in a position of acting quickly.”

County Commissioner Brenda Bentley, who was not present for the vote on last year’s disaster declaration, said she had specifically worked to reword the new version.

“I had a discussion with the judge prior to doing this so we could change up the language and really take ‘invasion’ out of the picture,” she said.

Many Texas counties have adopted border security-related disaster declarations in recent years alongside a similar state-level declaration as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial Operation Lone Star program. Participating counties have been eligible for millions of dollars in state funding under the program, but the effort has long been mired in controversy, ranging from questions about its effectiveness to concerns about the safety of the Texas National Guard soldiers involved.

Editor’s note: David Beebe is a volunteer music program host at Marfa Public Radio. Volunteer DJs are not involved in the station’s newsroom operations.

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