South Texas mayor: ‘What does the governor expect of local governments?’

Border Report

'If you walk it through step by step you will see that there are a lot of landmines,' to governor's orders, Rep. Henry Cuellar says

Will local police be ordered by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to participate in the arrest of migrants? Abbott holds a summit in Del Rio, Texas, on Thursday and is expected to reveal more plans then. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Just days before Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hosts a border security summit in the border town of Del Rio, a group of leaders from the Rio Grande Valley met on Tuesday to outline questions and concerns they plan to bring up with the governor.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez convened the 90-minute online meeting on Tuesday morning to air regional concerns after Abbott last week threatened that he is going to “arrest everybody crossing the border.” Abbott also said he’d release more details this week, which are expected to be revealed Thursday afternoon when he hosts the border summit in Del Rio.

U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez, two Democrats from South Texas, were among those who attended the meeting Tuesday, which also included local mayors, representatives of nonprofit migrant advocacy groups, state and federal officials from the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection from Hidalgo and Cameron counties, Border Report has learned.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent apprehends a group of migrants on April 8, 2021, in La Joya, Texas. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is calling on all migrants who cross the border from Mexico illegally “to be arrested” and it’s unclear whether that means involving local police and sheriff’s deputies. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“I take seriously the concerns that some have regarding the surge of migrants crossing our borders so I wanted to get direct feedback from local stakeholders to prepare for the summit that Gov. Abbott has called in Del Rio on Thursday,” Cortez said in a statement after the meeting.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez (Courtesy Photo)

“I empathize with the concerns Gov. Abbott has regarding this surge in migration,” Cortez said. “But I am responsible to the taxpayers of Hidalgo County and I want to be assured that we will not be incurring additional expense to perform the functions of the federal government.”

Attendees told Border Report that Tuesday’s conversations were robust, encompassed a variety of regional concerns, and allowed the Valley delegation to get on the same page as to how they plan to approach and address the governor later this week.

Top concerns raised were costs associated with any new orders the governor might direct to local entities; where migrants will be housed if they are to be arrested; and what implications would be associated with local police charged with arresting migrants.

“There’s just too many questions that would arise that bring questions of practicality,” Cuellar told Border Report after the meeting. “Let’s walk it through.”

“The most urgent issue is where would we house these new arrests the governor is talking about, especially if they are incarcerated for six to 12 months? Who will be doing the arresting? And most importantly, who is paying for this operation — the state, county or cities? Will counties and cities be reimbursed?” Gonzalez told Border Report.

Cuellar wants to know if migrant families would be separated if the adults are arrested and whether the children would go into juvenile detention.

“If you have a father and mother with a child do you arrest that person and what do you do with the kid? And who’s going to do the arresting? Is it DPS? Because I don’t think you’ll find a lot of city police and county sheriffs who will want to do that,” Cuellar said. “And what about due process? Will they be entitled to counsel under state law?”

Other concerns he has include: Will they go through the criminal justice system instead of district or county courts? What happens to the docket if thousands of new cases are added to it? And who will monitor those who are released?

“There are just so many questions that it just becomes very impractical to enforce that,” Cuellar said. “If you walk it through step by step you will see that there are a lot of landmines that have to be considered and I don’t think they have thought through this very carefully.”

There are a lot of landmines that have to be considered and I don’t think they have thought through this very carefully.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-TX

Abbott last week announced that he wants radical changes to immigration on the Texas-Mexico border. He wants to charge migrants with criminal trespass and hold them in jail for six months to a year. However, aggravated trespass carries a 120-day maximum jail fine. And local peace officers have told Border Report that upholding immigration laws is the federal government’s responsibility — not local police — adding that they have no jurisdiction to question or arrest migrants for coming into the country without the proper documents.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling also raised a concern, that if locals are ordered to arrest migrants and they have to arrest a non-immigrant, would they then be characterized as sanctuary cities if officials decide to release a migrant due to limited jail capacity?

“It’s not that we don’t want to cooperate with the governor’s office. It’s just that we don’t know what to expect,” Darling told Border Report.

“We all kind of shared the same questions as to what exactly does the governor expect of local governments?” Darling said after the meeting, which was closed to the media.

Based on the discussions, Cortez plans to ask the following of Abbott later this week:

  • What law enforcement agencies will be arresting these migrants?
  • What legal standing will these law enforcement agencies have in making arrests?
  • Where are those in custody going to be held?
  • Who will be paying the cost of holding these prisoners?
  • If state charges are filed, the defendants are entitled to a public defender and who will pay for them?
  • Will local entities be reimbursed for costs typically associated with federal jurisdiction?
  • What are the healthcare implications in this time of COVID-19?
  • What resources will be available for testing and treatment of COVID-19?

Will Biden lift Title 42?

The group on Tuesday also heavily discussed ramifications for trade and travel between the United States and Mexico if Title 42 travel restrictions are lifted by the Biden administration. But if they are lifted, then there is concern that migrants will try to “storm” the bridges in large groups at land ports to claim asylum, Cuellar said.

Darling, who serves on the McAllen-Hidalgo International Toll Bridge Board of Trustees, said CBP officers at land ports can only process 30 to 40 asylum-seekers per day at the bridges.

If normal travel resumes between the two countries, the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa bridge could have 8,000 pedestrians cross there and 4,000 vehicles per day. Darling said the officers are busy processing pedestrians and cars and don’t have the time or manpower for dozens of asylum-seekers.

“For anybody to say to process people without some sort of restriction on the numbers is nuts,” Darling said.

Migrant advocates, however, say metering — or limiting the number who can come across and claim asylum on a daily basis — denies migrants humanitarian rights.

Cars wait to cross southbound into Mexico on June 2, 2021, at the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“There’s a certain capacity. The bridge is not the intention of being the point of entry for anyone seeking asylum for their normal operations,” Darling said.

All agreed on Tuesday that the region has economically been stunted by travel restrictions first placed under the Trump administration, which have not allowed Mexican shoppers to cross since the pandemic began in March 2020.

“Life has to go on and we have to have people coming across the bridge for economic development,” Darling said.

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