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Border crossings way down, but costly state buildup continues

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott talks about his border security plan during a news conference as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw stands behind him Friday, March 27, 2015 at DPS' Region 3 Headquarters in Weslaco. Abbott remains noncommittal on a timeline for pulling the National Guard off the Texas-Mexico border after hundreds of police officers applied for jobs to effectively replace those troops. (AP Photo/The Monitor, Nathan Lambrecht) MAGS OUT; TV OUT
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott talks about his border security plan during a news conference as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw stands behind him Friday, March 27, 2015 at DPS' Region 3 Headquarters in Weslaco. Abbott remains noncommittal on a timeline for pulling the National Guard off the Texas-Mexico border after hundreds of police officers applied for jobs to effectively replace those troops. (AP Photo/The Monitor, Nathan Lambrecht) MAGS OUT; TV OUT AP

The surge of unaccompanied children and families illegally crossing the border into Texas has dropped off dramatically. But Texas lawmakers say the numbers are still high enough to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars on beefing up the state’s border presence.

Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley are on pace to see 60 percent fewer unaccompanied children this year than in fiscal 2014, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

From October through May, 13,250 unaccompanied minors surrendered or were apprehended in the Valley, mainly in Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties. That’s compared with 33,400 during the same period in fiscal 2014.

The number of family units — mothers or guardians with at least one minor child — crossing illegally has also decreased: About 14,280 have been apprehended this year, compared with 29,000 from October 2013 through May 2014.

Signing a border security bill in Houston on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott recognized federal agents for their efforts but said the thousands of immigrants illegally entering Texas just last month prove that the federal government has failed to secure the border.

“We appreciate the federal government and the [Homeland Security Department] for the efforts that they are lending in this regard,” Abbott said. “But standing alone, we’ve seen that they have been incapable of stanching the problem.”

Abbott also recognized that the Mexican government has tried to increase security to help stem the tide of illegal crossers. But he said that mission has not been fully accomplished.

“When you see that we still have more than 25,000 people a month coming across the border, you see the challenges are still great,” he said, citing a statistic from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who visited Houston on Monday. “In fact, last month alone almost 4,000 unaccompanied children came across the Texas border. So it shows the problems still exist.”

The measure that Abbott signed — House Bill 11 by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton — will speed up the hiring of about 250 Texas Department of Public Safety troopers on the border, establish an intelligence center there to analyze crime data, enhance penalties for human smuggling and keep the Texas National Guard in the area until the DPS is fully staffed. It carries a price of about $310 million, part of the $800 million that lawmakers appropriated for border security.

Preparations improve

Local officials dealing with the crossing problem firsthand say the situation appears less dire. McAllen officials understand the political firestorm the border issue has sparked but said they are ready to deal with another influx.

“We’re still going to treat them humanely and get those folks” where they need to go, said Teclo Garcia, McAllen’s director of government and public affairs.

Since last summer, the city and Hidalgo County have partnered with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley to provide temporary shelter to mothers who cross the border with their children.

Mayor Jim Darling said last month that since last summer, 17,716 illegal immigrants have passed through the shelter, with about 2,050 staying overnight. An average day now sees about 38 clients at the shelter, compared with an average of 52 for the year.

The local governments have had to spend about $650,000 of their own money to staff the shelter and provide security and some healthcare. But they will be reimbursed when the Federal Emergency Management Agency finalizes details of that process.

Even if surprised by a surge this summer, officials appear confident they are better prepared. And they add that taking care of the immigrants is the right thing to do.

“We’re all humans and we all share this planet,” Rio Grande Valley sector chief Kevin Oaks said last month at a news conference. “I am not saying that it’s completely solved. But what I am saying is I think we’re better prepared than we were last year.”

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