Texas Politics

Advocacy groups, officials call on Texas lawmakers to provide aid for migrant crisis

US Border Patrol detains 1,036 migrants in El Paso

US Border Patrol agents detained 1,036 migrants who had crossed the Mexican border into El Paso on Thursday, May 30. In a press release, US Customs and Border Protection said it was the largest group of migrants ever encountered.
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US Border Patrol agents detained 1,036 migrants who had crossed the Mexican border into El Paso on Thursday, May 30. In a press release, US Customs and Border Protection said it was the largest group of migrants ever encountered.

Over the course of nearly six hours Friday, state lawmakers heard testimony from officials and advocacy groups that have witnessed the effects of an influx of immigrants traveling to the U.S. to seek asylum.

As the night wore on and proposals that ranged from suing the federal government to increased oversight over state-licensed shelters were heard, a 3-year-old girl zipped around the back of the room in white sandals while lawmakers discussed an immigration system that had detained her father.

The girl, a U.S. citizen, babbled to members in the audience Friday night, while her father was held in the South Texas Detention Complex more than 130 miles away, according to Sara Ramey, an immigration attorney assisting him. He is one of thousands of immigrants being detained in Texas as they await their day in court.

It’s an immigration system that lawyers, advocates and local officials described as overwhelmed during a joint hearing between the House Homeland Security and Public Safety, and International Relations and Economic Development committees.

“We’re not talking about a response that involves law enforcement or prosecution. We’re talking about a very basic human response that as a state we need to make,” said Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, and chairman of the Homeland Security and Public Safety committee.

The crisis at the border has been the subject of renewed outrage, after recent reports of horrid conditions at Texas border patrol stations and an exchange that went viral of a U.S. Justice Department lawyer arguing before a trio of federal judges that soap, toothbrushes and beds weren’t necessarily required to meet “safe and sanitary” conditions for detained children.

In June, 104,344 people were apprehended or deemed inadmissible along the border, a decline of 28% from 144,278 people in May, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But officials have said that the crisis has not abated.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request for federal data, immigrant advocacy groups found that as many as five migrant children continue to be separated at the border daily.

For local officials whose communities line the Texas-Mexico border, the effects are acutely felt.

“This should not be our problem. These are the cards we’ve been dealt. We’re going to take care of it. We’re going to do the best we can,” said Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens.

Since May 11, more than 5,300 individuals have been released into the southwest county, and about 1,800 of them have spent the night at a volunteer-run transition center, Owens said. Started by the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, the center provides basic necessities like a hot shower and a change of clothes. The county hasn’t spent any of its funds toward managing the surge in migrants, but Owens said officials have used money out of their own pockets to ensure that needs are met.

But some issues have been out of the county’s control. Owens said border patrol agents have developed rashes, “that we don’t understand what’s going on.” And last week, a 2-year-old girl was lost in the Rio Grande River while crossing with her mother from Mexico. Her body has not yet been found, said Shon Young, a pastor and president of the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition.

“Having to console a mother and a father in a hotel room late at night is difficult,” Young said about the need for more counseling resources.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott announced an additional 1,000 National Guard troops would be sent to aid federal agents, bringing the total number of Texas troops assisting at the U.S.-Mexico border to roughly 2,000. Steve McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the department provides strictly law enforcement support to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

But immigrant advocacy groups said the focus should be on humanitarian aid instead.

“Even in this hearing where the discussion is based on humanitarian need, the priority was law enforcement. Law enforcement received about 2 hours and 40 minutes of testimony, whereas we’re being rushed for five minutes,” said Karla Vargas, a senior attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, who sat on a panel of lawyers and advocacy groups that was the last to testify nearly four hours into the hearing.

Lawyers who recently visited a detention center in Clint, recounted to the New York Times and El Paso Times seeing children as young as 5 months old being held in cramped cells amid outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox.

The overcrowding and prolonged detention at border stations has been documented by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General. In a report issued last week, the Inspector General’s Office expressed its concern for the health and safety of DHS agents and detained migrants and noted that standards weren’t being met, including a lack of hot meals and access to showers and unaccompanied minors being held for longer than 72 hours.

The state regulates 41 state-licensed providers that contract with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and oversee the care of minors, said David Kostroun, the deputy executive commissioner for regulatory services with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The Texas Department of Family Protective Services has the authority to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect in state-licensed facilities, but not federally-operated ones, said Tiffany Roper, the Deputy General Counsel for the department.

The department has a pending investigation into the death of 16-year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez who died in April after officials at a Texas detention center noticed he was sick.

Annual inspections — in addition to unannounced ones if complaints re received — are conducted to investigate failures to meet licensing standards, Kostroun said.

“But this is an abnormal situation. A humanitarian crisis. We have no plans to change it other than our regular once-a-year visit?” Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, asked.

“We go in an as appropriate and as needed,” Kostroun said. “As far as ramping up, we haven’t had a need to do that at this point.”

Witnessed urged lawmakers to consider mobilizing the state’s resources to fill gaps left by the federal government, such as allocating state funds to assist local governments and nonprofits with providing case management, legal services and humanitarian aid.

“As a border state and a state that is ground zero for what’s happening in this particular regard, we feel that Texas as a whole can take a much more proactive role in terms of shaping the national narrative, in terms of demanding a higher standard of care,” said Jose Ramirez IV, a staff attorney with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, Inc.

After listening to hours of testimony and debating possible actions the state could take, lawmakers ended the hearing shortly after 8 p.m. without moving forward on any particular path proposed.

“I don’t know whether we send a letter as a state (to the federal government) or scream or holler,” Owens said. “You could keep having hearings. And we’re going to keep coming back and saying ‘We need help with this one. We need help with that one.’”

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government reporter for the Star-Telegram, covering all things policy and politics. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.