Abbott asks Biden to declare federal emergency due to migrant surge near Del Rio


Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday asked President Joe Biden to declare a federal emergency and provide resources to help state and local authorities cope with a migrant surge at the Texas-Mexico border near Del Rio.

The federal government’s “failure to enforce immigration laws and in particular, its failure to halt illegal crossings on a dam on federal property, which is the sole jurisdiction of the federal government,” is overtaxing the ability of Texas, Del Rio and Val Verde County to respond to a “concentrated surge” of immigrants who illegally crossed on Wednesday, Abbott said in a release and his letter to Biden.

The migrants, many from Haiti, camped near the Del Rio International Bridge and on Saturday, their number reached about 16,000, the Republican governor said in his letter.

“Thousands of families are immobilized in 100-degree heat as their numbers continue to swell as they wait to be processed by the approximately 64 federal agents in the area,” Abbott wrote. “Individuals are camping in squalid conditions and bathing in muddy river water, causing great health concerns.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged Monday that videos of what’s happening at the bridge in Del Rio are disturbing but said the federal government already is moving on several fronts to assist both the migrants there and improve conditions in Haiti.

“It’s a challenging situation,” Psaki said at a White House press briefing. “It’s devastating to watch this footage. It’s important, though, for people also to know what we’re trying to do is also protect people.”

While the Department of Homeland Security is surging officers from the Border Patrol and from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Del Rio area, the federal government also is “taking a multi-pronged approach,” Psaki said.

The effort includes relief services and supplies being provided by the American Red Cross, meals from World Central Kitchen and “repatriation flights,” either to countries in Latin America or to Haiti, she said.

On Sunday, the federal government began flying some of the migrants back to Haiti. Yellow police tape was being used to block the migrants from using a small dam to walk into the U.S.

Many of the migrants have lived in Latin America for years, but they are now are seeking asylum in the U.S. as economic opportunities in Brazil and elsewhere dry up, the Associated Press reported.

A dust storm moves across the area as Haitian migrants use a dam on the Rio Grande to cross into the United States from Mexico on Saturday.

Abbott told the Democratic president that the disaster at Del Rio “is of such severity that supplementary federal assistance is necessary to lessen the threat of disaster, save lives, and protect property, public health, and safety.” He requested three types of federal assistance.

Since Abbott declared a state of disaster in border counties on May 31, Texas has spent $84 million “beyond its regular appropriation to combat the ongoing crisis at our international border,” the governor wrote.

”The State of Texas is doing more than any state has ever done to protect the border, but more is needed,” Abbott said.

He ticked off how the Texas Department of Public Safety has sent to border areas hundreds of state police officers who are enforcing state laws on trespassing, smuggling, and human trafficking; and how the Texas National Guard is helping erect a state border fence, assisted with arrests and recently sent more than 1,000 troops “to the Del Rio Sector alone.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state prison system, is running a processing center for migrants arrested on state charges in Val Verde County, Abbott added.

Law enforcement “capabilities” are being “stretched,” both in the border region and statewide, he wrote.

“Multiple U.S. Border Patrol interior checkpoints are currently closed, allowing criminals smuggling humans and drugs to travel freely into the state. The Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard are being forced to send thousands of state personnel to the area even though immigration and border security are federal responsibilities.”

Abbott announced Monday afternoon he would hold a news conference Tuesday at the Del Rio International Bridge.

On Monday, Psaki was not specifically asked about Abbott’s request for a federal emergency declaration.

She was asked, though, about Houston Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s call for the Biden administration to send immigration personnel to Del Rio to hear individual Haitians’ appeals for asylum on grounds they fear for their safety if they’re returned.

That’s tricky, Psaki acknowledged, because the administration also continues to enforce a provision known as Title 42, a pandemic-related authority adopted by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 that allows for migrants to be immediately removed from the country without an opportunity to seek asylum. Biden exempted unaccompanied children from the order but let the rest stand.

“This is not the time to come” to the U.S., she said.

Psaki pushed back on suggestions that the U.S. is discriminating against Haiti in its immigration enforcement. She noted that on May 22, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced a new Temporary Protected Status designation for Haiti that in certain instances can protect against deportation. The U.S. also is trying to help Haiti recover from an earthquake, a presidential assassination and civil unrest, she said.

“We certainly want to support ... Haiti during a very difficult time,” she said.

Psaki also was asked about photographs of Border Patrol agents on horseback using long reins, described in some news accounts as whips, as they tried to turn away Haitian migrants at the edge of the Rio Grande River in Del Rio.

“I don’t think anyone seeing that footage would think it’s acceptable or appropriate,” Psaki said, stressing she’d just seen photos and videos late Monday morning.

“I don’t have the full context,” she said. “It’s horrible to watch. I just have to get more information on it.”

At a briefing Monday, Mayorkas said the incidents would be investigated. He quoted Border Patrol head Raul Ortiz as saying that to ensure control of the horse, long reins are used, according to the Washington Post.

Abbott, meanwhile, has urged a tougher federal crackdown on the surge of migrants in Del Rio.

On Thursday, the governor denounced the Biden administration for refusing to close ports of entry in the area.

“The Biden Administration is in complete disarray and is handling the border crisis as badly as the evacuation from Afghanistan,” Abbott said in a statement.

Since last winter, Abbott has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of Biden’s immigration policies, saying they’ve encouraged a flood of unauthorized crossings by migrants from many countries. In March, he created Operation Lone Star and sent police and Guard troops to border areas.

In June, Abbott announced Texas would resume building a border barrier that Trump sought to create. After Congress rebuffed his money requests, Trump siphoned funds from the Department of Defense’s construction budget.

After Biden froze billions in spending on Trump’s federally funded wall effort, Abbott cobbled together about $1 billion of state funds for border barriers. A crowdsourcing push has raised about $54.3 million from private donors, according to an Abbott website.

In the year’s second special legislative session, which ended earlier this month, Abbott also secured $100 million of state funds to create an Operation Lone Star grants program.

On Monday, his office announced it would start taking applications. The money will assist local law enforcement, jail administrators, medical examiners and court administration officials.

At Abbott’s urging, they are helping to arrest, incarcerate and prosecute illegal immigrants on state misdemeanor charges of trespassing and criminal mischief, as well as more serious charges of smuggling and human trafficking. The medical examiners are examining human remains.

While Abbott has said he’s pulling out all the stops to keep Texas communities safe, one of his Republican challengers in next year’s gubernatorial primary, Dallas businessman Don Huffines, said Monday it’s not enough.

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