EDINBURG, Texas (Border Report) — A day after one South Texas county judge issued a disaster declaration acceding to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s sweeping border enforcement plans, civil rights groups in the Rio Grande Valley are pressuring another county judge not to give in.
Dozens of members of the nonprofit migrant advocacy groups La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE,) and ARISE Adelante appeared before Hidalgo County Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning carrying signs, and chanting and publicly urging Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez not to side with Abbott’s plans.
Abbott on Thursday in Del Rio, Texas, announced that he wants all 34 border counties — that he has declared disaster areas due to the immigration influx — to issue their own local disaster declarations, and for local law enforcement agents to arrest all undocumented migrants who cross the Rio Grande illegally and to charge them with criminal trespassing.
But to do so would cause the separation of families again — a practice that occurred in 2018 here under the Trump administration — several migrant advocates told Cortez and Hidalgo County Commissioners on Tusday.
“Gov. Abbott’s proposal attempts to criminally charge every undocumented migrant crosser imposing a minimum sentence of six to 12 months, this will separate families and leave an entire generation of children in limbo,” LUPE Director of Organizing Danny Diaz told Hidalgo County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. “If we allow this to happen we will be complicit of a mass violation of human rights right here in our own backyard.”
LUPE is the same nonprofit co-founded by civil rights activists and farmworker champions César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. Earlier this month, it issued a counter disaster declaration to Abbott’s original declaration.
“Today was to send a message not only to Gov. Abbott but to our judge and our commissioners who represent a large immigrant community — one of the largest immigrant communities in Texas — to not cooperate with Gov. Abbott’s anti-immigration policy of family separation,” Diaz told Border Report after several people spoke during a public forum session held before the full court.
“We feel Abbott senses our immigrant identity as a threat politically or otherwise and we want to make sure our county judge and commissioners draw the line,” Diaz said.
So far, Cortez has issued no such disaster declaration, nor has he asked Hidalgo County Commissioners to back such a plan.
And migrant advocates point out that Abbott’s border security plan hinges on local governments going along with his proposals.
On Thursday evening, immediately after the governor announced his sweeping eight-point border security plan during a Border Security Summit that he convened in Del Rio, Cortez told Border Report that he has no intention of declaring a local disaster give the current situation.
After consulting with the sheriff and district attorney, Cortez said he received no reports of property damage increases in the region, or other crimes that would warrant such a declaration that the governor is requesting.
“I asked the law enforcement people and they told me there was no emergency. So on the basis of that information, I didn’t think we had an emergency,” Cortez told Border Report.
He admitted being frustrated on Thursday and feeling pressured from Austin to change his mind in order for the county to be eligible for federal and state resources.
“Now, here today, we’re basically saying, ‘you either join the club or don’t join the club,’ and if you don’t, then you don’t qualify for being reimbursed for expenses. So damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Cortez told Border Report.
On Tuesday, Cortez made no formal statement on the matter despite several migrant advocates going before the court and asking he hold firm against Abbott’s requests.
At least 18 of the 34 counties have signed local disaster declarations, including rural Zapata County in South Texas, which signed on Monday.
Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell told Border Report that he issued the local disaster declaration in order for his rural county of 15,000 residents to be eligible to receive more state and federal resources for law enforcement.
“The overall frustration from the governor is pretty clear on how the federal government is handling this crisis. I do agree to some extent that the federal government has failed our communities to protect our residents from overwhelming numbers of illegals coming into our areas,” Rathmell told Border Report.
“This will allow us the ability to access funds from the federal government and from the state. Gov. Abbott has allocated a billion dollars for border security from the Texas state budget and in order to access those funds, counties must issue disaster declarations, which I have done,” Rathmell told Zapata County commissioners on Monday.
He was backed by the full Zapata County Commissioners Court, which extended his disaster declaration to run concurrently with the governor’s declaration, which was issued on May 31.
While Zapata County voted for Trump in the last presidential election, Hidalgo County, which is majority Democratic, did not. And in Hidalgo County on Tuesday, tension was high as members of LUPE joined with other migrant advocates from ARISE Adelante and the Texas Civil Rights Project to oppose Abbott’s plans.
Outside the courthouse annex, several dozen members held signs reading: “STOP Dehumanizing Migrants,” and “Richard Cortez will you really sign off on billions for racist dog-whistling ‘border security?'”
“Today is a new day and you can stand in active opposition and you can continue forward by fighting back against everything that Gov. Abbott is trying to do,” Roberto Lopez, racial and economic justice outreach coordinator of the Texas Civil Rights Project told commissioners.
“What do we want? Justicia (justice). When do we want it? Ahora (now),” they chanted in Spanish, vowing to “fight” Abbott’s plans, saying sí se puede (yes we can).
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.