McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Gov. Greg Abbott has removed 11 Texas counties from his revised Border Crisis Disaster Declaration, the most populous of which have so far refused to issue local disaster declarations due to the recent migrant influx, as requested by the governor.
Late Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he had amended his May 31 disaster proclamation that had originally included 34 counties. The latest revision includes just 28 counties that “have agreed to partner” with the state on border security efforts, Abbott said on social media. The 28 also includes new counties that weren’t included in the original declaration.
The leaders of four of the South Texas counties no longer part of the declaration — Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr — have steadfastly refused to sign a local disaster declaration as Abbott has repeatedly requested.
Migrant advocate organizations and residents have repeatedly pressured local officials in the Rio Grande Valley to not go along with Abbott’s plans, and some saw Abbott’s revised plans as a step in the right direction.
“I’m glad the four judges did what they did. People need to stand up against this nonsense,” said Jim Harrington, founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project and a human rights lawyer based in Austin.
The list of counties that declared a state of disaster now include: Brewster, Brooks, Crockett, Culberson, DeWitt, Dimmit, Edwards, Frio, Goliad, Gonzales, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Jim Hogg, Kimble, Kinney, La Salle, Lavaca, Live Oak, Maverick, McMullen, Midland, Pecos, Presidio, Real, Terrell, Uvalde, Val Verde, and Zapata.
The change came as all four county judges for Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr counties held an online virtual meeting Friday and they decided to stand against the governor in solidarity and to refuse to sign local disaster declarations, Border Report has learned.
“We did come to that consensus that we’re not going to sign off at this time. I’m not going to say that we’re never going to sign off but we still have a lot of questions that have not been answered,” Starr County Judge Eloy Vera told Border Report on Monday afternoon. “All four of us were on the same page as far as that is concerned. We don’t feel we have a disaster.”
All four of us were on the same page as far as that is concerned. We don’t feel we have a disaster.”Starr County Judge Eloy Vera
Abbott’s future border security plans — which include building a wall along the Texas-Mexico border and jailing all undocumented migrants who illegally cross — hinges upon local leaders signing off by declaring local states of disaster. So by cutting out the counties that have refused, it appears that Abbott can go forward with his plans, political watchers tell Border Report.
“My initial reaction is we’re moving toward what we want. The largest most populated counties are not included in that disaster declaration any longer. He’s only included the ones that have declared a disaster that have accepted to work with him, which are the smaller more rural counties,” Danny Diaz, director of organizing for the Hidalgo County-based nonprofit La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), told Border Report.
“The governor got a clear message that he can’t count with the Valley counties on this PR stunt that he’s working on,” Diaz said. “That’s good that the Valley is countering.”
Diaz said that several migrant advocates and activists have been putting pressure on the four local county judges not to side with Abbott. But aside from showing up at their commissioner court meetings and emailing and phoning local officials, he said they also are “working together” to form a strategy for the Valley to unite as one large population center — with over 1 million residents — to reject Abbott’s plans.
“Abbott’s disaster declaration would have dire consequences, not only for human rights abuses, but economically, financially at the local level by putting a burden on local taxpayers for local prisons,” Diaz said.
Abbott’s disaster declaration would have dire consequences, not only for human rights abuses, but economically.”Danny Diaz of LUPE
He says the message has been delivered loud and clear to Abbott, who still is scheduled to come to the Rio Grande Valley on Wednesday along with former President Donald Trump to tout Abbott’s new border security plans.
“This is the way the state has always treated the Valley in a sense,” said Harrington who founded the nonprofit that is based in South Texas. “This is just utter political machinations.”
Vera said the group of four county judges has decided not to sign local disaster declarations unless crime statistics were to change for the worse and to show a trend that migrants are threatening the safety of local residents. Right now, he says that’s just not the case.
“I’m sure the governor has a lot more information than I have. But I have a lot of unanswered questions,” Vera told Border Report last week during an hour-long sit down in his Rio Grande City office.
“No one on the border in the Valley is against securing the border or safety in the community — we’re all for that. It’s just we don’t agree with the way it’s being done,” Vera said.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez also told Border Report that he had no plans in signing such a declaration unless crime statistics warrant it.
If Abbott goes forward with his plans and has local peace officers arrest and detain migrants for criminal trespassing for crossing illegally into Texas soil, then Vera and Cortez, as well as the other two county judges worry about where they will find enough jail space to hold the migrants.
Starr County is the second-poorest county in the state, Vera said, and it relies on revenue from leasing its jail space to inmates from other counties, as well as the federal government he said.
Between $3 million and $3.5 million each year is generated by leasing out jail beds — which is about 10% of the county’s $30 million annual budget.
If they were forced to jail hundreds of migrants, then the rural county’s 275-bed facility “would fill up in two days,” Vera said.
In addition, he anticipates another $3 million in medical, housing, food and other inmate costs could be incurred. “That’s money our county doesn’t have,” he said.
By going against the governor, Vera admitted they are taking a chance that Abbott could cut off additional state funding.
“Starr County, well we’re not that financially secure. We’re very economically deprived.. So when the governor says that if we do not do this we could lose state funding that would also be disastrous for us. Our hope is that groups or agencies that are looking out for the welfare of the migrant people that they keep it in the court until such time as something is decided legally,” Vera said. “We cannot fight the state. We do not have the resources. But there are groups or agencies and nonprofits that can do that.”
Abbott’s actions, it seems, might have just let them off the hook, at least for now, said Diaz, whose group is organizing a Border Community Town Hall the morning of Trump’s visit.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.