Editorial other views

The following editorial published in the Houston Chronicle on Aug. 26:

In Brooks County, deputies have found so many dead migrants in the brush, the state government brought in a portable morgue to handle the overflow. In Val Verde County, exhausted law enforcement officers are relying on game wardens from Florida to help pull bodies of migrants from the Rio Grande.

These disturbing accounts didn’t come from immigrant rights activists but from border sheriffs themselves during a state House appropriations committee hearing Tuesday on a nearly $2 billion border security bill.

The bill, drafted at Gov. Greg Abbott’s request, doesn’t seek to address the humanitarian crisis at the border in any effective way. Like Abbott’s other politically motivated efforts to throw state money at a federal problem, the bill doubles down on deterrence by funding mostly chain-link fences that won’t stop people desperate enough to trek to our southern border and ask for asylum.

What’s a chain-link fence to a person who just crossed a parched desert to escape the threat of violence at home?

Joe Frank Martinez, the Val Verde County sheriff, told a story at the hearing of a Haitian woman pregnant with twins drowning while attempting to cross the Rio Grande. He said a Venezuelan woman and her 5-year-old son who crossed the border in Val Verde County told him they had been traveling for four years and preferred to drown trying to cross the river than to “stay home and die.”

“These people are desperate, and until our federal government has an easier process to gain asylum or citizenship, this is political football,” Martinez said. “Nobody’s ever going to score a touchdown, nobody’s ever going to get ahead.”

The only answers — from comprehensive immigration reform, to more judges and resources for backlogged immigration courts to diplomatic efforts on the ground in troubled home countries — are all the federal government’s responsibility, not the state’s. The Biden administration needs to do more to help local governments deal with the influx of migrants, but Abbott’s expensive plans to use state money are as wasteful as they are powerless to change anything.

Even after the state Legislature previously authorized more than $1 billion in border security funding for the next two years; even after Abbott deployed 1,000 state troopers to arrest migrants on trespassing charges, even after the state converted a prison to an immigrant detention center, migrants continue to risk their lives making this harrowing journey.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has recorded 1.3 million encounters with migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border this year, with the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Del Rio sectors accounting for nearly half of that total. While migration to the U.S. typically wanes in the hot summer months, more than 200,000 migrants attempted to cross the southern border in July.

For decades, we have been told by both Democratic and Republican proponents of prevention through deterrence policies — that the key to preventing migrants from coming is bolstering border security. If we make the border terrifying enough, they argue, by turning it into a militarized zone with giant walls, border patrol agents armed to the teeth, and the looming threat of detainment in abhorrent conditions, migrants would think twice about coming here. Study after study has shown that natural disasters, economics and political turmoil drive numbers, as greater spending on deterrence yields diminishing results.

Abbott, like many Republican leaders with grand ambitions, is branding himself as a true believer in deterrence, or at least in its political upside. He consistently slams the Biden administration for its “open border” policies, failing to acknowledge that Biden left in place President Donald Trump’s “Chapter 42” policy that allows for many migrants to be immediately expelled and that under Biden, detainees have more than doubled since the end of February, as the Associated Press reported earlier this month.

By directing the National Guard in June to assist law enforcement in arresting migrants at the border for criminal trespassing, Abbott has clogged jail cells with migrants and put a strain on local officials.

Martinez, the Val Verde County sheriff, testified that his 171-cell jail is at full capacity and his county has spent an additional $83,000 just to prosecute migrants arrested over the past five weeks. Yet, according to testimony, nearly all of the 489 people arrested and prosecuted since late July in Val Verde and Kinney counties faced misdemeanor trespassing charges. Only one person had been charged with human smuggling.

Abbott’s earlier executive order banning charities from transporting migrants created a catastrophe for cities such as McAllen, which were forced to shelter swells of migrants who were suddenly stranded. The order was eventually blocked by a federal judge.

The House committee eventually approved the border bill, which will now be sent to the full House. In addition to the $750 million for fencing on state land, it would spend $300 million to send more than 4,000 National Guard soldiers to assist local law enforcement and state troopers with “detaining and arresting criminal trespassers,” according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood). Another $270 million would convert three state detention centers in the border region to be able to house those charged with trespassing and repay the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for the $250 million “down payment” Abbott borrowed to build a border wall in June. For the dozens of border counties and local governments whose resources are depleted, the bill proposes $100 million in law enforcement assistance grants.

Abbott’s spending priorities send a clear message: He thinks he understands what’s driving the border crisis better than local officials picking up migrant corpses in their own backyard.

Cash-strapped border cities from Brownsville to El Paso will now have to compete for law enforcement resources. And pleas from Rio Grande Valley officials who need more COVID-19 test kits and shelter space to house asylum-seekers are being ignored.

By throwing up more border fencing, Abbott is exposing his lack of understanding of migration patterns. Historically, increased enforcement on one area of the border has produced a “funnel effect,” redirecting illegal entry attempts to increasingly remote areas in which migrant mortality has seen an exponential rise. Places that once saw few migrant encounters, such as rural West Texas, are now also begging for additional resources to detain migrants who have damaged private property.

Abbott’s policies and profligate spending won’t remove the incentive for gangs and drug cartels to profit off of trafficking migrants across the border. And they certainly won’t prevent desperate migrants fleeing poor countries, violence and environmental disasters to attempt a dangerous crossing.

Texas taxpayers shouldn’t be saddled with a $2 billion bill that is designed to benefit the governor’s re-election prospects more than any communities along the border.

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