The state’s top leaders called Wednesday for intensified border security operations by Texas law enforcement personnel at a cost of $1.3 million a week to “combat the flood of illegal immigration into the state.”
Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, all Republicans, directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to use any available funds to secure the border as it sees fit. They said the “surge” operations would continue at least through the end of the year. That would total more than $30 million.
“Texas can’t afford to wait for Washington to act on this crisis, and we will not sit idly by while the safety and security of our citizens are threatened,” Perry said in a statement. “Until the federal government recognizes the danger it’s putting our citizens in by its inaction to secure the border, Texas law enforcement must do everything they can to keep our citizens and communities safe.”
The statement cited Border Patrol figures that show a sharp increase in apprehensions of immigrants entering the country illegally in the Rio Grande Valley.
The leaders announced the initiative Wednesday evening, and details of the operation weren’t clear. Last fall, DPS conducted a three-week “surge” on the border that focused on human and drug trafficking. Agency officials called the operation a success, citing a decline in drug seizures and felony pursuits. The operation also deployed controversial regulatory checkpoints — state-operated immigration traps — that generated public outcry. DPS Director Steve McCraw defended the checkpoints, saying they heightened safety, but he said in December that the agency wouldn’t use them in the future.
Last week, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the U.S. Homeland Security Department for $30 million so Texas could send more state troopers to the border.
The announcement of the border initiative came on the same day that reporters were given tours of crowded Border Patrol stations in the Rio Grande Valley and Arizona, where thousands of immigrants are being held before they are transferred to other shelters around the country.
It was the first time the media was given access to the facilities since President Barack Obama called the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since October an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
The surge in minors, mostly from Central America, has overwhelmed the U.S. government.
The children pose a particular challenge because the law requires that they be transferred from Border Patrol stations like the ones in Texas and Arizona to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours.
From there, they are sent to shelters for several weeks as the government tries to reunite them with any family in the U.S. The network of about 100 shelters around the country has been over its capacity for months and is now caring for more than 7,600 children.
Children at Fort Brown in Brownsville remain in the custody of an agency ill-equipped to care for them. On Wednesday, dozens of young boys were divided from dozens of young girls. Mothers with children still younger were in another cell.
Hundreds of young boys and girls covered with aluminum foil-like blankets were lying next to chain-link fences topped with barbed wire.
Happier faces could be found in a side yard just outside the station. There, young children colored pictures under a camouflage tent.
A group of about a dozen girls of perhaps age 5 or 6 sat under another tent outside a shower trailer, dark hair wet and shiny. Women wearing blue gloves combed each girl’s hair. Tables held stacks of clean bluejeans, T-shirts and toiletries.
Deeper into the yard, teen girls kicked a soccer ball and tossed a football with workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In Nogales, Ariz., girls playing soccer with two male border agents shrieked when their ball crossed over the chain-link fence and away from the small recreational area covered by a white tent. Others playing basketball cheered on their teammates.
But inside, the approximately 1,000 children in the clean, 120,000-square-foot warehouse were silent.
In a roomy area with teen boys, a large, high-definition TV playing the World Cup went largely ignored.
A small group of boys in that fenced-in area played soccer. But most lay on tiny mattresses and covered themselves with thin, heat-reflective blankets that look like aluminum foil.
Chain-link fences 15 feet tall and topped with barbed wire separate the children by age and gender.
Federal agents said they couldn’t provide an estimate of the number of minors at the facility because the figure is fluid as children transition in and out.
Authorities in Nogales have struggled to adjust to their new role as temporary caretakers.
For example, it took a few days of children rejecting breakfast burritos before agents learned that Central Americans aren’t accustomed to flour tortillas. FEMA renegotiated its contract with a food vendor to begin receiving corn tortillas instead.
The children are fed three times a day and take turns by group to use the 200-seat dining area.
In their statement Wednesday, the Texas leaders didn’t mention a special session of the Legislature to address border security, which has been called for by some tea party groups. Longtime insider Harvey Kronberg opined Wednesday in his online Capitol news source, The Quorum Report, that a special session isn’t likely.
Special sessions driven by anything except a court mandate or unfinished legislative business are bad ideas, he said.
“They are costly and unpredictable and can quickly turn into quicksand. Even a governor and lieutenant governor at the peak of their powers can lose control,” he wrote.
Material from American-Statesman staff writer Tim Eaton and the Associated Press.