The surge of unaccompanied children and families illegally crossing the border that flooded into Texas last year has dropped off dramatically, but Texas lawmakers say the numbers are still high enough to justify the hundreds of millions of dollars they are planning to spend on beefing up the state's border presence.
U.S. Border Patrol Agents agents in the Rio Grande Valley are on pace to see 60 percent fewer unaccompanied immigrant children this year than they did during the 2014 fiscal year, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics.
From last October through this May, 13,250 unaccompanied minors surrendered or were apprehended by agents in the Valley, mainly in Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties. That’s compared with 33,400 during the same time period during the 2014 fiscal year.
The number of family units — mothers or guardians with at least one minor child — crossing illegally has also decreased: About 14,280 have been apprehended this year, compared with about 29,000 between October 2013 and May 2014.
Signing a border security bill in Houston on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott recognized federal agents for their efforts, but said the thousands of immigrants illegally entering Texas just last month prove that the federal government has failed to secure the border on its own.
“We appreciate the federal government and the [Department of Homeland Security] for the efforts that they are lending in this regard,” Abbott said. “But standing alone we’ve seen that they have been incapable of staunching the problem.”
Abbott also recognized that the Mexican government has made an effort to ramp up security within its borders to help stem the tide of illegal crossers into Texas. But he said that mission has not been fully accomplished.
“When you see that we still have more than 25,000 people a month coming across the border, you see the challenges are still great,” he said, citing a statistic from Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who visited Houston on Monday. “In fact, last month alone almost 4,000 unaccompanied children came across the Texas border. So it shows the problems still exist.”
The bill Abbott signed, House Bill 11 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, will speed up the hiring of about 250 Texas Department of Public Safety troopers on the border, establish an intelligence center there to analyze crime data, enhance penalties for human smuggling and keep the Texas National Guard in the area until the DPS is fully staffed. It carries a price tag of about $310 million, part of the $800 million lawmakers appropriated for border security.
Local officials dealing with the crossing problem firsthand say the situation appears less dire. City of McAllen officials understand the political firestorm the border security issue has sparked, but said they are ready to deal with another influx.
“We’re still going to treat those them humanely and get those folks” where they need to go, said Teclo Garcia, McAllen's director of government and public affairs. Since last summer, the city and Hidalgo County have partnered with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley to provide temporary shelter to the undocumented mothers who cross the border with their children.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said last month that since last summer, 17,716 undocumented immigrants have passed through the shelter, with about 2,050 staying overnight. An average day now sees about 38 clients at the shelter compared with an average of 52 for the year.
The local governments have had to spend about $650,000 of their own money to staff the shelter and provide security and some health care. But they will be reimbursed when the Federal Emergency Management Agency finalizes details of that process.
Even if surprised by a sudden surge later this summer, officials appear confident they are better prepared. And they add that taking care of the migrants is the right thing to do.
“We’re all humans and we all share this planet,” Rio Grande Valley sector chief Kevin Oaks said last month at a news conference. “I am not saying that it’s completely solved. But what I am saying is I think we’re better prepared than we were last year.”