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Broken Border

"The federal government has really dropped the ball": Texas lawmakers express concern about conditions for migrants in U.S. custody

Two Texas House committees met for hours to discuss the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. And some Democratic lawmakers said the state has a responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance. But what options they have remained unclear.

State Reps. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, and Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, listen to testimony at a joint hearing held by the Ho…

Broken Border

A surge of migrants arriving at the Texas-Mexico border has pushed the country's immigration system to the breaking point as new policies aimed at both undocumented immigrants and legal asylum seekers have contributed to a humanitarian crisis. The Texas Tribune is maintaining its in-depth reporting on this national issue.

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*Correction appended.

Local officials from the Texas-Mexico border, civil rights attorneys and the heads of law enforcement agencies spent hours Friday detailing for Texas House members how the large number of migrants crossing the southern border is straining several government entities.

And lawmakers discussed ways the state could help with the ongoing border crisis that has drawn national attention and spurred partisan battles in Washington, D.C. Many legislators were concerned about conditions in federal holding facilities in Texas, where a number of children in custody have died due to illness and there have been reports of sexual abuse.

“This, to me, is the largest concern — the health and well-being of people that are in our custody and care,” said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston.

His and other officials' comments came during a joint hearing of the Texas House's International Relations and Economic Development Committee and the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. The hearing was on the same day that reporters accompanied Vice President Mike Pence on a tour of a McAllen facility in which 400 migrants who reportedly hadn't been allowed to shower for days could be seen packed behind fences with no mats or pillows.

Earlier this month, the federal government reported that the number of migrants apprehended at the border had dropped from May to June but still said operations are at a crisis level. Several speakers who testified at the Friday hearing suggested the influx is due to migrants who are anticipating a change to immigration law and want to enter the U.S. before any alterations.

Many lawmakers expressed concern about maintaining healthy living conditions in federal facilities. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, however, does not have the authority to regularly enter and assess conditions in federal facilities unless invited by the federal government.

The same is true for allegations of sexual assaults at facilities. An attorney for the Texas Department of Family Protective Services said the state operates a 24-hour sexual abuse hotline that receives notices of abuse that take place in private homes, state facilities and federal facilities. But the state’s jurisdiction falls short of investigating cases that occur in federal facilities.

“If it is a federally operated facility that is not state licensed, DFPS lacks the authority to investigate,” said DFPS Deputy General Counsel Tiffany Roper.

Lawmakers heard from county judges, mayors, civil rights attorneys, and the heads of state public safety and military departments for several hours Friday. Many testified that the federal officers at the border are struggling to handle the large number of people seeking asylum. As a result, counties and cities along the border have been trying to fill in gaps.

"We are spread thin," said Maverick County Judge David Saucedo. "I can tell you the U.S. Border Patrol is spread thin in our community. Fifty percent or over 50% of officers are being used in humanitarian efforts — a situation they can no longer handle.”

Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens said the local immigrant processing center has been releasing five to 20 migrants into the county each day in recent weeks, a total of 5,300 people since May 11.

"It's different in every city and every county, but this should not be our problem," Owens said. "These are the cards we've been dealt; we're going to take care of it, but it should not be our problem."

Some House members are looking for ways to support communities and law enforcement officers at the border who are struggling to process migrants and provide them with basic resources. Representatives discussed allocating state money and law enforcement to relieve the burden placed on border communities.

After more than five hours of testimony, state Rep. Poncho Nevárez said there is still more to learn but that Texas has the responsibility and resources to make sure asylum seekers are treated humanely.

“I do believe there’s things that we can do,” said the Eagle Pass Democrat, who chairs the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.

The Texas government has been sending law enforcement officers to the border to help Customs and Border Protection officers in recent weeks. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott sent 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, where he said there is a crisis that "Congress is refusing to fix." And earlier this year, Abbott signed a state budget that earmarked $800 million to be sent to border operations for the next two years.

Many speakers and lawmakers said Friday thatthe state would be a better fit to provide humanitarian resources. Ramsey English Cantu, the mayor of border city Eagle Pass, said his city doesn't have the resources to screen asylum seekers for communicable diseases. Nevárez asked if the state could provide assistance through the Health and Human Services Commission.

"We are not talking about a response that involves law enforcement or prosecution," Nevárez said. "We’ve got plenty of cops on the beats; let’s let the cops do the police work and let these folks that are inundated get some relief from us, because we are capable and we can provide it."

But what options state lawmakers or agencies have wasn't immediately clear Friday. Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said while his agency is in regular communication with federal authorities, it has no jurisdiction within immigration facilities. Plus, the Legislature adjourned in May and won't return to lawmaking and budget writing until 2021.

State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, advocated for filing a lawsuit against the federal government in order to get more resources to the border, both for law enforcement and humanitarian efforts.

"The federal government has really dropped the ball here. 1986 was the last major immigration reform under President Reagan," he said. "I think someone just needs to get going with a lawsuit."

Also on Friday, several civil rights attorneys gave testimony detailing the struggles migrants face in the legal system. Migrants who seek asylum are not automatically granted an attorney, and many organizations who work to provide free or low-cost legal assistance to migrants are overwhelmed with cases, contributing to a backlog that can keep migrants in detention centers for weeks.

Attorneys on Friday asked committee members to consider a program in which the state provides legal assistance to migrants, which would help both those seeking asylum and the overwhelmed immigration system.

"If the true objective is to help alleviate the system that is currently overwhelmed ... then we would argue that a very simple thing to be argued and requested is to provide more adjudicating people who are qualified to adjudicate this incredibly high volume of applications," said Jose Ramirez IV, an attorney with the Refugee Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

"Because part of that problem is that backlog," he added.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when the Texas Health and Human Services Commission may enter federal facilities.

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