Presidio County officials approve ‘declaration of local disaster,’ stating the county is under ‘invasion’

PRESIDIO COUNTY — On Wednesday, Presidio County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a “declaration of local disaster,” which claims that border crossings by “illegal aliens” combined with drug and human trafficking place county residents under “imminent threat,” and that the volumes of those border crossings constitute an “invasion” of the county.

At Wednesday’s Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said that she had made the declaration on July 6 — the commissioners’ votes served to ratify and extend that temporary declaration. With the declaration ratified, it is now in place permanently until the judge decides to terminate it — “until the threat is not imminent,” Guevara said at the meeting.

The aim of the declaration is twofold, explained Guevara — to declare that Presidio County is under an invasion, and to call on Governor Greg Abbott to declare the existence of an invasion at the border and to use state power to expel migrants. Though deportations fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, the declaration invokes the Texas and U.S. Constitutions, arguing the governor is granted “constitutional authority” to “prevent and/or remove all persons invading the sovereignty of Texas and that of the United States.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Presidio County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Joel Nuñez gave a presentation to the commissioners about what, in his view, had become a full-scale crisis on the border, and said he hoped the declaration would lead to the county receiving “more equipment, more money, and more manpower.”

He opened by explaining the geographic challenges his department has to deal with: Presidio County is the third largest county in Texas by area, and because PCSD patrols around the clock, it’s difficult to cover the vast, remote territory. 

Nuñez told the commissioners he’d started noticing serious problems in the department’s ability to deal with immigration-related crimes like human smuggling starting in January 2020. “We just don’t have coverage,” Nuñez said. He also felt that the nature of crime on the border had gotten much more violent in the two-year period. Drug busts involving dangerous substances like fentanyl were on the rise; weapons were being trafficked into Mexico. “Now, we’re always having to wear our [bulletproof] vests,” he said. 

Nuñez also noted that his department was finding migrants and smugglers in increasingly desperate — and creative — situations. A group of migrants was detained on the street in front of Presidio Elementary School, he said; another group of migrants were found attempting to hitch a ride on a Solitaire mobile home headed toward its final destination. 

“It’s just not acceptable,” Judge Guevara said in response. She claimed that in 2020 and 2021 she had personally called every rancher in Presidio County to gather horror stories about migrants breaking into outbuildings and crossing ranchland in broad daylight.

The commissioners who were present voted unanimously to ratify and extend the judge’s declaration. Commissioners Eloy Aranda, José Cabezuela and Buddy Knight voted in favor; Commissioner Brenda Bentley was not present. 

Precinct 4 commissioner candidate David Beebe raised concerns about how long the emergency declaration would last, primarily raising the alarm about the authority the county will be granted and transparency issues that could arise in the wake of such a declaration. “Does this put the county into an emergency situation where the county commissioners can do things like impose curfews or hold meetings without notices?” he asked. Judge Guevara answered in the affirmative. 

The declaration would put the county in a state of emergency, said Judge Guevara, allowing it to claim reimbursements from the state. When Beebe asked whether the declaration was for the purpose of seeking those reimbursements or wielding the ability to make sweeping decisions under such an emergency declaration indefinitely, Guevara responded by stating the declaration would remain in place until the threat was no longer imminent — ”The threat is imminent,” she said.

“That’s true,” agreed Beebe — but he was concerned about the ramifications of such a declaration. “The county’s going to take emergency powers for the foreseeable future, and maybe the public might want to think about that.”

“We’ll take any action that needs to be taken in order to protect all the residents of Presidio County,” said Judge Guevera. 

Judge Guevara was not immediately available to answer questions about the declaration and its implications. The vote came as The Big Bend Sentinel was going to press on Wednesday, and The Sentinel will continue to cover the matter. 

The declaration comes as immigration rights groups critique the use of the word “invasion” to describe migrants, stating such language fuels anti-immigrant sentiment, and has been used by violent extremists. The white gunman who killed 23 people in an El Paso Wal-Mart in 2019 had said the shooting was in response to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Presidio County has several other Texas counties in issuing declarations that call on the governor to declare an “invasion,” the idea being that invoking such language would grant Texas wartime powers to remove migrants. Still, outstanding legal questions remain regarding the state’s authority to remove migrants, as the declaration calls for — it was due to these legal concerns that officials in neighboring Jeff Davis County on Tuesday declined to ratify the declaration that had been signed by Judge Curtis Evans, though commissioners were generally supportive of the declaration’s intent. 

Earlier this year, Republican State Representative Matt Krause, who represents the Fort Worth area, had asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to issue a legal opinion on the matter — but such an opinion has not yet been issued, noted Jeff Davis County Precinct 2 Commissioner Todd Jagger. Besides which, Governor Abbott — though he has not declared an invasion — already signed an executive order instructing state law enforcement to return migrants to the border, perhaps making the counties’ participation a moot point, he said. Given all that, it would be more prudent to hold off on ratifying, he argued. County Attorney Teresa Todd agreed.

“This is a very complicated and sticky legal issue, so I think a more appropriate way would be to find another method to support our neighbors,” said Todd. The Jeff Davis County officials passed a motion to support the declaration, but to await ratifying it until a legal opinion had been rendered by the attorney general.