Big Bend county judges say increased migrant activity and limited law enforcement prompted issuing of local disaster declarations

TRI-COUNTY — Last week, Both Presidio and Jeff Davis counties brought disaster declarations issued by their respective judges to a vote in commissioners court. Jeff Davis County commissioners tabled ratifying County Judge Curtis Evans’ proclamation, citing legal concerns, but Presidio County forged ahead and ratified a declaration issued the week prior by County Judge Cinderela Guevara. 

Invoking Article 4 Section 7 of the Texas Constitution, Guevara’s declaration, issued on July 6, declares an “invasion” of the county thanks to “unprecedented levels of illegal immigration.” The document calls on Texas Governor Greg Abbott to also “declare an invasion on the border with Mexico.” In May 2021, Abbott issued a similar disaster declaration for 54 counties in Texas, and renewed said declaration in August, amending the declaration to cull several counties on his list. 

Under Section 418 of the Texas Government Code, issuing a disaster declaration expands some of the county judge’s powers. If detailed in the county’s emergency management plan, the county can charge fines and jail time for failure to comply with an emergency declaration. The judge may also order an evacuation of the county, or take measures to control “ingress and egress” from their jurisdiction at the county line. Judge Guevara previously issued a disaster proclamation to combat the COVID-19 pandemic; the county is currently under a state proclamation for drought. 

Judge Guevara explained the difference between her two disaster proclamations, issued a little over a year apart. “The one we did last year signed on to the governor’s — in that one, we weren’t declaring an invasion,” she said. “That one was just asking that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our borders not be violated anymore by illegal immigration. This one is different because several counties are declaring an invasion.” 

At last week’s meeting of the Presidio County Commissioners Court, Presidio County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Joel Nuñez gave a presentation on the challenges his department faces patrolling the vast, remote reaches of the county. Nuñez reported that since January 2020, 340 undocumented individuals had been apprehended within the PCSO’s jurisdiction. “It’s just not acceptable,” Judge Guevara said in response to Nuñez’s presentation.

Though this round wasn’t initiated by the governor, she’s still hoping that the proclamation will earn attention, money and resources from larger entities and fill perceived gaps in local law enforcement. “I didn’t hesitate to issue a declaration of local disaster under my own authority,” Guevara told The Big Bend Sentinel. “That helps us right away. We’ve already declared an emergency, and that helps open us up for federal funding or state funding.” It was not immediately clear what material or financial benefits the declaration would bring. Governor Abbott’s office did not return a request for comment on the matter.

 

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) did report a more than triple jump in numbers of single adults attempting to cross the border in 2020, but 2020 was also the year the agency adopted Title 42 measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Title 42 calls for the “immediate expulsion” of migrants, rather than holding them in detention centers. After Title 42, the agency saw a 27% recidivism rate, suggesting that the agency’s pandemic-era statistics reflect a large number of repeat border-crossers, rather than a true surge in migration. 

So far this fiscal year, CBP has reported a 6.5% decrease in “encounters” for the Big Bend sector, which saw the least migrant traffic of any CBP sector in the Southwest — about half of the next least-busy sector, California’s El Centro. “The Big Bend sector is responsible for the largest geographical area of any sector along the Southwest border,” the agency’s website proclaims. 

Nuñez’s count of undocumented migrants — 340 in two and a half years — may put Presidio County toward the bottom of the pack. The agency doesn’t officially keep track of encounters by county, but for scale, the city of Van Horn in Culberson County also issued a disaster proclamation during last spring’s wave of immigration disaster proclamations. The week Van Horn’s proclamation was released, CBP agents apprehended 115 migrants in a single encounter just outside city limits.

Guevara was grateful to Deputy Nuñez for providing the commissioners with local statistics and anecdotes — both officials feel it’s a problem of scale. The PCSO has four deputies, compared to dozens of Border Patrol agents who cover the same terrain. “It was really eye-opening, because we don’t see it happening, but it is happening,” she said. “The very same thing you see on [national] news is happening here in Presidio County, but it isn’t on the news.”

As a lifelong resident of Presidio County, Guevara has seen conditions on the border change through numerous administrations, local and national. “I do believe that it does have to do with the [Biden] administration saying they will not build a wall, I feel like there used to be more control over our borders” she said, referencing the fact that President Biden suspended construction on the border wall his first day in office; he also chose to keep Title 42 in place.  “I feel like [migrants] took it as an invitation, like ‘Come on in, we’re going to welcome you. We’re going to be able to take care of you.’ That’s not the case.” 

Jeff Davis County Judge Curtis Evans echoed Guevara’s sentiments. Evans was inspired to issue his proclamation after getting in touch with Kinney County Judge Tully Shahan; he also noted that Val Verde County and the City of Uvalde had also issued similar declarations. “This is definitely something that’s going to help the area to secure our border,” he said. 

The Jeff Davis County Commissioners Court ultimately voted to table ratifying Evans’ proclamation until the state attorney general could sign off on the legality of the measure. “We want to make sure we’re not like a chihuahua barking — we want to make sure this thing has some teeth,” Evans said.

Evans has lived in Fort Davis since 1982, and feels like policing immigration is more of a challenge than it’s ever been. “It’s way worse,” he said. “We’re not getting the workforce that is needed anymore, it’s mainly drug runners. There’s more break-ins, there’s more destruction. It’s not like it used to be.”

Valentine seems to be the hub of immigration activity in Jeff Davis County — Evans cited an incident in 2021 when a structure on the Miller Ranch was set on fire by a migrant in distress hoping to attract attention from emergency personnel. “We should be able to rely on our federal government because this is a federal issue,” he said. “The feds are not doing their job, and they’re putting all of the burden on these rural counties. We can’t afford it.” 

Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton wasn’t consulted on the emergency proclamation before it was issued. “From the perspective of county officials, there’s a slight increase in state-charged alien smuggling under state law, but it’s a slight increase, not an avalanche,” he explained. These statistics may, in part, have inflated because the governor’s office made it easier to arrest people accused of human smuggling as a part of last year’s Operation Lone Star initiative. 

Though Ponton pushed back on immigration statistics offered by local officials, he echoed their hopes that immigration crimes be primarily a federal concern. “Neither the DA nor myself or the sheriff really want to be dealing with immigration offenses,” he said. “Federal national policy is basically letting the word out to the streets of the world to come to the U.S.” 

Guevara, Evans and other local officials are hoping that their call to arms will aid their counties in getting the help they need to deal with immigration offenses. “Now the governor can ask the federal government to send additional assistance,” Guevara said. “I think [Abbott] has been very proactive and not reactive. I think he has done everything in his power to secure the border here in Texas.”