County officials approve another ‘declaration of local disaster’ over ‘border crisis’ — with toned-down rhetoric

MARFA — Presidio County Commissioners on Wednesday approved an “Emergency Declaration of Local Disaster” for the county, citing an influx of undocumented migrants and border-related crimes in other border communities. The action grants County Judge Joe Portillo emergency powers to exercise if he sees fit and will allow the county to file for reimbursement from the state for law enforcement and other emergency-related costs.

“This is strictly proactive, preventative,” said Portillo — a point he emphasized repeatedly. He acknowledged that Presidio County has not seen the uptick in migrant crossings seen in Eagle Pass, Del Rio or El Paso, likely due to the inhospitable terrain of the surrounding desert. Still, he pointed to a recent event wherein a group of migrants was left stranded in a Chihuahua City rail yard while attempting to ride atop a train to Ciudad Juárez. 

Chihuahua City is mere hours from Presidio, said Portillo, leading him to wonder how the county could respond if a large group of migrants showed up at the Presidio Port of Entry.

“We would be ill-prepared to give them even water, let alone food,” said Portillo. “This just puts us in a position to act quickly.”

The declaration itself, and discussion among commissioners over its passage, were inevitably dogged by the controversial declaration of local disaster passed last year by then-County Judge Cinderela Guevara, which characterized activity at the border as an “invasion” — language strongly condemned by immigrant rights groups for fueling violent extremism. (The white gunman who carried out a mass shooting at an El Paso Wal-Mart in 2019 had cited a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” as a motive.)

In the following months, Commissioner Brenda Bentley said she had received complaints from constituents regarding the “invasion” rhetoric used in the declaration.

The matter was addressed head-on by those present at Wednesday’s meeting — Commissioner Bentley said she had met with Judge Portillo to craft the wording, removing the word “invasion” altogether. The new declaration, which was read aloud in court, also does not contain the word “aliens” to describe migrants, as the previous declaration had.

Commissioner David Beebe expressed frustration with how the previous declaration had been handled by the former judge. “I know that was political, but let’s be clear: that accomplished what for us, besides hateful language?” he said.

“This issue last year was upsetting, destructive and completely unnecessary,” Beebe continued.

Last year’s declaration served, in part, as an appeal to Governor Greg Abbott to declare an invasion at the border in order to use state power to expel migrants. 

Rather than being in service of the governor’s mission, commissioners argued that this new declaration represented the county asserting its local autonomy — it would allow the county to use its own local law enforcement, for instance, and file for reimbursement, rather than relying on state forces.

“I understand we do need to set ourselves up for reimbursements,” said Beebe. “Let me also make clear that we are in charge of our own capital. That’s why we’re trying to assert our independence from the people who want a centralized government in Texas. So I’m good with this. I just want the public to understand that we’re actually taking a step back from invasion rhetoric to something more sensible and something more practical and legal, rather than political.”

The declaration will remain in place for 30 days only, at which time the county will have to decide whether to renew it. When asked by Commissioner Beebe whether he had any immediate plans to deploy emergency powers during those 30 days, Judge Portillo said he did not, but was in constant contact with Border Patrol and the Port of Entry in Presidio.