By Jack Phillips
Several South Texas counties issued disaster declarations as the Title 42 immigration order expired Thursday and amid predictions that waves of illegal immigrants will cross the border in the coming days.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez on Thursday issued (pdf) a disaster declaration, allowing his county to obtain relief funds. The county sits across the Rio Grande from Tamaulipas, Mexico, and there have been reports of thousands of would-be illegal immigrants located across the river waiting to cross.
Around the same time, Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino, too, issued a disaster declaration on Thursday “in response to the imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from the Border Security Disaster,” according to a statement from his office. The “Border Security Disaster” went into effect immediately and will last for seven days until further review, his office said.
Cortez said that he received word that some 20,000 illegal migrants could potentially surge into Hidalgo County in the coming days. His county is located at the very southern tip of Texas.
“I have received credible information from officials with Customs and Border Protection that large groups of migrants are probing our international border in search of crossing points,” Cortez told local media outlets. “I have decided to declare this emergency as a first step in securing all available state and federal resources to ensure the health and safety of our residents.”
He noted that when it comes to illegal immigration, his county has no authority. The federal government is the sole authority in the United States that has the capacity to handle illegal immigration, although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has taken steps to deal with border security the recent days and month.
Other counties along the border have called on the Biden administration to take emergency action in response to the impending disaster. Federal officials have fought in court to keep Title 42 in place, but it was ordered by courts to be lifted at midnight.
“A full response by (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the National Guard, like they would in any other disaster where they provide boots on the ground for housing, food, transportation, and health care—that would be the beginning,” said Douglas Nichols, the mayor of Yuma, Arizona, in a CNN interview.
Republicans, meanwhile, criticized the Biden administration for what they said was a poor response to the border crisis and illegal immigration.
“And there are, right now, over 22,000 illegal immigrants right across the river,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a video on Thursday, pointing across the Rio Grande. “They’re waiting. They’re waiting for Title 42 to expire, and then the invasion we’re going to see is going to be massive,” he added.
Pointing to the camera, Cruz then declared: “Joe Biden, this is your fault.” He added, “The people who are killed crossing illegally: That’s your fault. The women who are sexually abused crossing illegally: That’s your fault. The children who are brutalized crossing illegally: That’s your fault.”
The expired rule, known as Title 42, has been in place since March 2020 before it expired at around midnight on Friday. It allowed border officials to quickly move people back over the border on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. The United States has declared the national emergency over, and with it, the restrictions end.
While Title 42 prevented many from seeking asylum, it carried no legal consequences, encouraging repeat attempts. After Thursday, illegal aliens face being barred from entering the United States for five years and possible criminal prosecution.
It was not clear how many migrants were on the move or how long the surge might last. By Thursday evening before the expiration, the flow seemed to be slowing in some locations, but it was not clear why, or whether crossings would increase again.
The days leading up to the expiration have been chaotic. The Border Patrol stopped some 10,000 migrants on Tuesday—nearly twice the average daily level from March and only slightly below the 11,000 figure that authorities have said is the upper limit of what they expect after Title 42 ends—one U.S. official said.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned of overcrowding. “We’re seeing precisely the challenge we expected,” Mayorkas said Friday on ABC’s Good Morning America. “We cannot control the movement of people before they reach our border.”
More than 27,000 people were in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody. Holding facilities along the border already were far beyond capacity. Officials had orders to release people with a notice to report to an immigration office in 60 days if facilities reached 125 percent capacity or when they were held 60 hours or more. The quick releases were to also be triggered when authorities stop 7,000 migrants along the border in a day.
But late Thursday, U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell, an appointee of President Donald Trump, temporarily halted the administration’s plans to release people into the United States, and set a court date a week from Friday on whether to extend it more.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.