Texas lawmakers demand federal reimbursements for migrant humanitarian care

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas lawmakers held a joint House hearing Friday to address and assess the economic strain that the surge of migrants on the Southwest border is putting on the state and local communities, and repeatedly called on the federal government to provide reimbursement funds for humanitarian care of migrants. Lawmakers also demanded that detained migrants are treated humanely, especially unaccompanied minors. 

Members of the Committee on International Relations and Economic Development, and House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety heard hours of testimony from state and local leaders including county judges, the mayor of Eagle Pass, the general in charge of Texas National Guard troops, and the head of the Department of Public Safety who all stressed that the financial burden of caring for migrants is not financially sustainable long term. The state has spent over $2.4 billion since 2008 in border security, and many local communities have spent their own funds to provide humanitarian care, like McAllen in South Texas, which has spent over $1 million.

Texas lawmakers listen to testimony on the migrant surge and treatment of immigrants during a joint hearing in Austin on July 12, 2019. (Sandra Sanchez/Nexstar Broadcasting)

The state has spent over $2.4 billion since 2008 in border security, and many local communities have spent their own funds to provide humanitarian care, like McAllen in South Texas, which has spent over $1 million.

“The federal government has failed to do its job,” State Rep. Rafael Anchia, chairman of the International Relations and Economic Development Committee said at the start of the proceedings. “These needs are federal needs. The committees here today cannot make immigration courts work any quicker, they cannot grant status to the migrants, but since this is not just immigration, but a humanitarian crisis, we can express our values in this humanitarian effort.”

Lawmakers repeatedly asked leaders from several state agencies how Texas can leverage federal funds to help offset costs incurred by cities, counties and non-governmental entities to offer migrants humanitarian help. This includes housing, showers, childcare, clothing, food and medical care that many communities and nonprofit organizations have pooled resources to help for arriving migrants who have been released from federal care due to overcrowding at detention facilities.

However no obvious solutions became apparent during the afternoon hearing that stretched well into the evening, and no federal official was on hand to testify or answer questions.

Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantu said about 120 migrants are being released daily in his city and the community’s situation “is desperate” as they struggle to meet the demands of the migrants. 

“This should not be our problem. These are the cards we’ve been dealt, we are going to do the best we can,” Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens testified. Over 5,300 migrants have been released by federal border agents since May 11 in his county, which includes the city of Del Rio. Care of these migrants has fallen to a grassroots volunteer coalition that is currently spending $2,500 per day on care, and which has prevented the use of county taxpayer funds, so far,  Owens said. The uptick in migrant crossings in Val Verde went from 10 to 15 per month, to 10 to 15 per day, Owens added.

“This should not be our problem. These are the cards we’ve been dealt, we are going to do the best we can,”

Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens

“We’re going to need all the help we can get,” Owens said. “The humanitarian effort is going to have to happen, the coalition can’t do it forever and at that point we won’t be able to sustain it.” 

The subject of federal assistance and oversight also came up throughout the hearing as lawmakers examined whether migrants at detention centers were being treated fairly and whether federal officials are doing the necessary due diligence to ensure that unaccompanied minors and migrants seeking asylum are not being abused or subject to disease outbreaks due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

A recent report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general found widespread overcrowding and mistreatment of migrants detained at Texas detention facilities in Clint in West Texas, as well as facilities in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.

Karla Vargas, a senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who went to the Weslaco facility and interviewed migrant children also testified about inhumane conditions endured by migrants there. Prior to her testimony, she told Border Report there were nursing mothers forced to feed their infants by sitting on the floor next to filthy toilets; a lack of beds for the children; freezing cold rooms where children huddle under thermal blankets, and food that is cold and not nutritious served to the children. 

“The conditions in which people are being housed are absolutely unconscionable. Regardless of what your stance is on immigration, this is no longer an immigration issue. This is an issue of just plain morality. We are in a situation right now where we have had many children die directly because of their being housed in their facilities and the absolutely horrid conditions in which they’re housed,” Vargas said.

Conditions like these breed disease and several state medical professionals testified about outbreaks of mumps and the flu, which also spread from migrants to CBP agents. Immigration advocates also testified that the drinking water tasted heavily of chlorine, food was spoiled or rotten and women sometimes went days without being provided menstruation products.

Tiffany Roper of the Texas Department of Family Protective Services testified that so far this fiscal year there have been 81 allegations of abuse against children at detention facilities; up from 39 cases of abuse in fiscal 2018.

State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, urged Texas file a lawsuit against the federal government to ensure that it steps in and reimburses the state and local entities and oversees facilities properly. “The federal government has really dropped the ball here,” Raymond said, adding that to spark attention: “Maybe we can send them a letter with ‘P.S. I love you.’

In the meantime, however, Raymond urged that the Legislative Budget Board should step in and adjust the budget and authorize repayment of funds to help cities, counties, agencies and groups that are helping the migrants.

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