AUSTIN, Texas – This week I met with Texas Governor Rick Perry as he visited Border Patrol and Department of Public Safety personnel in the Rio Grande Valley.
My region of the state is at the epicenter of a recent influx of tens of thousands of Central American immigrants surrendering to border enforcement — many of whom are unaccompanied children fleeing crushing poverty and violence in their home countries.
In light of this unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and the federal government’s failure to fix our broken immigration system, I joined several lawmakers in asking the Governor to ensure a coordinated, multifaceted Texas response. Our state must supplement the recently-announced $1.3 million per week law enforcement surge with additional adequate resources to compassionately deal with detained migrants.
I strongly believe the responsibility of reforming the nation’s related immigration and border security laws must rest with the federal government. However, Texas cannot afford to shoulder the burden of a sluggish and piecemeal federal response to immigration. That is why I applauded the Governor for authorizing DPS to temporarily support our strained local law enforcement as they prevent crime in coordination with border protection officers.
But we shouldn’t settle for a stopgap solution to the present situation. Instead, just as we would plan coordinated responses to catastrophic disasters, Texas should have long-term plans for responding to large-scale movements of people to our borders — plans which respond to the unique humanitarian needs of migrants.
State law already provides the tools necessary to address such crises in a manner that is humane. For example, the Texas Government Code created the Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), which is empowered to coordinate an effective response to situations like the one before us, assisting communities with the development of programs to address immigrant needs. To my knowledge, however, OIRA has limited its scope to providing local agencies funding and guidance to assist only refugee families.
The Governor also has the authority to appoint an independent taskforce or advisory body comprised of experts in immigration policy, including representatives of local immigrant health, education, and legal providers. I believe the manner by which Texas deals with mass immigration could be improved through these stakeholders’ input.
At the very least we must have the ability to coordinate with private donors and foundations to direct financial resources to cash-strapped municipal and nonprofit entities who have provided shelter, food, and healthcare to recent immigrants. We must also identify local costs for which entities may receive federal reimbursement.
Some of my colleagues have called upon the Governor to call a special session of the Legislature. I support that call, provided it offers space for local first-responders, health agencies, and nonprofit and faith-based groups to provide nuanced guidance on how to compassionately address this crisis.
In particular, I have grave concerns regarding the conditions in which recent immigrants — especially unaccompanied minors — are required to stay. I recently toured Valley detention facilities. What I saw then were cramped conditions not fit for any person, least of all young children. We must direct the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Office of the Attorney General to coordinate additional resources to fill the federal preparedness gap. Such resources should include Spanish-speaking case workers who would ensure children are not exploited before, during, or after placement in a state-licensed facility.
I pray every day that the U.S. Congress will overcome the partisan divisions that prevent it from passing common sense immigration legislation. The federal government’s inaction over decades has directly led to our present crisis. How Texas now responds must send a message to Washington: fair-minded leaders can provide solutions that balance our nation’s interest in securing the border, promoting the legitimate flow of people and product necessary to keep our economy strong, and treating all persons with respect and dignity.
Eddie Lucio, Jr., is Texas state Senator for District 27, which is composed of Cameron, Kenedy, Kleberg, Willacy, and part of Hidalgo Counties. A Democrat, Lucio is a native of Brownsville, Texas.