TEXAS VIEW: Migrants released en masse as Abbott’s border game unravels

THE POINT: The influx of migrants demands stepped-up attention but governors’ expensive border security initiatives won’t substitute for needed federal action.

The first sign that Gov. Greg Abbott’s approach to the surge of migrants at the border was shortsighted and politically motivated was when he referred to it as a “game.”

“We’re gonna start by helping these 34 (border) counties respond by increasing arrests,” Abbott told Sean Hannity on Fox News on June 3. “We got a new game in town in the state of Texas that’s going to begin next week.”

The “game” deployed about 1,000 state troopers to the border to arrest migrants on trespassing charges which would have them spend “half a year in jail, if not a year in jail,” Abbott said proudly. Apparently, nobody told Abbott, a former Texas attorney general, that his approach was predicated on flagrant violations of state law.

Hundreds of migrants arrested for trespassing have now been jailed for weeks with no charges filed against them, and dozens more have been jailed for more than a month without being appointed a defense attorney, as required in cases involving indigent defendants and Class B misdemeanors or higher offenses. State law requires defendants to be released on cashless bonds or have their bail reduced “if the state is not ready for trial” before certain deadlines are met. For most trespassing cases, prosecutors must file charges within 15 days.

We shouldn’t be surprised that state District Judge Roland Andrade, a Republican, took a close look at this process and decided to grant the release of 240 migrants being jailed in Kinney and Val Verde counties on cashless personal bonds. There are thousands of others who have been arrested since June under Abbott’s executive order, with many likely facing the same backlogged courts that prompted Andrade to act in his cases.

Abbott essentially set up an ad hoc criminal justice system solely for the purpose of processing alleged migrant trespassers. Local officials have scrambled to not only find space to jail suspects — migrants were being held in state prisons outside of the counties they were arrested — but have also had to recruit judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys — all at a steep cost. Lewis Owens, Val Verde County judge, expects to submit an invoice to the state between $380,000 to $400,000 for the extra staff and overtime the county has had to pay.

“Is it sustainable? It can’t be,” Owens told the editorial board. “Why would we want it to be? Why would we want to keep throwing this amount of money at (border security)?”

Owens said Abbott’s approach has helped reduce the crossings in his county, but at what he called an unsustainable cost. He also worries that migrants are simply crossing at other locations to stay ahead of the enforcement efforts.

What happens next to the migrants who’ve been released is anyone’s guess. Federal authorities may take them into custody or deport them or screen them for asylum. Some will be released into the United States while they await immigration proceedings. Nothing Abbott has done on the border has stemmed the overall tide of migrants willing to risk a dangerous border crossing into America, most of whom are fleeing poverty, violence or environmental disasters.

Abbott is right about this much: The influx of migrants across Texas’ border with Mexico demands stepped-up attention from the Biden administration. But ad hoc games on the part of attention-seeking governors won’t substitute for needed federal action, including comprehensive immigration reform, more judges and resources for backlogged immigration courts and increased diplomatic efforts on the ground in troubled home countries. Biden has work to do, but Abbott’s expensive, burdensome border security initiatives are nothing more than a lesson on what not to do.

Houston Chronicle