The FEMA plan is an indication the Biden administration views the influx as a significant emergency. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters Monday the situation did not amount to a crisis but rather a “stressful challenge” that he blamed on Trump administration policies aimed at deterring migrants and asylum seekers that had undercut U.S. capacity.
FEMA support in Texas would be primarily aimed at testing and potentially quarantining family groups and adults before their release from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The number of apprehensions made along the Mexico border has pushed even higher over the past week, with agents taking more than 4,000 people into custody every day — a level of enforcement activity that nears the 2019 crisis.
In addition to a fourfold increase in the number of migrant teens and children since last fall, CBP began receiving more parents with children in late January, when Mexican authorities stopped accepting the return of some family groups, citing their own shelter capacity limits. Families that are not returned to Mexico are typically issued a notice to appear in court and released from custody to nonprofit groups that help them reach their destinations in the U.S. interior.
CBP does not screen migrants for coronavirus infection unless they demonstrate signs of illness, but the state of Texas has sent test kits to local officials to perform checks. The FEMA proposal would strengthen that effort and provide a system for isolating those who test positive, according to those familiar with the plan.
Judge Richard Cortez of Texas’s Hidalgo County said he would welcome the FEMA support because immigration is a “federal issue.”
“We owe a duty to the immigrants because they are asylum seekers, but they also owe a duty to those of us who live here,” Cortez said. “So we welcome [the federal government] doing their job to pay for whatever consequences immigrants bring to the county.”
To add capacity for parents with children, the Biden administration plans to convert family detention centers run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in South Texas into rapid-processing hubs that will aim to release the families within 72 hours.
DHS officials expect the volume of teens and children in custody to reach record levels this spring if the trend continues, internal emails show.
The FEMA proposal requires sign-off from Abbott, who accused the Biden administration in a tweet Tuesday of “recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities.” This week Abbott lifted mask restrictions in his state, which has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates.
“Border security is strictly a federal responsibility,” Abbott said in a statement Thursday, without saying if he would approve the FEMA request.
“The federal government alone has the responsibility to test, screen and quarantine illegal immigrants crossing our border who may have COVID,” he said. “Instead of doing their job, the Biden Administration suggested it did not have the sufficient resources and, remarkably, asked Texas to assist them in aiding their illegal immigration program. Texas refused. We will not aid a program that makes our country a magnet for illegal immigration.”
After taking office, Biden ordered his administration to stop using a Trump-era public health order to rapidly return minors to Mexico, a practice advocates denounced for placing teens and children in unsafe conditions. Most of the youths crossing the border are from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, the latest CBP figures show.
By law CBP is supposed to transfer the minors within 72 hours to the oversight of the refugee office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But a lack of shelter capacity has left hundreds of teens and children stuck in austere Border Patrol stations for longer periods.
DHS officials did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Abbott did not respond to a request.
During the first large influx of families and unaccompanied minors in 2014, the Obama administration assigned FEMA to lead a multiagency task force that set up temporary shelters at U.S. military bases.
FEMA officials have been working in Texas in recent weeks to administer vaccine doses and respond to the emergencies caused by widespread power failures during last month’s severe cold snap. The FEMA assistance in South Texas could involve emergency personnel as well as funding, according to one person with knowledge of the proposal.
Some Democrats in South Texas have been among the most outspoken critics of the Biden administration’s handling of the border surge. They have called for assistance with the latest migration wave, noting their communities are among the nation’s
hardest-hit by the pandemic.