Texas' border mission grows, but crossings still high

Migrant Deaths

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Following the horror of a human-smuggling attempt that left 53 people dead, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state troopers to inspect more trucks — again expanding a border security mission that has cost billions, given the National Guard arrest powers and bused migrants to Washington, D.C.

What Abbott’s get-tough plans haven’t done in the year since he began rolling them out is curb the number of people crossing the border.

Along the border in Texas, where officials say Monday’s fatal tractor-trailer journey began, U.S. authorities stopped migrants from crossing illegally 523,000 times between January and May, up from 417,000 over the same span a year ago. It reflects how, across the nation’s entire southern border, crossings are at or near the highest in about two decades.

The deadliest smuggling attempt in U.S. history illustrated the limitations of Abbott's massive border apparatus as the two-term governor, who is up for reelection in November, points the finger at President Joe Biden. Immigration advocates have disagreed with Abbott’s criticism and said Biden is focused on enforcement.

“Texas is going to take action to do our part to try to reduce the illegal immigration coming into our country," Abbott said Wednesday while on the border in the town of Eagle Pass.

He said that state troopers would begin inspecting more tractor-trailers in wake of the tragedy. He did not provide details about the extent or location of the inspections. But unlike an inspection effort three months ago that gridlocked the state's 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) border for a week, troopers are not checking every tractor-trailer as it comes into Texas.

The Texas Department of Public Safety did not respond to questions Friday about how many trucks have been inspected since the governor's order or whether any migrants have been found.

Critics have questioned the transparency and metrics of what is now a $3 billion mission since Operation Lone Star was launched in the spring of 2021. Some arrests, including for low-level amounts of marijuana during traffic stops, appear to have little to do with border security. After a rushed deployment of the Texas National Guard, some members complained of low morale, late paychecks and having little to do.

Since April, Abbott has offered bus rides to Washington, D.C., to migrants who cross the border, saying he was taking the immigration issue to Congress' doorstep. So far, about 3,000 migrants have taken the trip at a cost of more than $5 million.

“Greg Abbott, all he wants to do is gotcha phrases and gotcha stunts without any real solutions,” said state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat whose district includes the back road in San Antonio where the truck was found abandoned. “He’s spent over $10 billion supposedly securing the border and hasn’t done one damn thing to fix this.”

U.S. border authorities are stopping migrants more often on the southern border than at any time in at least two decades. Migrants were stopped nearly 240,000 times in May, up by one-third from a year ago.

Comparisons to pre-pandemic levels are complicated because migrants expelled under a public health authority known as Title 42 face no legal consequences, encouraging repeat attempts. Authorities say 25% of encounters in May were with people who had been stopped at least once in the previous year.

Abbott's earlier truck inspection effort drew wide backlash and caused deep economic losses, and troopers found no migrants or drugs.

Abbott stopped the checks after signing agreements with governors in Mexico's four neighboring states, but warned he might reimpose them if he didn't see improvement. The number of migrants crossing in May was higher than in April.

Asked about it Wednesday, Abbott said “accountability may come soon." He also blamed Mexico's federal government, saying it needs to do more.

He says the operation overall has been successful, pointing to more than 4,000 migrants arrested on state criminal trespassing charges, 14,000 felony arrests and drug seizures. He also said Texas has turned back more than 22,000 migrants over the last year — a fraction of the attempted border crossings across the southern border in a single month.

Before Monday’s tragedy, the deadliest attempted smuggling in Texas was in 2003 when the bodies of 19 people were found dead in a sweltering trailer about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of San Antonio. Jeff Vaden, a former U.S. attorney who helped prosecute that case, said sentences for smuggling migrants are not high enough.

“It’s not a deterrent for people taking that risk,” he said.

One of the first to visit some of the migrants pulled from the truck and hospitalized in San Antonio was Antonio Fernandez, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, which provides migrants and their families with housing and assistance.

Fernandez said summer is usually a slower time, but not this year. A hotel used by Catholic Charities that typically shelters 50 people has lately been filled with 100 every night, and he now has eight members of staff who help families with immigration, up from just one.

“My conversations with a lot of these people, clearly, they have nothing in their countries,” Fernandez said. “They don’t have a life and they don’t feel safe. They’re hungry. For them, America is not a choice. It’s the only option they have."