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Are migrants causing 'carnage' at the Texas border?
If Your Time is short
- Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said during a press conference that migrants crossing into the state are causing "carnage" in Texas communities.
- Data submitted by law enforcement agencies to the state doesn't back up this claim. While traveling migrants are causing various kinds of property crimes, violent crime levels are relatively stable so far this year.
BRACKETTVILLE — In April, the local elected officials of Kinney County felt that they were under siege. Their expanse of rocky borderland located 100 miles west of San Antonio had become a perilous crossing ground for migrants who had made their way across the Rio Grande.
So Kinney County Judge Tully Shahan took an unprecedented measure. He issued a local state of disaster, a statutory procedure typically invoked by communities experiencing hurricanes, floods or wildfires.
"On April 21, 1836, Texas won her independence during the battle at San Jacinto, the final and decisive battle of the Texas Revolution," Shahan, a Republican, wrote in the disaster declaration. "Today, 185 years later, Texas is once again under siege, as thousands upon thousands of illegal aliens invade our State through our border with Mexico."
The move caught momentum. Over the next month, similar declarations were issued by another 14 counties — some located along the border, others more than 200 miles away.
By May 31, the issue culminated in Gov. Greg Abbott issuing his own disaster proclamation, citing a "humanitarian crisis in many Texas communities along the border." Then he took his border response one step further when, on June 16, he announced that Texas would undertake border wall construction using a combination of state dollars and crowdfunding to stave off what he and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called an invasion.
"What has changed is the carnage that is being caused by the people coming across the border," Abbott said in a press conference announcing his border wall plans. "Fences of ranchers along the border are being completely decimated causing border ranchers to lose their livestock or border farmers to lose their crops. Homes are being invaded. Neighborhoods are dangerous, and people are being threatened on a daily basis with guns."
Later, Patrick added that "this is a fight for our survival."
The crush of migrants crossing into Texas has spiked by 360% so far this year compared with the first half of 2020, according to federal data. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has recorded nearly 400,000 migrant encounters in Texas this year, although a large portion of this total, up to 38% in some months, is due to migrants re-entering the country after at least one prior expulsion.
The surge is a product of drastic changes in immigration policy between the previous and current presidential administrations combined with a worsening set of economic circumstances in migrants’ origin countries — primarily Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
When asked by a reporter if Abbott has any intention to address the humanitarian needs of those entering the U.S. seeking a better life, he instead emphasized the humanitarian needs of Texans.
"I'm focused on the humanitarian crisis that Texans are suffering through," Abbott said. "Texans on the border are suffering through a humanitarian crisis by having their lives disrupted with guns and gangs and being riddled with crime."
So what does the invasion of Texas borderlands look like in places like Kinney County? And to what extent are these migrants causing "carnage," a word that by all definitions denotes violent killings?
Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe’s small department oversees 1,360 square miles of hardpan terrain and 16 linear miles of the Rio Grande. And in Coe’s 35 years of law enforcement in the region, never has he seen the current level of activity.
"We're going non-stop," he said. "There's no end in sight."
The types of calls his deputies repeatedly respond to relate to the migrants trespassing through private ranches. The fences they cut aggravate ranchers for allowing livestock to escape. The water lines they slash for hydration can drain ranchers’ reservoirs.
Then there are the cases of migrants breaking and entering into empty ranch houses or deer blinds, often leaving places disheveled and pantries ransacked. Occasionally, firearms will turn up missing.
"They always take water and they take food, but one (rancher) reported they took various other things lying around the house — binoculars, knives, things like that," Coe said.
But there hasn’t been an increase in violent crimes in Kinney County, Coe said. And the same appears to be true for many counties within the state’s border region. Among all rural border counties that have submitted violent crime data to the state’s Unified Crime Reporting program, violent crimes are occurring at a similar, if not slower, pace this year compared to 2020.
The same is generally true for the border’s urban areas, according to the Unified Crime Reporting data, which was obtained through an open records request. Among the border’s largest cities, El Paso, Brownsville, and Edinburg are all on pace to match last year’s violent crime numbers, while Laredo is on pace to reduce its annual crime rate. Only the city of McAllen is on pace to exceed last year’s violent crime totals.
Rather, it’s property crimes and migrant rescues that have law enforcement agencies working overtime.
In the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office has responded to brush fires set by desperate migrants hoping to be found by authorities. They’ve reported a rash of cut fences, cut water lines and break-ins of empty ranch houses.
"They're not stealing anything per se that's of any value, but they are breaking in and getting food and water and stuff like that," Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West said.
The same goes for Terrell County, whose sheriff’s department is now mostly occupied with migrant-related calls.
"The takings (from break-ins) are not necessarily televisions and stereos or anything like that, it's mostly travel things — clothing, shoes, boots, food, water," said Terrell County Sheriff Santiago Gonzalez. "The kinds of things you would carry when you're out camping or out walking."
But violent crimes and murders? "Oh no. Definitely not," Gonzalez said.
To Pam Rivas, a landowner with several acres along the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County, the only major change in her community resulting from the border crisis is the ubiquity of state troopers. In May, Abbott deployed 1,000 state troopers and national guard members to the border region to combat drug smuggling.
Rivas spent her childhood growing up on the river-front property, but today she can't travel the roads without being closely tailgated by a state trooper or having her car searched.
Although she has seen some migrants make their way through the area, it's law enforcement that makes her feel harassed. Recently, her car was searched by state troopers after she was observed by Border Patrol driving on her own land.
"Just because I go and take a cruise on my property, I'm guilty of something?" she said.
Although the border crisis hasn’t had a major impact on violent crime rates so far this year, one crime statistic that has spiked in some areas is car thefts.
In Lavaca County, which is over 230 miles from the border, the sheriff’s office has recorded more than 10 stolen vehicles so far this year, which is about five times higher than what the county has recorded in years prior.
"Several of those vehicles have been recovered during vehicle pursuits with human cargo between here and the (Rio Grande) Valley," said Lavaca County Sheriff Micah Harmon. "We know that that’s the reason they’re being stolen and what they’re being used for."
And one sheriff in Goliad County reportedly found a site on a ranch that was being used to strip stolen vehicles "for the purpose of human trafficking."
But surging car thefts isn’t occurring everywhere. While state data shows that the number of car thefts in El Paso in the first half of 2021 is already close to last year’s total, other cities — like McAllen and Laredo — have low car theft incidents so far this year.
Nonetheless, stolen vehicles and high-speed pursuits have become increasingly common in the border’s rural areas. While the incidents themselves aren’t considered a violent crime, high-speed pursuits of smugglers with human cargo have often resulted in crashes, which have left many migrants seriously injured or killed.
"Personally, I consider that when a driver of a stolen vehicle flees from us and he crashes into a tree and injures nine or 10 people, and fails to stop and render aid to those people — I call that pretty violent," Harmon said, referring to a recent pursuit involving his deputies that began in the city of Hallettsville.
Harmon’s point underscores a theme that is wound though many sheriff’s experiences of the border crisis: The people who are encountering death in the borderlands are the migrants themselves — contrary to Abbott’s claim that it’s the migrants who are bringing "carnage" upon Texans.
Emergency call centers routinely receive calls from lost migrants asking to be rescued. In Hudspeth County, a drought-stricken desert expanse, the sheriff’s office sometimes responds to 15 rescue calls per day. Other migrants have poorer luck.
"I've had 20 dead ones since September," West said. "They're in canyons. They're on mountains. They could be seven, eight, 10 miles from any closest road."
"They just don’t realize how much water it takes to come across the desert like this," he said.
The growing tally of deceased migrants is much the same elsewhere. Terrell County has recorded 10 — the most migrant deaths "this county has seen in I don’t know how many years," Gonzalez said.
Kinney County has recorded around seven, which is two or three times the county's totals of previous years. Some succumb to heat exhaustion; others are found drowned in the river.
"The words ‘invasion,’ and ‘carnage.’ What does that depict? That depicts horrific violence that has no place here," said Karla Vargas, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project representing several landowners fighting government land seizures. "If you want to talk about carnage, let's talk about the carnage that these people are fleeing."
According to Abbott, the border crisis is causing Texans to suffer by disrupting their lives "with guns and gangs and being riddled with crime." And it's the people who are crossing the border that are causing "carnage" in the state, he said.
But this violent rhetoric is an exaggerated depiction of what law enforcement agencies are encountering on the ground.
If we take carnage to mean criminal violence and killings, state and local crime data doesn’t back that up. Although various law enforcement agencies in border communities have recorded a rash of property crimes attributable to traveling migrants — like break-ins, cut fences and car thefts — violent crime is relatively steady compared to last year.
We rate this claim False.
KVUE-TV, LIVE: Gov. Greg Abbott holds press conference on border wall, June 16, 2021
Kinney County, Declaration of Local State of Disaster, April 21, 2021
Office of Gov. Greg Abbott, Proclamation by the Governor of the State of Texas, May 31, 2021
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Land Border Encounters (By Component), accessed June 30, 2021
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, CBP Enforcement Statistics Fiscal Year 2021, accessed June 30, 2021
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, CBP Announces May 2021 Operational Update, June 9, 2021
Emails with U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Nate Peeters, June 30, 2021
Austin American-Statesman, Fact-check: Is the surge of migrant children arriving at border a result of Biden policies? March 29, 2021
Sheriff of Goliad County Roy Boyd, letter to county judge, April 21, 2021
Interview with Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe, June 23, 2021
Interview with Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, June 23, 2021
Interview with Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber, June 23, 2021
Interview with Terrell County Sheriff Santiago Gonzalez, June 23, 2021
Interview with Lavaca County Sheriff Micah Harmon, June 23, 2021
Texas Department of Public Safety, Annual Report on Texas Border Crime and Other Criminal Activity, May 30, 2021
Texas Department of Public Safety, Crime Records — UCR (via open records request), provided June 30, 2021
Texas Tribune, Greg Abbott sends state troopers, National Guard to border after increase in fentanyl seizures, May 27, 2021
Texas Civil Rights Project press call, June 24, 2021
Interview with Pam Rivas, June 28, 2021
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