Texas county judge aims to dispel misconception between DHS-released migrants, those in U.S. ‘illegally’

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EDINBURG, Texas (Border Report) — The thousands of migrants Department of Homeland Security officials release into Hidalgo County, Texas, are “legal immigrants” because they are allowed to legally travel within the United States, County Judge Richard Cortez says.

That’s something not many people fully understand and something that adds to misperceptions about the Rio Grande Valley region, Cortez told Border Report during Monday morning sit-down interview he hopes will set the record straight between who is “legally” allowed to be in the country, and who is here illegally.

“What we have now is an overflow of ‘legal immigrants,'” Cortez said from his office in Edinburg, Texas. “These are legal immigrants that our law says they can come here and they can stay here and this is what’s causing the problem.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez is seen at his offices in Edinburg, Texas, on Aug. 2, 2021. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“That’s the concern that we have and that’s what I want people to distinguish, is that we have two classes of immigrants: The immigrants who are here legally and we, as the law, have to process them, and the illegal ones that are not here legally and they’re different. And the problem we’re having is with the legal immigrants more so than the illegal immigrants.”

In a nutshell, Cortez describes the “legal immigrants” as the vulnerable migrant families with tender-age children under 6 who since early February have been released by DHS agents with a Notice to Appear or documents indicating future U.S. immigration court hearings or information on how they must report to an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in their final destination. They are seeking asylum due to fears of persecution, gangs or other issues in their home countries.

The “illegal immigrants,” he says, are the single adults who are coming for economic reasons and who do not qualify for asylum as long as Title 42 travel restrictions remain. They typically pay smugglers to drive them through ranchlands and often lead police and Border Patrol on high-speed chases and bailouts as they try to circumvent border checkpoints in more remote and western areas, miles from the Rio Grande border.

But the confusion is understandable and often tough to decipher.

Several migrants who have been tested for coronavirus and cleared of the virus on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, walk to the entrance of the Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown, McAllen, Texas. The migrants were tested after DHS officials released them from custody. They carry paperwork, such as the manila envelope the woman holds, allowing them to travel in the United States and instructions for showing up for future immigration court hearings and reporting to their ICE officer. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Cortez said incorrect terminology in media reports calling the migrants “illegal” fuels the misconceptions, which also are spurred by comments from leaders like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott who regularly and repeatedly have blamed the Biden administration for a surge in “illegal immigrants” into Texas from Mexico.

“The Biden Administration has created a constitutional crisis between the federal government and the State of Texas. This stems from the Biden Administration’s refusal to enforce immigration laws and allow illegal immigrants with COVID-19 to enter our country. As our communities are overrun and overwhelmed by the record-high influx of migrants, cartels and smugglers profit off the chaos,” Abbott said in a statement on Friday

The governor’s criticism came after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a federal lawsuit was filed against Texas because Abbott last week issued an order restricting the transportation of migrants in Texas by anyone other than a peace officer due to fears the migrants are spreading COVID-19.

A group of migrants with a young child wait to board a bus in downtown McAllen, Texas, on July 29, 2021. The man on the right holds DHS-issued paperwork in a manila folder allowing them to travel within the United States. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The back-and-forth between federal and state officials is growing old quickly here in South Texas, where Cortez says “our hands are tied” and he is desperate for Congress to pass laws that will rectify the current situation.

“It has to come from Washington to at least solve the problem of legal immigration,” Cortez said.

“At some point in time you have to say let’s stop what we’re doing, let’s taking control of what we’re doing,” Cortez said. “Right now I have very frustrated federal officials, very frustrated state officials, and very frustrated local officials.”

His comments come after 3,000 migrants were apprehended by federal border authorities on Sunday, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, told Border Report.

Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, posted on social media photos from last week showing hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants being held under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, which is in his district.

Last week, there were 21,921 apprehensions of migrants in the Rio Grande Valley, up from 20,647 the prior week, Cuellar told Border Report on Monday.

Many of those arrested who are what’s called “family units” with tender-age young children will be legally released by DHS officials because Mexican officials in the northern state of Tamaulipas are refusing to take back young children. Mexican officials say they do not have the proper infrastructure to safely house young children.

Border Patrol trucks are frequently seen outside the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Most of the families will be dropped off in downtown McAllen, Texas, where Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV) operates the Humanitarian Respite Center and a free COVID-19 testing facility across from the bus station. Those who are negative for the virus are free to travel to other cities and volunteers at the center help them with travel arrangements. Families with a COVID-positive member are quarantined at a dozen area hotels that have been contracted by CCRGV for them to safely isolate.

However, Abbott’s orders last week preventing the movement of any migrant who had been detained by border authorities, worried local leaders like Cortez, who fear it will prevent the non-governmental organizations from helping legal migrants.

Last Monday, CCRGV shut its door to new arrivals for the first time after being overcapacity.

The NGO has continued to help and isolate migrants in need of safe quarters and transport despite Abbott’s orders.

On Monday, Border Report witnessed DHS officials dropping multiple busloads containing dozens of migrants at the downtown corner where CCRGV runs a sprawling operation that takes up several storefronts.

And CCRGV volunteers and staff in their familiar green vests continued to walk migrants across the street to the bus station, and taxis drove families to the airport and other places.

A green-vested volunteer from Catholic Charities helps walk migrants to the downtown bus station in McAllen, Texas, on July 29, 2021. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report )

But the region is at a breaking point, and Cortez said something needs to happen quickly.

On Friday, Cortez sent President Joe Biden a letter requesting he come and visit the border and see the situation for himself. He also asked the president “for an increase in federal manpower and resources” and “for the immediate cessation of admissions of additional immigrants in the RGV Sector.”

He says federal officials “must add more capacity” to safely hold and process the high volume of migrants, which continues to increase daily.

“There’s only two things the Biden administration can do: Change the law so it can be manageable — so we can manage that flow of legal immigrants. And in the interim, if you’re not going to change the law, then predictably, based on our history more are coming. So we’ve reached the point of capacity.”

“We’ve reached the point of capacity.”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

The “legal” migrants, under federal law, must be processed within a few days and released. And he says South Texas is doing its best to safely help test them for coronavirus by partnering with local, city and federal officials to keep communities safe so they don’t board buses or airplanes carrying the virus.

But he believes that is a federal responsibility and he blames the Biden administration for not testing the migrants for COVID-19, nor realizing the gravity of the situation plaguing his region.

“We have a law and a policy that’s creating a problem of having too many legal immigrants coming into this area,” he said.

On Monday, Cortez and the City of McAllen issued similar disaster declarations designed to retrieve reimbursements for caring and treating the “legally” released migrants.

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