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RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – The four county judges in the Rio Grande Valley are strategizing ways to oppose Gov. Greg Abbott’s plans to build a new border wall and arrest undocumented immigrants that cross that wall.
Starr County Judge Eloy Vera says he is in discussions with his counterparts in the Valley – Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr., and Willacy County Judge Aurelio ‘Keeter” Guerra, Jr.
Vera (pictured above) told the Rio Grande Guardian that he did not go to Gov. Abbott’s much-publicized border security summit in Del Rio last week. At the event, Abbott proclaimed the border a disaster area.
“I did not go and I am very careful how I answer that. You know the politics behind all this,” Vera said. “What I usually start off with is, I am sure the governor has a lot more information than I do. But, having said that, there are things that really concern me.”
Some of Vera’s concerns about Abbott’s immigration and border security plans revolve around legality.
“I am not a lawyer but I hear from lawyers that say that immigration law belongs to the feds, not to the state. The wall, or fence that he (Abbott) wants to build, my understanding is he wants to build it so he can charge undocumented people with trespassing. If there is no fence there is no trespassing,” Vera said.
“Again, this is information I have received. The problem with that… and now he is threatening that if we don’t enforce it he is going to choke our state funding. I have an issue with that.”
Vera fears Starr County will take a financial hit if it has to detain undocumented immigrants that have been arrested for trespass.
“As far as us arresting these undocumented people and bringing them into our jail, that brings a lot of questions. One, we only have 270 beds, of which we lease out to the feds and neighboring counties quite a few. And we receive around $3-$3.5 million annually, from these leases. If we fill them out with our local prisoners, that goes to zero,” Vera said.
“Not only does that go to zero, now we have an expense of feeding them and clothing them. And once they step in our jail they become our prisoners, so we are responsible for their medical needs. If someone needs open heart surgery we need to pay for that. Is the governor going to reimburse us? I don’t know.”
Vera said Abbott is also talking about expanding capacity in county jails along the border.
“He is talking about opening up the capacity of the jails to 500 or 600, which I guess he can. But, what does that do to us? That means we are going to have prisoners sleeping on the floors. There is enough stress in there because they are locked up as it is. Now we are going to overcrowd them? We are going to have a lot of violence and fights in the jail that we don’t have right now. We would need more jailers. There are just so many questions that have not been answered.”
Vera said he agreed with Judge Cortez in neighboring Hidalgo County about the need for more answers from Abbott.
“I have talked to him (Cortez) and local law enforcement. I am not going to deny that we have a lot more undocumented people coming across than we did before. But that is not a disaster for us. It might be for the feds, for the Border Patrol or CBP. It is not for us. It is not costing us a penny.”
Asked if undocumented immigrants crossing the Rio Grande into Starr County are causing any aggravation, Vera said, no.
“I agree with Judge Cortez. I don’t feel it is a disaster. Do we have a problem? Yes, we have a problem, but we have problems every day. But not a disaster.”
The Rio Grande Guardian asked Vera what he thought of the idea proposed by public policy analyst Ron Whitlock that the border wall be built north of the Valley, in the ranch lands. Whitlock made the suggestion because the noisiest complaints about undocumented immigrants are coming from ranchers. Vera came up with a different solution.
“I think a more effective answer to all of this would be… if Mexico would enforce their southern border. If they can hold 50 percent of them down there then it would be manageable for us. But, it is an open gate. Give it (the money for a border wall) to Mexico. But, again, that is above my pay grade.”
Asked if he had provided his analysis to Gov. Abbott’s office, Vera said: “Judge Cortez, Keeter from Willacy, myself, Eddie from Cameron, I have not spoken to him because he has been in trial, but we are buying time, we are not answering anything, we are not signing anything until we get some answers. We want to go in as a united front. I do not have the resources to fight the governor but Hidalgo and Cameron do and we will join them in that. So, that’s the plan, but hopefully the feds will not allow him (Abbott) to do what he wants to do. But, that is to be seen.”
Vera mentioned Judge Treviño being in trial because he is an attorney.
A perennial problem for Starr County is it heavily militarized. Local residents often complain about the large number of DPS troopers parked on Highway 83. Asked about this, Vera said:
“We lost 65 percent of our DPS. They moved them to Del Rio because that is where he (Abbott) is a hero. Here, we don’t want them. They want them over there.”
But doesn’t Starr County like having DPS and other law enforcement officers spending money in restaurants and grocery stores, Vera was asked.
“That is the drawback. The only positive thing is they were buying fuel, buying groceries, eating in restaurants. I had an interview by Channel 5 yesterday. They were getting formation on the number of citations they (DPS) are giving out (in Starr County). The majority was not for drugs or smuggling. It was because they were speeding or you don’t have a driver’s license, or you don’t have insurance. I get complaints, everyday, Steve, everyday from citizens (about the heavy DPS presence). They are afraid to go out. I tell them, that is not my decision.”
Vera acknowledged the heavy presence of DPS in Starr County can hurt economic development initiatives.
“We have a company rom Chattanooga, Tennessee, that has just moved into Alto Bonito. They are going to be doing bitcoins, units with computers, several million dollars worth of investment. They came here because they needed a lot of energy. They almost left. They came down and saw all this DPS. They said, man, I don’t know if I want to move in here. I said, listen, look at our crime rate, we are one of the lowest in the state and certainly in the nation. What you are seeing is a political game between the governor and the president and we are caught in the squeeze. So, I was able to talk them into staying.”