Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Wednesday to try to stop the dispersion of the coronavirus in his state by giving state police the power to stop and turn back vehicles — particularly buses — carrying immigrants who were caught crossing the border illegally, then released by the Biden administration.
Mr. Abbott said police can also impound vehicles.
He said he had to step in to handle the thousands of undocumented immigrants being caught that are quickly released by Homeland Security every week, saying there’s evidence they are a significant source of spread of the coronavirus.
The federal Justice Department responded Thursday with a warning that the Biden administration wouldn’t comply, and asserting Mr. Abbott’s policy is illegal.
His order does not block federal law enforcement agencies from shuttling migrants around, but it applies to anyone who is not connected to law enforcement.
Mr. Abbott, a Republican, said under a federal public health emergency order, known as Title 42, all illegal border crossers are supposed to be immediately expelled to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But under the Biden administration, a large number of migrants are instead being caught and released.
They are boarding buses and airplanes to head deeper into the U.S., where they risk further spread of the virus, local officials warn.
The order permits the state’s Department of Public Safety to stop vehicles they suspect to be involved in transporting released migrants.
Immigrant-rights groups pronounced themselves outraged by the move, and predicted it would result in what one activist leader called “racial profiling on steroids.”
“This is clear-cut militarization of Texas against individuals, children, and families by an out-of-control governor who thinks he has unilateral power to do whatever he wants and violate the civil rights of people based solely on appearance or suspicion,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
He said the order applies Texas-wide, creating a pretext for state officers to stop people far from the border.
Mr. Abbott justified his order by pointing to the federal government’s own warnings about the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is thought to be more contagious, and to the lower rates of vaccination in the key countries sending migrants to the U.S.
“President Biden’s failure to enforce the Title 42 order, combined with his refusal to enforce the immigration laws enacted by Congress, is having a predictable and potentially catastrophic effect on public health in Texas,” the governor said in his order.
The governor cited state laws that he said allow him to “control ingress and egress to and from a disaster area.”
The Biden administration lashed out at Mr. Abbott, with Attorney General Merrick B. Garland calling the executive order “both dangerous and unlawful.”
He said preventing the migrants from leaving the border area could create overcrowded conditions that would be less safe than letting them disperse. And he said the migrants might be blocked from making their appearances in immigration courts or at ICE offices if they cannot be transported.
Mr. Garland said anyone working for the federal government is immune — including contractors hired to transport migrants. And he said the federal government has a right to release illegal immigrants that Texas cannot surmount with its policy.
“In short, the order is contrary to federal law and cannot be enforced,” the attorney general wrote.
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