Justice Department sues Texas over Gov. Greg Abbott’s order for law enforcement to pull over vehicles with migrants

A group of migrants wait to board a charter bus in front of the Catholic Charities RGV Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen on July 27, 2021.

The Biden administration sued Texas on Friday, asking a federal judge to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that state troopers pull over drivers transporting migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 as a way to prevent the spread of the virus.

The lawsuit comes a day after the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a letter to the governor, threatened to take legal action against Texas if Abbott didn’t rescind his order. Garland described the order as “dangerous and unlawful.”

The Department of Justice said in the lawsuit that Abbott’s order will contribute to the spread of COVID-19 and it will disrupt immigration officials’ network of contractors and non government organizations that help host recently arrived migrants as their legal cases are pending.

“In our constitutional system, a State has no right to regulate the federal government’s operations,” the DOJ argued in a motion asking the judge to block Abbott’s order, adding “this restriction on the transportation of noncitizens would severely disrupt federal immigration operations.”

On Wednesday, Abbott issued the order, allowing Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to reroute civilian vehicles back to their origin point or a port of entry, or seize the vehicles, if police suspect the driver is transporting migrants who are infected with the virus.

Abbott said in a statement that his order “will reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in our communities,” though the governor will not allow local government officials to issue mask mandates even as coronavirus infections are again increasing across the state.

The lawsuit says that if migrants are not allowed to be transported by volunteers or contractors they would have to be confined to immigration facilities where there would not be enough space for every migrant.

The governor responded to the lawsuit in a statement claiming the Biden administration has created this crisis because it doesn’t enforce immigration laws. He also said he would not back down because his “duty remains to the people of Texas, and I have no intention of abdicating that.”

Currently, the Biden administration is turning back many migrants under Title 42, which allows agents to make migrants return to Mexico because of the risk of spreading COVID-19. This practice has been in place since the Trump administration.

The governor had also responded to Garland’s letter with his own July 30 letter, telling the U.S. attorney general that his authority “to protect noncitizens directly conflicts with my authority, and duty, to protect citizens of Texas and the United States.”

He also argued that the Biden administration should “stop admitting migrants who are not authorized by Congress to be admitted.”

“That would substantially reduce the importation of COVID-19 while also fulfilling the federal government’s role to faithfully execute the laws of the United States,” Abbott said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also responded to the lawsuit in a statement saying Abbott’s order was “much-needed” and is “perfectly legal.”

Immigration rights advocates say that Abbott’s most recent order would not only disrupt shelters who have been hosting migrants released by Border Patrol agents, but would also invite troopers to racially profile people. They also said that this would impact volunteers who drive migrants to bus stops or airports.

Many of the migrants have attempted to enter the country through the Rio Grande Valley. Many of them have requested asylum and immigration officials have released some migrants pending the outcomes of their asylum cases.

Some migrants stay at shelters until friends or relatives send them money for a bus ride or plane ticket to their U.S. destination.

Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news, curated by The Texas Tribune’s award-winning journalists. Learn more.