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U.S. sues Texas over Abbott order restricting transportation of undocumented immigrants

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said the order is intended to protect Texans from the spread of Covid-19.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott attends a press conference at the Capitol on June 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott attends a press conference at the Capitol on June 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas.Montinique Monroe / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department sued Texas and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in federal court late Friday over the state's effort to restrict travel of undocumented immigrants.

A July 28 executive order signed by Abbott "would severely disrupt federal immigration operations" in Texas and is invalid because states cannot take action to preempt enforcement of federal law, the lawsuit said.

Attorney General Merrick Garland urged Abbott, in a forcefully worded letter Thursday, to withdraw the executive order. When the governor declined to act, the federal government was certain to sue.

Abbott's order said only law enforcement officials can provide transpiration to immigrants who have been detained for crossing the border illegally. He said many of the detainees have tested positive for Covid-19, and their movement around the state risks spreading the virus.

Late Friday, the governor released a statement blaming the Biden administration's immigration policies for what he has repeatedly called a crisis in his state.

"I take very seriously my duties and responsibilities as the Governor of the State of Texas. I have the authority, and duty, under the constitutions of the United States and of Texas to protect Texans and our nation," Abbott's statement said. "I also have the authority under long-established emergency response laws to control the movement of people to better contain the spread of a disaster, such as those known to have COVID-19."

The lawsuit said the federal government depends on contractors and non-government organizations to move immigrants around the state, so that they can attend hearings or travel if they are released by Customs and Border Protection, CBP.

Because CBP stations are designed to hold people only for a short amount of time, they must be transferred. In the Rio Grande Valley sector alone, CBP used contractors to move nearly 120,000 people since last October, the suit said.

Contractors also transfer unaccompanied children from Homeland Security facilities to the custody of resettlement authorities.

"The massive federal immigration operations in Texas depend heavily on the ability of the federal government and its contractors, grantees, and partners to transport noncitizens," the government said.

And far from preventing the spread of Covid, the lawsuit said Abbot's executive order would likely make things worse by curtailing the ability of immigrants to get medical care or testing. The order would also worsen congestion in border facilities, government lawyers said.

The Justice Department asked a federal judge to immediately block Abbott's executive order until the case can be heard.