The Biden administration sued Texas on Friday in a bid to halt Governor Greg Abbott's plan to have state law enforcement stop and re-route vehicles suspected of transporting migrants released from federal immigration custody.
The lawsuit, filed in the federal district court in El Paso, is the latest escalation in the legal and political battle between the Biden administration and Texas' Republican governor over the country's immigration and border policies.
Earlier in the week, Abbott directed Texas authorities to stop vehicles "upon reasonable suspicion" that they could be transporting migrants who were detained and subsequently released by Border Patrol, citing a risk of coronavirus transmission.
Unaccompanied children encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border are typically transported to government-overseen shelters, while families are released into border communities with notices to appear in immigration court if they are not expelled from the country under current pandemic-related restrictions.
Abbott ordered state officials to take confiscated vehicles to their points of origin or official border crossings.
Less than 24 hours after Abbott issued his executive order, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the directive was unconstitutional, arguing that it would impair the federal government's ability to process migrants and jeopardize their safety.
Garlandunless Abbott rescinded his order.
But Abbott refused to back down, saying in a letter earlier Friday that Garland's demand conflicted with his responsibility to "protect the health and safety of Texans." The standoff, Abbott argued, represented a brewing "constitutional crisis."
Abbott asserted that the Biden administration could avoid said crisis by detaining migrants in federal facilities or swiftly deporting them from U.S. soil.
In its lawsuit, the Biden administration said Abbott's edict "threatens to significantly disrupt federal immigration operations in Texas at a critical time when the United States is facing a once-in-a-century pandemic as well as a significant influx of noncitizens."
The Justice Department said the Texas order could lead to dangerous overcrowding among unaccompanied children and families held in Border Patrol facilities, which are not supposed to hold migrants for more than 72 hours.
Abbott's directive exempted vehicles operated by federal, state or local law enforcement, but the Biden administration said it would still affect government personnel and contractors who are not classified as law enforcement officials.
Nonprofits and private buses that transport migrant families allowed to seek asylum in the U.S. would also be affected, advocates and the federal government said.
Transfers of unaccompanied children to shelters and housing sites overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services could also be impeded, forcing these minors to remain in ill-suited Border Patrol holding facilities, Justice Department lawyers argued.
The release of unaccompanied children to family members in the U.S. would also be impacted, the federal government said, as contractors oversee the minors' transportation.
Similarly, the Justice Department lawyers said Abbott's plan would delay the processing of migrant families with children, most of whom are being allowed to seek U.S. refuge.
The Biden administration has been relying on non-governmental groups like Catholic Charities to shelter families released from federal care and to test them for the coronavirus. The groups have also been isolating families who test positive for the virus in border-area hotels.
"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, whether in federal custody or following release, which is now directly prohibited by the executive order," Justice Department lawyers wrote.