Abbott says cartels have 'open season' for drug and human trafficking at the border

Cartels are " preying on woman and children," the governor says as he urges the Biden administration to crack down on illegal immigration.

Escalating his attack on the Biden administration's immigration policies, Gov. Greg Abbott said his monthlong initiative to help secure the Texas border has resulted in almost 600 criminal arrests and 6,000 referrals to federal authorities about unauthorized border crossings.

Speaking Thursday in the South Texas town of Weslaco, about 10 miles north of the Rio Grande, and flanked by several law enforcement officials, Abbott said the recent unauthorized crossings at the border have resulted in an "open season" for human- and drug-trafficking cartels.

"These criminals are preying on woman and children, exposing them to abuse and to terror," Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Department of Public Safety's regional station.

"Because the federal government is failing to act to respond to these dangers, Texas is stepping up to secure the border."

Gov. Greg Abbott at a news conference on border security in Weslaco, Texas, April 1, 2021.

President Joe Biden, at his news conference last week, acknowledged illegal immigration is rising. But he said the pace increased during the time Donald Trump was president and pursuing hardline policies designed to curb the flow of migrants.

"It happens every single solitary year," Biden said. "There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March."

He also said he makes no apology for allowing unaccompanied migrant minors to remain in the United States, at least temporarily.

In early March, Abbott launched what he called Operation Lone Star, which sent more DPS troopers, Texas Rangers and National Guard soldiers to South Texas to assist local police and federal border agents.

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Abbott at his news conference called on DPS Trooper Curtis Woodard who this week helped rescue a migrant mother and her infant. The law enforcement agency said they had been thrown from a raft into the river by smugglers. 

"I climbed into a tree and see that this woman is hanging onto a tree branch with the baby in her arm," Woodard said. “I got above her, kind of fell in, grabbed the baby, held the baby like a football and helped the woman onto a tree branch.”

The woman and infant were turned over to immigration authorities. A spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in South Texas did not immediately respond to an email seeking information on their whereabouts.

Abbott, a second-term Republican, has echoed and amplified GOP criticism of the Democratic president's reversal of several of Trump's border policies, including putting the border wall on pause, pending review. 

Last week, Texas U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz led several of their Republican Senate colleagues on a tour of South Texas to highlight undocumented border crossings.

Cruz, in particular, has been a vocal critic of Biden's policy of not allowing media outlets to visit centers where unaccompanied migrant children are being housed.

Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke, who is running for U.S. Senate against Republican Ted Cruz, speaks to media before an appearance at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds in Robstown on Thursday, November 1, 2018.

Biden, who took office Jan. 20, is also under pressure from some of his fellow Democrats. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, and former Congressman Beto O'Rourke of El Paso joined a group called the No Border Wall Coalition to urge the president to keep his campaign pledge to discontinue Trump's signature project.

"I implore the Biden administration to make the temporary pause in construction permanent and to seek to repair the damage done to so many of these border communities, and when making policy that will impact the border listen to the people of the border first," said O'Rourke, Cruz's Democratic opponent in 2018 who is now considering a challenge to Abbott's re-election next year.

Vela deplored what he called "hatred toward immigrants who contribute so much to our country" and pushed back against the narrative that communities along the Rio Grande are under siege.

“The border is not a war zone," he said.

Fact check:Texas' 'Operation Lone Star' isn't finishing border wall construction

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.