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Texas sheriff says his agency lacks manpower to handle both the surge of migrant border crossings and local matters

By Rafael Romo, Maxime Tamsett and Raja Razek, CNN

Eagle Pass, Texas (CNN) — Amid an unprecedented surge of migrants crossing into the United States, the sheriff of one Texas county bordering Mexico told CNN his officers are struggling to keep up with both the immigration issues and local matters.

“It’s a lot. On the law enforcement side, we’re suffering because we don’t have the manpower to take care of what we call the local business, criminal elements, and then the immigration problem,” Maverick County, Texas, Sheriff Tom Schmerber said in a Sunday interview. “So, it’s costing us a lot of manpower.”

Schmerber said he’s repeatedly had to reassign officers from local duties after receiving calls for assistance from US Customs and Border Protection. That aid includes escorting buses with migrants who have been apprehended and are being transported for immigration processing.

“So I’m having two units, two vehicles with my deputies, escorting those buses,” the sheriff said. “That’s minus two.”

“But we have to do it, and we do it for the security of the people and of course the agents and the drivers of the buses,” he added.

His remarks come as the surge in border crossings has stretched a number of already overwhelmed US agencies.

Border officials say the spike is being driven by pseudo-legitimate travel agencies and organized transportation networks that are advertising travel to the southern US border but ultimately are connecting migrants to smugglers. Those smugglers are facilitating the illegal crossings of up to 1,000 people at a time, a border official told CNN earlier this month.

Federal authorities reported a seven-day average of more than 9,600 migrant encounters along the US southern border in December, a Homeland Security official said last week. That number is among the highest amounts ever recorded. The seven-day average reported on November 28 was around 6,800 encounters.

The same day the sheriff talked about the issues his office is facing in the midst of the surge, a group of thousands of migrants departed Tapachula in southern Mexico, bound for the US. The caravan, called the “Exodus of Poverty” by organizers, includes migrants from Central and South America, the Caribbean, Cuba and Haiti.

“The only hope of these people is to walk out, draw attention and say we are alive,” one of the organizers, Luis Villagrán, said. “The only thing we want is to work. The only thing we want are documents to move forward.”

“We are afraid to speak,” Cuban migrant Benigno Sánchez said. “We have economic needs. We have a dream, to work honestly. What can I tell you? Unfortunately, we live in a corrupt government.”

And as the US struggles to respond to the surge, Schmerber said recent federal measures hit his community’s economy too.

Federal authorities on Monday temporarily suspended operations at the international railway crossing bridges in Eagle Pass, the county seat of Maverick County, and El Paso, Texas, in order to redirect personnel to process migrants.

The rail industry warned the suspension of operations in Eagle Pass and El Paso would have negative consequences for consumers.

And Schmerber said the closure meant the international commerce that usually traveled through the community stopped, putting a dent in what was supposed to be among the busiest seasons for local businesses.

On Friday, US Customs and Border Protection announced it was resuming operations at the international railway crossing bridges in Eagle Pass and El Paso. Vehicular processing remained suspended on one of the international bridges at Eagle Pass, the agency said.

But the five-day closure had an impact, Maverick County’s sheriff said.

“With Christmas right now, that’s where all these businesses make a lot of money,” he said, adding many businesses slowed because of the bridge closures.

While local law enforcement has been supported by the state, Schmerber said, they have not received help from the federal level.

“The federal government has not at all helped the law enforcement officers here in this area,” he said.

The worsening situation culminated last week in a call between US President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to put pressure on Mexico to do more to stem the flow of migrants. Both leaders agreed more enforcement is needed, and senior US officials are expected to travel to Mexico in the coming days.

CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet, Rosa Flores, Sara Weisfeldt, Priscilla Alvarez, Juan Carlos Paz and Jose Alvarez contributed to this report.

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