By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) -The U.S. Justice Department sued Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Friday, seeking to block an executive order that restricts the transport of migrants through the state and authorizes state troopers to pull over vehicles suspected of doing so.
In a lawsuit filed in El Paso federal court, the Justice Department said Abbott's order, which he said was aimed at preventing migrants from potentially spreading the coronavirus, illegally infringes upon the federal government's jurisdiction over immigration matters.
The order, which Abbott signed on Wednesday, permits only "law enforcement officials" to provide ground transport for migrants detained for illegally crossing the southern border. It also gives the state's public safety department the authority to stop any vehicle suspected of carrying migrants and send it back to its point of origin.
The order would interfere with the U.S. government's ability to transport migrants between facilities, including unaccompanied children, according to the lawsuit. The government regularly employs contractors and other non-law enforcement personnel to transfer migrants.
Texas has become a battleground on immigration as Republicans and supporters of former President Donald Trump push back against Biden's efforts to relax the restrictionist policies of his predecessor. Republicans want to galvanize opposition to Biden's immigration policies to mobilize voters ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.
The Republican governor said the order was aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, citing a "dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases" among migrants.
There is no clear evidence that migrants are primarily responsible for an increase in coronavirus cases in the state. Texas, where about 44% of residents are fully vaccinated, has seen cases surge by more than 200% in the last two weeks.
The lawsuit made good on a threat https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-attorney-general-garland-tells-texas-rescind-order-limiting-immigrant-travel-2021-07-29 issued on Thursday by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who urged Abbott to rescind the order immediately.
In response to the lawsuit, Abbott said the Biden administration had created a "constitutional crisis" between the federal government and the state of Texas.
"This stems from the Biden administration's refusal to enforce immigration laws and allow illegal immigrants with COVID-19 to enter our country," he said.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham and Ted Hesson; Editing by Ross Colvin, Cynthia Osterman and Rosalba O'Brien)