A disaster was declared Monday in the hopes of capturing state funds for Wharton County landowners if properties are damaged during law enforcement pursuits of human smugglers.

The unanimous decision by the Wharton County Commissioners Court Monday was made at the request of Sheriff Shannon Srubar for what County Judge Phillip Spenrath described a surge of illegal Texas-Mexico border crossings.

There is an increase in vehicle pursuits, both men said, by the Wharton County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“It is our understanding that local landowners are being faced with thousands of dollars in fence repair and other damage costs that are caused by illegal aliens and people who bring them here. They are going through fences, fields and pastures to avoid capture,” Spenrath said. “Pursuant to talks in Austin, there may, and we want to stress – may – because it is not there yet, but there may soon be state funds available that landowners can seek reimbursement for the cost associated with damages.”

By declaring a state of disaster, the county is then eligible for funds.

The action taken by commissioners is specifically limited to illegal immigrants who crossed the Texas-Mexico border and then led to criminal activity, and it doesn’t relate to the ongoing coronavirus.

“It’s not a blanket disaster, it’s very specific,” Spenrath said, adding the funding cannot be used to pay for additional law enforcement.

The WCSO would assist landowners in applying for funding should it come to that.

“We constantly hear the term border crisis, and it’s very serious for natural borders in the counties that are right along the area, and it’s just as much of a problem in Wharton County,” Srubar said.

There has been an increase in the amount of contacts the WCSO has seen in the past several months.

Prior to January, the WCSO averaged up to six pursuits per year that involved human smuggling. It is now up to five to six monthly, Srubar said. 

Last month, a pursuit resulted in the death of a person on U.S. 59 in Hungerford, and another highway accident near there involved a trailer truck that was transporting cabbage, and without the driver’s knowledge illegal immigrants as well, one of them a pregnant woman who was transported by Life Flight, the sheriff said. 

Sunday, the WCSO and DPS worked together to chase several vehicles with illegals in them. The pursuit, which included DPS air support once again, ended north of Wharton and several arrests made.

“It’s starting to get overwhelming. There are times when the U.S. Border Patrol cannot come, and deputies are having to transport illegals to Victoria, and once to Corpus Christi,” Srubar said. “I don’t mind us doing that. We will continue to aid our federal partners, and continue to do whatever we can to aid in this crisis.”

Wharton County will not incur additional costs from this state of disaster declaration that is in effect for one year.

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