Helicopters and High-Speed Chases: Inside Texas’ Push to Arrest Migrants

BRACKETTVILLE, Texas – Magdaleno Ruiz Jimenez huddled under a wax moon in the ragged woods of a Texas farm. His journey to the small frontier community of Brackettville was a long one, about 1,300 miles from his home in Mexico. But now a drone is flying overhead.

Sole officer, Sgt. Ryan Glenn came out of the dark. He had a flashlight and a screen with coordinates where Mr. Jimenez and six other men could be found on the cold caliche, points of heat visible to the infrared camera on the drone. Soon, more officers arrived.

“I spent everything to get here,” Jiménez said after officers snatched him and the other men out of the woods.

The men assumed they were detained by immigration officers for illegal crossing into the United States. They were wrong. Instead, they were arrested for trespassing on a vast private ranch by Highway Patrol officers from the Texas State Police.

For several months now, Texas has been engaged in an effort to repurpose the state’s law enforcement tools to stem the sudden increase in people illegally crossing into the country.

To do this, Texas officials led by Gov. Greg Abbott have developed a way to get around the fact that immigration enforcement is a federal government job: State and local police departments partner with frontier farm owners, and use trespass laws to arrest immigrants who cross their land. the earth.

“This is an effective way to send a message,” Abbott, surrounded by nine other Republican governors, said at a news conference along the border this fall. “If you come to Texas illegally, you are very likely not to be arrested and released, but instead to be arrested and imprisoned.”

The new approach relies on the participation of local officials and, so far, has been adopted in only two of the state’s 32 border district counties: Kinney, which includes Brackettville, and Val Verde, its neighbor to the west.

State officials cannot determine the impact, if any, of the program on reducing illegal crossings, which has jumped to at least 1.2 million in Texas so far this year, the highest number recorded in more than two decades. (It remains unclear how many migrants try to cross multiple times.) But the operation turned the lives of migrants stuck in its ad hoc operations and the rural population living under its network upside down.

Perhaps nowhere is this feeling more acutely felt than Brackettville, a former frontier outpost of 1,700 people known for its surrounding hunting and livestock farms, an old fort that once housed the Army’s Black Seminole Scouts, and an aging version of the Alamo built for a movie John Wayne.

Recently, it was flooded with state police.

High-speed chases are so frequent that the local school has installed boulders to guard against collisions. Helicopters patrolling the night sky. Farm owners, who are mostly white, lock their doors and carry guns around their property, which many have never done before. The townspeople, mostly poor and Hispanic, complain that newly appointed officers in the area routinely follow them.

“It happens to a lot of people here in Brackett,” said Mayor Eric Martinez, using the town’s nickname. He said he was chased and then stopped after leaving a city council meeting because the officer told him his license plate light wasn’t bright enough.

The police are involved in an ongoing clash between Mr. Abbott and the Biden administration over how to deal with the sudden increase in arrivals at the border with Mexico. Federal agents have been rapidly expelling immigrants under the Public Health Act, but Mr. Abbott argues that the government has done little to stem their flow. He set aside $3 billion for a series of measures at the border, including sending in state police and troops from the Texas State Guard, creating a border barrier with shipping containers and using the National Guard to build several miles of fencing along the Rio Grande River.

But the arrest of immigrants for criminal trespass has been an even more disruptive component of Operation Lone Star, overcrowded courts and local inmates and alarming defense lawyers and immigrant advocates.

A spokeswoman for US Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on the initiative, and federal agents are not cooperating with state police in making trespassing arrests.

Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio, has called for a federal investigation into Operation Lone Star, saying in a letter this fall to the Justice Department that the program “wreak havoc in the Texas judicial system” and has “directly led to a violation of state laws and constitutional due process rights.” obligatory.”

The men arrested under the program, about 2,000 so far, were often held for weeks without access to lawyers. More than 1,000 are currently held in state prisons that have been repurposed to house them. (The women and children were handed over to federal agents.)

Because the process is new, and takes place in small rural counties, the usual system for appointing a criminal defense attorney is overshadowed by it. Kenny County has also struggled to file arrest papers within the time required by law.

After their arrest, the migrants are taken to one processing center, a large tent in the border town of del Río — where a wave of Haitian immigrants inundated the community earlier this year — and then moved to reused state prisons in other provinces.

While state police check the detainees’ identity documents, the men were not handed over to federal authorities until the end of their cases, a process that has now taken several months. Their lawyers said that of those brought before a judge, most had their cases dismissed or released on bail while they await hearing dates.

Defense attorneys said many of the released asylum-seekers were allowed to remain in the United States to pursue their cases, unlike those arrested at the border by federal authorities, because the public health rule that is used to expel immigrants quickly applies. For newcomers, not those already in the country.

More than 50 farmers in Kenny County have signed with the Texas Department of Public Safety to allow state police to patrol their property and arrest people for trespassing, the agency said.

In interviews, ranchers who signed up for the program described feeling increasingly insecure on their land, due to the possibility of bumping into groups of migrants, although none of the ranchers said they had been assaulted or threatened. They exchange information via Facebook and text messages and share stories about the latest “rescue plan” – a familiar local term for the end of a police chase where migrants try to escape from a car or truck, often after it crashes.

Sitting in their oak-shaded farmyard, Bill and Carolyn Connolly, some heads of cattle walking slowly nearby, the situation this year has been the worst they can remember.

“We fix constantly,” Mr. Connolly said, referring to bent or cut farm fences. “We keep the doors closed and I have a weapon available.”

Motion-activated cameras on the farm take pictures of the migrants in transit, information that helps the state police locate them. Earlier that day, cameras caught a large group walking the Connolly family’s farm; The police arrested the migrants at night on a nearby farm – 14 men and women.

For several months, the Conolys also had cops from Galveston, just south of Houston and about 370 miles away, staying in a white stucco guesthouse.

“If it makes a difference, I don’t know,” said one of the policemen, Lieutenant Paul Edinburgh, who had never been to the border before. “But I’d better sit on the sofa and read about it.”

At about 9 p.m. on a recent weeknight, a row of State Highway Patrol SUVs sat outside the city’s only gas station, two officers parked nearby, grabbed a woman from their car and removed her handcuffs.

Officers said the woman, a US citizen, was caught transporting 10 undocumented people in a pickup truck, which is a crime. But because Kenny County had no place to hold the women, a court date was set and she was released.

Not long after, an officer with a drone finds a group of men on a nearby farm. Sergeant Glenn, who was leading a team of seven officers that night, searched for traces on the ground. It was then that he found Mr. Jimenez, the man who had traveled from Chiapas, Mexico.

Jiménez was a house painter looking for work, and he had tried to cross the border once before, in August. After he returned it, he collected more money and paid for the crossing again – 150,000 pesos, he said, or about $7,000.

“There is almost no work. They are suffering,” he said of the people in Chiapas, a Mexican state along the border with Guatemala. Now, with all his money he spent trying to cross, he didn’t have enough to go home. (He is currently detained on a $2,500 bond.

While the officers were waiting for the prisoners to be transported — they rented white vans without official badges — they received a motion alert from a camera deep inside another farm. It was 12:20 AM

Police cars crashed across the overgrown farm roads. A helicopter flew over what appeared to be three migrants, but the gas was running out.

The officers reached a locked gate and decided to cut the lock. When they could not go by car, they began to walk. But after a long walk through rugged terrain, and a careful search of the thorny brush, no one was found.

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