More than 100 civil rights groups ask feds to slash Texas funding over migrant trespassing arrests

Migrants arrested for allegedly trespassing are booked at a newly erected tent center outside the Val Verde County jail before being sent to a Texas prison. (Chris Stokes For The Texas Tribune, Chris Stokes For The Texas Tribune)

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More than 100 immigrant and civil rights advocacy groups have joined the call for the federal government to intervene in Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security initiative, which skirts federal jurisdiction over immigration law and locks up in Texas prisons migrants suspected of illegally crossing the border.

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Ten national and statewide groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Texas Fair Defense Project, filed a 50-page complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice asking it to cut off large swaths of Texas’ federal funding in response to Abbott’s Operation Lone Star. The advocates argued Abbott’s system, which arrests migrants on state trespassing charges on private property near the border, results in discrimination based on a person’s race and national origin and further encourages a racist and xenophobic political environment.

“The state of Texas and participating counties have created and are carrying out what is in reality a system of state immigration enforcement that targets Black and Brown– primarily Latinx– individuals for prosecution and enhanced punishment,” the complaint stated.

More than 100 other advocacy groups for immigrant rights, civil rights and racial justice also signed on to a letter to the DOJ supporting the original complaint.

The groups argued that Abbott’s operation and its heavy focus on trespassing arrests violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance. They pointed to arrest affidavits where police often noted that arrested individuals were Hispanic or undocumented immigrants. They also highlighted instances first reported by The Texas Tribune in which migrants said they were marched to private property before being arrested and a prosecutor said body camera footage showed police seemingly inviting a man onto private land before arresting him.

The advocates requested that the DOJ launch an investigation into the operation and ultimately shut off federal funding to all Texas agencies participating in it, including but not limited to the governor’s office, state police, the state’s prison system and the two counties where the arrests are occurring.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the complaint Wednesday, but a spokesperson said in an email last week that the governor “initiated a new policy of arrest and jail—instead of President Biden’s catch and release program—to stop this revolving door and deter others considering entering illegally.”

The advocates’ request is the latest criticism against the arrest initiative Abbott rolled out in July in reaction to a rise in crossings at the Texas-Mexico border. Although illegally crossing the border can only be prosecuted federally, Abbott flooded parts of the border region with state police and ordered officers to arrest people suspected of having illegally crossed on other state charges, like trespassing.

About 2,200 men have been arrested for allegedly trespassing — largely on private ranches or at a remote rail yard in one rural county — and detained in state prisons converted into state-run jails for those accused of immigration-related crimes. The arrests have been plagued with missteps and law violations since the initiative’s onset, including wrongful arrests of asylum-seeking family members and illegal detainment of migrants for weeks or months without a lawyer or any charges filed against them.

In October, more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress also asked the DOJ to investigate Abbott’s operation. The lawmakers asked federal officials to weigh whether the governor’s “catch-and-jail” initiative violates the U.S. Constitution, pointing to widespread violations of state laws aimed at safeguarding due-process rights reported by the Tribune.

In Wednesday’s complaint, the groups argued that the system is discriminatory in part because the state created a new criminal justice system specifically for migrants. They noted that the state built fencing on private property specifically to enable trespassing arrests; migrants are booked and jailed in state prisons, not jails like other defendants; and they are adjudicated in a new court system, as well.

“Once arrested, individuals are placed in a separate criminal process and in separate detention compared to the ordinary process and detention system for those arrested on state misdemeanor criminal charges,” the complaint said. “This separate system is rife with civil rights abuses, including failures to provide basic access to process that lead to people languishing in pretrial detention for weeks on misdemeanor trespass charges.”