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Webb County, a Democratic stronghold and home to Laredo, is set to become the most populous county to embrace Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border security operation to arrest migrants suspected of crossing the border illegally on state charges, according to the county judge.
“We’re just in the initiation stages,” Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “We’re almost there to start getting everything that we need to do as far as arrests.”
The partnership would be a win for Abbott, who has previously found Democratic regions less willing to participate in his “catch-and-jail” strategy.
Other Webb County officials did not return phone calls immediately Thursday, and the governor's office declined to comment on the Webb County expansion, referring questions to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which did not immediately respond. At a press conference Thursday afternoon, DPS Director Steve McCraw and Abbott said trespassing arrests were set to start in other counties shortly.
"We are expanding the operation to other counties where we’re also making the arrest for trespass,” Abbott said at the event in Weslaco, which the governor used to boast about his border initiative's accomplishments after one year in operation.
Last March, Abbott flooded some border regions with thousands of Texas National Guard members and state police shortly after President Joe Biden was sworn in and during a sharp rise in illegal border crossings. A year into his Operation Lone Star, Abbott this month touted more than 11,000 arrests and the seizure of a record amount of fentanyl.
Beginning last July, Abbott ordered state police to make mass trespassing arrests of men in two border counties who were suspected of crossing the border illegally, resulting in a slew of mistakes by police, prosecutors and courts. The arrests have led to countless court fights and growing pleas for the federal government to intervene over concerns that the arrests unconstitutionally discriminate against migrants and overstep state authority in immigration law, which is under federal jurisdiction.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat who penned the first complaint to the federal government against the trespassing arrests, said Thursday that the operation is a "complete failure."
"He’s wasted money, mistreated Guard members, and violated people’s basic Constitutional rights – all for politics," he said in a statement. "I’m surprised any county would want to be part of that colossal mess at this point."
Prison officials report more than 3,500 migrants have been locked up in two state prisons that Abbott converted into immigration jails, largely to hold those accused of trespassing on private property. The migrants have often been imprisoned for months before being transferred to immigration officials, who either deport, detain or release them into the country pending asylum claims.
The arrests started around Del Rio in Val Verde and Kinney counties in July, with migrants booked into the Operation Lone Star jail system at a Del Rio processing tent and sent to prison. After Val Verde County’s misdemeanor prosecutor, a Democrat, said he rejected or dismissed most of the cases brought to him because the migrants were seeking asylum, however, state troopers stopped arrests in the county in November and focused on making arrests in the more conservative Kinney County.
But last month, Abbott announced an expansion into Jim Hogg County, between Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley. The state popped up a new tent center to begin processing more arrestees. On Wednesday, 57 of the nearly 900 men held in the state prisons for Operation Lone Star had been arrested in Jim Hogg County, the prison reported.
Tijerina said Webb County will process arrested migrants in Jim Hogg County and otherwise operate similarly to Kinney County, where more than 2,200 men had been arrested and imprisoned solely for allegedly trespassing through January, according to DPS data.
“It’s going to be exactly the same kind of situation, and it’s going to happen here,” Tijerina said.
The Democratic county judge said some ranchers have already signed agreements with DPS to allow troopers to arrest anyone on their property for trespassing.
“When you have a lot of these ranchers that are having problems with a lot of these immigrants coming in, it changes the dynamic of this,” he said.
Growing up on ranches, Tijerina said he always encountered people crossing the border illegally onto their property and “for the most part, almost all of them do not mean us any harm.”
“Nowadays, there’s a lot of changes that have happened,” he said. “You have a lot of people who do have malintent.”
In the Laredo region, like all of the U.S. southern border, Border Patrol agents encountered significantly more people illegally crossing the border last year, according to federal data. Immigration officials reported more than twice as many encounters in the region in fiscal year 2021 versus 2020. But the increase was nowhere near the uptick seen in the Del Rio sector, where Abbott’s arrests first began, which saw more than six times as many encounters during the same time in a less populous region.
Tijerina said the governor’s office is providing grant funding to help county prosecutors and courts, but he did not have specifics. Some funds were still pending from the governor’s office, he said.
As far as the constitutional concerns raised by Abbott’s trespassing arrests, Tijerina said he believed the operation was largely about securing the border, but acknowledged there will likely be challenges ahead.
“We haven’t gotten started so maybe some of those [issues] are going to be speed bumps we’re going to have to address when we do it,” he said.