Feds often hand migrants over to state police rather than process immigration claims, complaint says

A group of migrants walk off a pickup truck after being apprehended by Department of Public Safety officers at a train depot in Spofford on Aug. 25, 2021. U.S. Border Patrol agents took into custody women and children found with the same group. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

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Many of the thousands of migrants arrested on trespassing charges under Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security operation have been locked up in Texas prisons only after U.S. Border Patrol agents handed them over to state police, according to a new complaint to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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At least once, Texas Department of Public Safety officers never even saw the arrested migrants on the scene of the alleged trespassing, instead picking them up from federal agents at a gas station and taking them to jail, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas reported Friday in its letter to federal officials.

The ACLU of Texas argued that federal government officials should not be assisting Texas’ controversial “arrest-and-jail” approach by sending migrants off to face state charges instead of processing their immigration cases.

The complaint stems from an analysis of police reports on more than 350 trespassing arrests made this summer under Abbott’s Operation Lone Star. A quarter of those arrests were made with Border Patrol involvement, the civil rights organization said, with federal agents providing surveillance information to state police or both agencies working side by side and divvying up migrants for arrest or immigration processing based largely on their gender.

Dozens of migrants in the sample analysis were apprehended by Border Patrol agents who turned them over to DPS.

In its complaint, the ACLU of Texas called for DHS to investigate and halt Border Patrol’s involvement in what it calls “unlawful, discriminatory, and anti-immigrant” trespassing arrests. The organization’s attorneys argued federal agents don’t have the right to help arrest migrants on state charges, nor prioritize them for state arrest over immigration processing.

“Border Patrol agents are currently instrumental to Texas’ effectuation of this program that engages in rampant civil rights abuses, that increases anti-immigrant system, and that attempts to supplant federal immigration policy,” the attorneys wrote in their complaint. “DHS should cease all collusion with state and local officials in [Operation Lone Star] trespass arrests, and transparently and publicly state a policy of non-collusion.”

The cooperation between federal and Texas authorities in Operation Lone Star contradicts former statements by Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz, who told Texas Monthly last October that Abbott’s program was “a tremendous concern” because state police do not consider asylum claims. Ortiz said at the time he “would prefer to see border security left to the border-security experts.”

It also contrasts with Abbott’s persistent attacks on President Joe Biden’s administration. Abbott has said Biden’s lenient policies have required his state to take over immigration enforcement, costing Texas taxpayers more than $4 billion in less than two years.

Spokespeople for Abbott, DPS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to questions about the complaint Friday.

As the number of people crossing the Texas-Mexico border skyrocketed last summer, Abbott ordered DPS troopers to begin arresting migrants suspected of illegally crossing the border on trespassing charges. The state charges were a way for him to circumvent federal jurisdiction over immigration law and lock up migrants, often nabbed on private ranch land or at railyards, in Texas prisons.

Since then, state police have made more than 5,600 migrant trespassing arrests, according to DPS. (Federal data from August revealed the number of migrant encounters at the border was higher than they were before Operation Lone Star began.)

Police were told to only arrest men traveling alone, routinely leading to Border Patrol processing women, children and families in a group of apprehended migrants, while DPS took in the single men.

Texas’ criminal justice system for migrants has since been engulfed in lawsuits and a U.S. Department of Justice investigation over documented wrongful arrests and illegal detentions as well as allegations of discriminatory and unconstitutional practices. Many men have languished inside Texas prisons converted into state jails for immigration-related crimes for months without attorneys or a chance to see a judge.

But while DPS data through October shows state police have made fewer trespassing arrests in recent months overall, the program is still expanding into new counties along the state’s southern border.

Last year, troopers were largely making the arrests in Kinney County, a conservative rural county where local officials eagerly jumped into the new criminal system despite its minuscule court system, resulting in repeated violations of state laws on due process and speedy trials. Now, state police are making migrant trespassing arrests in other border counties as well, including the Democratic stronghold of Webb County.

There, Border Patrol agents are often heavily relied upon to make the arrests, according to the complaint.

In its analysis of sworn police statements on arrests from late July to late August, the ACLU of Texas said 29 of the 368 DPS arrests it examined were made after Border Patrol agents apprehended the men when DPS was not on scene at all. The complaint listed several examples from Webb County, including an August arrest in Laredo where DPS met a Border Patrol agent at a gas station to arrest men the federal officials said had been apprehended on a private ranch.

“[Border Patrol] Agent Kuopa discovered them, apprehended and placed them into custody then handed them over to us at the Pump N Shop Gas Station,” DPS Trooper Juan Antonio Juarez III wrote in his arrest report. “After receiving this information and knowing that the individuals were on the property without consent of the property owner and therefore Criminally Trespassing, I decided to inform the agent that we would take all 3 male individuals in for the criminal charge.”

In other arrest reports, officers said Border Patrol agents directed state police to migrants from helicopter or drone surveillance.

It’s unknown when or if DHS will investigate or make any changes based on Friday’s complaint. In July, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica reported the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating Operation Lone Star after congressional and Texas Democrats, along with civil rights groups, complained that the trespassing arrests illegally discriminated against migrants based on their race, color or national origin.

Disclosure: Texas Monthly has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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