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Texas Gov. Abbot Has A State Border Force Jailing Migrants, Which Some Say Is Illegal

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Texas, a lot of attention was being paid to Haitian migrants massing in Del Rio. But another immigration drama has been unfolding a few miles downstream. Texas Governor Greg Abbott is enforcing his own immigration rules. A state border force has jailed more than a thousand migrants. Defense attorneys say there are massive rights violations. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Earlier this week, a judge in West Texas heard the first legal challenges to Governor Abbott's unprecedented border crackdown. He's dubbed it Operation Lone Star. Lawyers for two Mexican migrants picked up for trespassing on private ranch land claimed the arrest and detention are unlawful. The local prosecutor, who's overwhelmed with hundreds of these cases, caved.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Your Honor, at this time, the state would ask to dismiss the criminal charges against the defendant, and I think that would resolve the...

BURNETT: Kinney County, with a population of fewer than 4,000 folks and a tiny courthouse staff, was completely unprepared for the Republican governor's migrant dragnet. It started last spring when Abbott vowed to arrest and jail trespassing migrants that federal border agents would not detain. As the Border Patrol was busy processing migrants who were arriving and surrendering en masse in Del Rio, local officials say that left vast stretches of mesquite- and cactus-filled ranchland unpatrolled. Landowners complained that ever-larger numbers of migrant men trying to evade capture have been trekking through their cattle ranches. So Texas sent hundreds of state troopers, game wardens, National Guard and out-of-state peace officers to patrol land along the Rio Grande. So far, they've arrested well over a thousand men for misdemeanor trespassing.

Kevin Herrera is an attorney with the advocacy organization Just Futures Law. He was on the team that represented the two arrested migrants.

KEVIN HERRERA: We were successful in the case of two. There are still hundreds of people being detained at Dolph Briscoe Unit in Dilley, Texas, without access to any counsel who have no idea why they're being held there and how long they're going to be there.

BURNETT: At present, more than 900 men from Mexico and Central America are incarcerated at state prisons in the cities of Dilley and Edinburg. The governor had them converted into jails for pretrial detentions of migrants. Lawyers challenging those arrests say, first, it's selective prosecution because officers are explicitly arresting men, not women. And second, Herrera says, the governor's executive order illegally preempts federal immigration law.

HERRERA: What Texas is trying to do here is take laws into their own hands that they have no business enforcing.

BURNETT: Months after the arrests began, the state has been hard-pressed to find attorneys for all the detainees languishing in prison. The Lubbock Private Defenders Office has received attorney requests for 1,150 defendants, and their list gets longer every day, says Philip Wischkaemper, the chief defender.

PHILIP WISCHKAEMPER: This is like, you know, Pearl Harbor hit us. We weren't prepared and neither was the prosecution, frankly.

BURNETT: Kinney County is scrambling to ramp up for the glut of trespass cases. County Judge Tully Shahan says, with the state's help, they're getting two more judges, extra court coordinators, court reporters, translators and computers.

TULLY SHAHAN: Everybody knows we're behind. And we're doing everything we can to catch up.

BURNETT: Kinney County, which voted 2-1 for Donald Trump, is an enthusiastic partner in Operation Lone Star. Shahan says ranch owners are stuck with expensive repairs after migrants cross their land.

SHAHAN: These people have the rights, but how about all of the ranchers that are on the Rio Grande who have lost cattle, their water tanks, their fences? I understand these people come. They've come uninvited.

BURNETT: Critics are concerned that the Kinney County attorney Brent Smith may be dragging his feet on the cases because of his own political leanings. He complained to Fox News that migrants caused $60,000 in damages on his ranch, and he believes Texas has the sovereign right to defend its border against what he calls an invasion.

Ivan Ruano Nava, a farmer from the Mexican state of Guerrero, says he's not an invader. He was headed to Austin to look for work when he got arrested. Nava was one of the defendants whose case was dismissed, but he expects ICE to deport him anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVAN RUANO NAVA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: We're looking for a better life for our children because things are really tough where we came from, he said in a jailhouse interview. I came with the dreams to build a life here, but we were hit by bad luck.

John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.