Texas Arrests Migrants for Trespassing

DEL RIO, Texas—Texas has begun arresting and jailing migrants for trespassing, as Gov. Greg Abbott pursues a new plan aimed at illegal border crossers that is dividing counties in the state.

The first three migrants were sent to a state prison Tuesday on the state charges, according to Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens, whose role is an elected executive akin to a mayor. Hundreds of law-enforcement officers from across the state and country have been sent to the Texas-Mexico border in recent weeks to begin arrests. Civil-rights groups have questioned the move, saying that states can’t legally enforce federal immigration law.

The move comes amid a historic upswing in illegal crossings along some stretches of the border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Mr. Abbott, a Republican, last month declared the state’s border situation a disaster, a classification typically used for events such as hurricanes. He said state troopers in Texas would begin arresting immigrants for trespassing, a new approach in responding to increased border traffic. Immigration enforcement is normally left to the federal government.

Texas counties are divided over whether to accept the disaster designation and state troopers. So far, counties with the most illegal traffic have declined to participate in the state’s plans. Scores of state troopers have instead been dispatched into smaller communities upriver on the Rio Grande, along quieter stretches of the border.

“We concluded we could not in good faith tell the people of our counties there is an emergency when there’s not an emergency,” said Richard Cortez, Democratic county judge of the Rio Grande Valley’s Hidalgo County, whose role includes authority over disaster response.

Texas Arrests Migrants for Trespassing
Photo: Elizabeth Findell/The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Abbott called the border situation a crisis.

“Our fellow Texans and our fellow Americans are being threatened every day,” he said during a news conference on the border last month with former President Donald Trump. “I’m talking to people in this region. Their lives and their properties and their families are being overrun.”

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Officials in the Rio Grande Valley—the busiest immigration sector in the country, according to CBP—aren’t participating in the state disaster order and said the impact of illegal border crossings is similar to previous upswings, most recently in 2019, 2018 and 2014. They said increased immigration numbers haven’t affected their budget or crime numbers.

The number of border apprehensions made this year in the Del Rio region, 300 miles to the northwest of the Rio Grande Valley, are less than half of those made in the valley. Still, border crossings in Del Rio are higher than in any year since 1999 and 2000. Mr. Owens, a Democrat whose county includes Del Rio, said county officials aren’t used to such a high number of border crossings. He added that he had heard complaints from landowners and said nonprofit groups were running out of space to shelter asylum seekers.

The arrests have begun in Del Rio, a city of 36,000 that sits near the midpoint of Texas’s nearly 2,000-mile international border. A new processing center is in place near the county jail. State emergency-management officials set up military-issue tents at the county fairgrounds last weekend. State troopers filled hotels. National Guardsmen waited for Border Patrol with a group of migrants.

Texas Arrests Migrants for Trespassing
Photo: Elizabeth Findell/The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Abbott said Saturday, during an event in Del Rio, that the state has largely achieved the steps to make it possible to arrest border crossers. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice emptied a 1,000-person prison south of San Antonio for the operation and has been making changes to operate it as a jail.

Mr. Abbott’s May 31 disaster order initially included all Texas border counties and allowed the state to transfer $250 million in funding. He revised the declaration on June 28 to include only those counties willing to declare a disaster themselves and work with the state in arresting migrants for trespassing. The most populous border regions, including El Paso, Laredo and the whole Rio Grande Valley, dropped out. The new list included more remote western border regions and nonborder counties such as Midland, a West Texas county hours north of the border.

Officials in several border counties that opted out of the disaster declaration said one issue was whether such arrests would be legal.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter on June 24 to all counties covered by the disaster order, warning that it would be illegal for local jurisdictions to arrest people based on their immigration status. District attorneys and county lawyers in border counties said trespass arrests must be based on complaints from landowners and must be arraigned by local judges and justices of the peace, who typically release the arrestee on a personal-recognizance bond. To keep such people jailed for any length of time, such individuals would have to change the way bonds are handled, these lawyers said.

“I think it’s fraught with a ton of questions of legality,” said Victor Canales, the Starr County attorney, whose county opted out of the order.

Texas Arrests Migrants for Trespassing
Photo: Elizabeth Findell/The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Abbott and law-enforcement officials have said they would be arresting people only for valid state crimes and had worked out the legal processing issues. His office didn’t provide further comment.

Border Patrol has logged 597,000 border apprehensions in Texas for the fiscal year that began in October, more than half of them in the Rio Grande Valley. That surpasses 2019, when 444,000 occurred, the most in any year since the late 1990s. The rise comes after a dip during the Covid-19 pandemic, driven by pent-up demand, economic effects of the pandemic, two hurricanes in Central America and a hope among many that the Biden administration will be more lenient than the Trump administration was.

In Val Verde County, Mr. Owens said smuggling arrests were filling up jail beds that the county usually rents to other agencies, cutting in half the $1 million of revenue the county typically receives from the jail.

“What got me to sign the declaration? Just the amount of people crossing—it was costing us money,” he said. “It is real political but—I can’t stress this enough—we could not sustain what we were seeing.”

The new processing center will fix that issue, Mr. Owens said. Work is also under way on an 8-foot chain-link fence with barbed wire, meant to serve as a temporary border fence, on private land near the river.

Several states have sent National Guard troops to Texas, including South Dakota, which dispatched guardsmen funded by a private donor. At least four states have sent police, for varying lengths of time; one Iowa trooper said he was in Texas for a week. Mr. Abbott on Saturday declined to confirm whether Texas would reimburse states for those law-enforcement officers, saying, “You stabilize first and you worry about the bill later.”

Texas Arrests Migrants for Trespassing
Photo: Elizabeth Findell/The Wall Street Journal

Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said troopers will consider any no-trespassing signs or fencing of any kind to be permission by a landowner to arrest trespassers. He said the focus will be on counties covered by the disaster order, but said DPS will be instructed to arrest border crossers believed to be trespassing in all counties.

A Rio Grande Valley law-enforcement official called the plan problematic, saying his agency wouldn’t tolerate people being arrested for trespassing without complaints from individual landowners.

“Let me put it this way: If you have Texas DPS or out-of-town police coming into town and starting to arrest people without probable cause, that’s official oppression and they could be arrested,” he said.

The resources of border cities such as Brownsville, Texas, are being stretched as the communities work to manage the growing number of migrant families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. WSJ’s Michelle Hackman reports. Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas

Write to Elizabeth Findell at [email protected]

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