• Washington Post

Texas Uses Aggressive Tactics to Arrest Migrants as Title 42 Policies End

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Kinney County sheriff’s deputies, visiting officers affiliated with Operation Lone Star and Border Patrol agents arrest suspected migrants after a vehicle chase on March 28, 2023, in Brackettville, Tex.

BRACKETTVILLE, Tex. – There was something about the Dodge Durango that roused the deputy’s suspicions. It sped up. It slowed down. It veered to the center and off the road, kicking up clouds of caliche. It bounced a little more than it should.

Kinney County Sheriff’s Deputy Rolando Escobar followed at a distance, waiting for details from dispatch on the vehicle’s license plates. Then it took off.

“Be careful of that driver,” Escobar radioed to the other deputies joining the pursuit. “Looks like he is reaching down for something.”

Minutes later, the suspected smuggler’s vehicle came to a sudden stop – Escobar’s cruiser nearly crashing into it from behind. The doors swung open and the driver leaped over a four-foot fence. Several passengers darted off into the moonless night. A pepper ball exploded. Deputies tackled two men and quickly arrested three others.

Smuggling in this rural stretch of Texas picks up at twilight, when Escobar’s shift begins. Over the next 24 hours, he’d join two other high-speed chases, respond to one crash, and arrest more than 10 migrants and two suspected smugglers.

Young women crammed into trunks. A Mexican couple fleeing violence. Men who tried to run but gave up rather than get lost in vast ranch lands without water.

As Texas leaders prepare for the end of the Title 42 border policy – the pandemic-era public health rule that resulted in automatic expulsions for most migrants – Kinney County offers a lens into the more aggressive tactics some border sheriffs have adopted even before the expected surge in the weeks ahead. The Biden administration plans to lift the order Thursday, and already, growing numbers of migrants are arriving at the Southwest border.

“We can’t stop it,” said Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber, who oversees a border community adjacent to Kinney County. “We really aren’t prepared for what’s coming.”

Kinney County officials were the first to declare a local “border crisis” emergency two years ago, allowing authorities to act with the same executive powers they often utilize after a major storm. Here, deputies act as a de facto U.S. Border Patrol extension, spending much of their time capturing migrants. Sheriff’s deputies have arrested nearly twice as many migrants in the past two years as there are residents in the remote ranching community.

The county has become the showpiece of Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border initiative, Operation Lone Star, which directs troopers to arrest migrant men and charge them with state crimes. Proponents say the $4 billion program is needed in the absence of a stronger federal response. In recent weeks, at least one other county sheriff’s office has joined the operation, bringing the total to nearly 50, roughly a fifth of all Texas counties. Some border sheriffs are preparing to devote more officers to detaining suspected smugglers and border crossers.

Migrant advocates and some community members say Kinney County’s leaders have gone too far. Residents in the county of 3,200 people routinely stumble across deputies chasing smugglers like NASCAR drivers. Boulders line the front of local schools to prevent vehicles from smashing into classrooms. The town has one ambulance crew frequently tied up with the aftermath of pursuits.

Civil rights groups have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Operation Lone Star for allegations of racial profiling and discrimination. They contend Texas is usurping the federal government’s immigration enforcement responsibility by creating its own unilateral system that weaponizes state law and puts migrants in danger.

“It has become the media star of the anti-immigrant movement,” Bob Libal, a civil rights consultant for Human Rights Watch, said of Kinney County. “They have achieved the goal of heightening the rhetoric and bringing us to a place in Texas that 10 years ago would have been unimaginable.”

Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe, for his part, believes capturing migrants is the best way to protect both his residents and those trying to enter the United States.

“For every one that we stop, every group that we catch that’s being smuggled, I feel like we’re saving somebody a life of grief,” Coe said. “You get wrapped up in the sex trade, is it a better life?”

At the scene of the Dodge Durango chase, officers found an older Mexican woman and her husband in tears hiding inside the sport-utility vehicle. The woman rested her head against her husband’s shoulder while they sat on the ground between patrol vehicles flashing red and blue lights.

“We’re here because they killed our whole family,” the woman’s husband said. The couple began to sob, saying they were from Guerrero, a lawless southern Mexican state where warring criminal organizations have pushed the homicide rate to one of the highest in the country. They were quickly escorted away before sharing their names with a reporter.

As he stepped into a Border Patrol van, the man said, “We’re the only ones left.”

The sheriff

A web of lonely roads winds from the Rio Grande to Brackettville. The two-streetlight town sits on U.S. Highway 90 between official border crossings in Del Rio to the west, Eagle Pass to the southeast and a checkpoint heading northeast to Uvalde. That makes Kinney County a choke point attractive to migrants and smugglers trying to evade authorities.

Coe spent 30 years working for Border Patrol and had hoped for a quiet second act busting small-time drug dealers and reading books to schoolchildren when he signed up for the job. The community is known mostly for an old frontier garrison. Residents also proudly note it was the backdrop for John Wayne’s 1960 film “The Alamo.”

But when President Biden assumed office, Coe said his community came “under siege.” Federal authorities made 1.7 million and 2.4 million arrests respectively in 2021 and 2022 at the Southwest border – and the Del Rio sector, where Kinney County is located, became one of the busiest in that time.

It took little time for Coe’s resource-strapped force to be overwhelmed.

“I have to fight tooth and toenail to protect my ranchers and hunters,” Coe said from his office, where stacks of reports are piled next to a large-lettered study Bible and Donald Trump bumper stickers. He is worried that frustrations with migration will push the county’s tax base out.

“If we lose them,” he said, “I lose the county.”

Coe started airing his frustrations in Facebook videos in which he has imaginary conversations with a cardboard cutout of Vice President Harris. In one 2021 video, he asked “Kardbord Kamala,” as he called the effigy, what her plans were for thousands of Haitian migrants camping out under a border bridge in Del Rio.

“Why are we on our own?” he asked.

The camera panned right to the cutout as a recording of Harris laughing played. Soon Fox News was calling to interview him on border security. Then came meetings with former Trump officials, conspiracy theorists, vigilante groups and, ultimately, Abbott (R).

“I had every militia group in the world call me wanting to help,” Coe said.

For many county leaders, the issue hit close to home. County Judge John Paul Schuster said his family has had several unsettling experiences with men walking through their property in recent years. They got a dog and don’t leave the house before daybreak.

“We shouldn’t have to live like this,” Schuster said, holding back tears. “I don’t want my home to become a gateway that wrecks the country.”

The county declared a border disaster in April 2021. At a news conference a few months later, Coe warned of an invasion of “thousands of illegal aliens.” State and federal money came swiftly. The sheriff bought five vehicles, and the county hired more than two dozen support staff to help process the sudden rise in arrests. The county has also raised about $22,000 in donations through a Christian crowdfunding site.

“The only thing standing between our residents and an open border is Operation Lone Star,” said Brent Smith, the county attorney. “It’s the only thing that stands between them and chaos.”

Kinney’s prominence grew, but it came at a price.

The migrants

As deputies wrapped up interrogating the Mexican couple found in the Dodge Durango, news of another smuggling attempt crackled across the dispatch radio.

Kinney County Deputy Sheriff Liz Aguirre stopped a blue Mitsubishi with expired tags. She spotted two people slouched in a back seat. A 21-year-old San Antonio woman driving the car said the female passengers were her aunts. According to an arrest report, she told the deputy that both were lying down because they were taking a nap.

Aguirre didn’t buy it. She detained the driver. Inside the vehicle, deputies found two more suspected migrants crouched in the trunk. In all, four young women trying to cross the border were taken into custody. One pulled her long obsidian hair across her face to obscure it as officers turned her over to Border Patrol.

Most migrants caught in Kinney County are turned over to Border Patrol and deported. But the sheriff’s office is also on pace to make more than 900 human smuggling arrests on state charges this year. That figure would eclipse the total number of similar arrests in the past two years combined – a stunning increase in a county that previously had only a handful of jury trials.

While Coe and county leaders hold up those numbers as a sign of success, others point to concerning stories behind the arrests.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Texas obtained documents describing a June incident in which the sheriff removed four men suspected of being smuggled from the country by driving them from a crash scene to a port of entry. County sheriffs do not have the authority to deport.

When asked about the incident, Coe said the men had refused medical treatment but Border Patrol wasn’t willing to take them into custody without it. He didn’t have time to wait, so he said he took the migrants to the border himself.

Arrest records reviewed by The Washington Post show instances in which Kinney County property owners have detained migrants at rifle-point, in a sign of how tense the situation has grown. Rights advocates also point to sheriff’s deputies citing dubious legal reasons for traffic stops. One state trooper stopped a vehicle on a county road in June, suspicious of its tinted windows. He determined the tint was legal but said a smell prompted him to investigate further.

“I identified the smell as an odor that is associated with human smuggling,” Cpl. Orlando Rivera wrote. “Undocumented aliens emit a distinct odor due to sweat and being exposed to the environment.”

The trooper found two Mexican migrants in the trunk and arrested the driver for felony smuggling.

Abbott’s office has defended the state’s approach, noting in a recent press release that thousands of pounds of fentanyl and weapons have been seized and more than 360,000 migrants detained as part of Operation Lone Star.

“Every individual who is apprehended or arrested and every ounce of drugs seized would have otherwise made their way into communities across Texas and the nation due to President Joe Biden’s open border policies,” the governor said.

Civil rights leaders say the approach hasn’t proved effective in curbing migration, but lawmakers are doubling down. Bills creating a Texas border protection unit with the power to detain and deport migrants are advancing swiftly through the state legislature. Some of the text mirrors Kinney County’s disaster declaration.

“We are seeing some of the most dangerous legislation on the border being proposed in Austin,” Roberto Lopez, an organizer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said. “It’s built on the invasion rhetoric Kinney advocates.”

Roberto Mejía, 32, was arrested and charged with trespassing in Kinney County in October 2021. The child psychologist from Honduras said he tried to enter legally at the Del Rio crossing but was told he could not apply for asylum because the Title 42 policy remained in effect. Desperate, he jumped into the Rio Grande, despite not knowing how to swim.

Mejía said members of the Texas National Guard found his group soon afterward and instructed them to walk onto the nearby train tracks – private property. They were all immediately apprehended.

Mejía said he spent months inside a special Texas prison unit for migrants enduring emotional torture and physical abuse. He said officers hit him and told him he had less right to be in the country than an animal. Weeks went by with no word on the status of his case.

“My will to live was crumbling,” he said.

Mejía was eventually released with the help of an attorney and has petitioned for political asylum.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said they investigated the complaints and they were “unfounded.” Both prison units are undergoing unannounced inspections and comply with standards, according to a spokesperson.

“I was treated as less than a delinquent for trying to seek out a better life,” Mejía said.

The community

Cole Hill’s security cameras go off incessantly. The ranch manager has scores of snapshots of backpack-carrying men and women, some wearing camouflage. His cattle get loose on the highway after smugglers slice his fences open. He is scared for his young children, whom he has forbidden from wandering through their big backyard.

“I’m neither left nor right; I just want everybody else to know that it’s ridiculous what we are dealing with,” he said. “It’s getting worse and worse for us down here.”

Hill supports local and state law enforcement efforts, but he also wants to see immigration reform at the federal level.

“We need to make immigration laws much easier and more accessible for the people who generally want to be here for good reasons,” Hill said. “But we also need to deter anyone coming here for anything less than that.”

Gage Brown, a working artist whose ranching family has been in the county for five generations, said the intense focus on border enforcement is taking away from other pressing needs. Brackettville is experiencing a teacher shortage, and drought has left local waterways dry. Domestic violence and drug abuse are persistent ills.

For all of Kinney County’s official bluster, many border residents here say they favor opening more legal pathways for people to enter the United States. But they also don’t want migrants coming through their lands without permission.

“Deterrence doesn’t work,” Brown said. “So why haven’t we begun to create something that does?”

Brown has testified against Operation Lone Star at the legislature in Austin, where civil rights groups have been tracking the program’s alleged abuses. Texas judges have dismissed cases over rights violations and ruled the operation unconstitutional because it targets only men for arrest.

Some frustrated residents have taken matters into their own hands. Moses Lozano wears a body camera everywhere he goes to record police.

“There’s no sheriff here; they’re an extension of the Border Patrol,” he said. “The siege is not from any aliens. It’s from law enforcement.”

The border

Nearly 24 hours after the Dodge Durango chase, Escobar was gunning the engine again behind another suspected smuggling vehicle. The gold-colored truck veered off the main road and crashed into a wire fence. Those inside quickly fled.

The deputy and a handful of other officers scanned the brush and eventually caught two men. How many others escaped was unclear.

As the Title 42 policy comes to an end, deputies here and elsewhere are bracing for more chases, more detentions and more smuggling. The Biden administration will send 1,500 additional troops to augment security at the southern border. The United States also recently reached a deal with the Mexican government to allow U.S. authorities to deport non-Mexican migrants who entered illegally back across the border.

But sheriffs anticipate that much of the day-to-day policing will fall on them.

In Kinney County, an uptick in migration has begun. Deputies found nearly 100 people crowded into a sweltering rail car days before Title 42’s end. Investigators believe just as many escaped before authorities could take them into custody.

“It’s already started,” Coe said. “We don’t know what we are going to get, if we get them all at once, or if they come in waves. All I know is that they’re coming.”