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The Texas Tribune
The Texas Tribune
Uriel J. García

Texas imprisoned migrants after they should have been released, lawsuit claims

Department of Public Safety agents oversee a group of three undocumented migrants as they continue the process of arresting them after they were caught in private property as part of Operation Lone Star in Kinney County near Brackettville, on Nov. 8, 2021.
Department of Public Safety troopers arrest three undocumented migrants as part of Operation Lone Star in Kinney County near Brackettville on Nov. 8, 2021. (Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune)

Immigrant rights advocates on Monday filed a federal lawsuit against two South Texas sheriffs and two state prison wardens on behalf of four Mexican migrants, claiming they were held in prison for as long as six weeks after they served their sentences or had their trespassing charges dropped.

The lawsuit, filed in the Western District of Texas by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the Texas Fair Defense Project and the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Covington & Burling, claims that thousands of other people were also detained longer than they should have been under Operation Lone Star, the border enforcement program Gov. Greg Abbott launched in 2021.

The lawyers for the migrants are seeking monetary damages. The lawsuit names the Kinney and Val Verde county sheriffs and the wardens of the Briscoe and Segovia unit state prisons. According to the lawsuit, arrests are primarily conducted by the Department of Public Safety and each county’s sheriff’s office.

“In its design and execution, ‘catch and jail’ metes out incarceration; due process is at most an afterthought,” the lawsuit claims. “Foreseeably, if not intentionally, the scheme has violated the human and civil rights of hundreds, if not thousands, of people.”

“The government cannot just grab whoever they want off the street and lock them in cages as long as they feel like it,” said Camilla Hsu, managing attorney for litigation at the Texas Fair Defense Project.

As part of the program, Abbott sent National Guard members and state troopers to different parts of the Texas-Mexico border so the officers could arrest migrants crossing the border illegally and charge them with misdemeanor trespassing.

According to the lawsuit, Edgar Garces Robles, 31; Ramiro Soto Altamirano, 28; Juan Jose Soto Hernandez, 54; and Rodolfo Ruiz de la Cruz, 57, were arrested for trespassing in Val Verde and Kinney counties between August and September 2021. All four are from Coahuila, one of the four Mexican states that border Texas.

Robles was arrested on Sept. 30, 2021, in Val Verde County and transported to the Dolph Briscoe Unit, a state prison in Dilley. On Jan. 10, 2022, the trespassing charge against him was dropped but he was not released from the prison until 19 days later, the lawsuit says.

Altamirano and Hernandez were arrested on Aug. 30, 2021, and the Val Verde county attorney declined to prosecute the trespassing charges against them, the lawsuit says, but both were held for 42 days after prosecutors turned down their cases.

Ruiz de la Cruz was arrested on Sept. 24, 2021, in Kinney County on suspicion of trespassing. The lawsuit says Ruiz de la Cruz didn’t have his first post-magistration appearance until 110 days later.

On Jan. 12, 2022, Ruiz de la Cruz “was promised immediate release” if he pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge. He agreed and was sentenced to 80 days of incarceration with credit for time served, the lawsuit says. But he was not released until another 13 days later, the lawsuit says.

Once the four men were released, officers turned them over to federal immigration officials.

Val Verde Sheriff Frank Martinez didn’t immediately respond to a text message from The Texas Tribune seeking comment. A spokesperson for Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe and a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees the prisons, said they couldn't comment on pending litigation.

“Texas’ cruel border politics and policies are wasteful, inflammatory, and riddled with human and civil rights abuses,” said David Donatti, an attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “Governor Abbott has manipulated unchecked executive power and Texas’ criminal laws to leverage control over border communities and endanger migrants. In the United States, and in Texas, the government cannot impose criminal penalties without due process of law.”

Abbott, who held a news conference in Eagle Pass on Monday afternoon, defended his policies, saying President Joe Biden has not been doing his job in securing the borders. He also blamed the president for the record number of bodies found along the U.S.-Mexico border this year.

“The border between the United States and Mexico is turning into a deadly welcome mat for the migrants who are coming here,” he said.

In June, as part of Abbott’s efforts, the state deployed a floating barrier in the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass to deter migrants from crossing the river.

During the news conference, Abbott said the barrier had drifted to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and contractors recently pulled the line of buoys — which support a submerged mesh net and are separated by what appear to be circular saw blades — back to the U.S. side of the river.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Austin will hear arguments from the U.S. Department of Justice, which sued the state to seek the removal of the floating barrier.

The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.

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