The number of encounters along our southern border has been increasing over the last three months. These increases come after Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported a record 1.7 million encounters along our southern border during the fiscal year 2021. Political division on this issue has prevented Congress from enacting long-term immigration reform.
From Galveston to Brackettville
Since August 2021, the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office and three Constable’s offices have regularly sent resources to help rural county law enforcement deal with an influx of immigrants illegally crossing the border. Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe said his six deputy department became overwhelmed by the number of immigrants moving through the county, which prompted increases in burglary calls and high-speed chases involving smugglers.
“Our numbers, just in that short period, have more than doubled what we did in January of last year,” said Coe. “We’re talking smuggling cases, ones we’re catching walking the highway, number of seized vehicles, number of seized weapons, number of smugglers.”
Coe said property owners in the county complain about constant damage to fences from those cutting across farm and ranchland to reach main roads or smugglers who crash through fences trying to get away from deputies or Border Patrol. Coe said there have been no acts of violence associated with the increased numbers, but a rise in break-ins has property owners concerned.
“They’ll come through, go into the house looking for food, water, a place to sleep, then they gather up what they can,” Coe said.
Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset answered Coe’s call for help to send extra manpower.
“The need is there and it’s great,” said Trochesset.
KPRC 2 visited Kinney County at the end of January when Precinct 2 Constable Jimmy Fullen, Precinct 4 Constable Justin West, Sheriff’s Sgt. Thomas Maffei and a deputy from the Precinct 1 Constable’s office were helping patrol the area.
“I’m on my ninth trip,” said Fullen. “Each time I come down here, we’re dealing with the same thing.”
Fullen, West and Trochesset said deputies work one to two-week tours on a rotating basis. During our trip, Fullen, West and Maffei helped Kinney County deputies arrest a pair of suspected smugglers who had 10 immigrants crammed into the back of an SUV. The entire group was eventually handed over to Border Patrol.
“Anytime we have an issue in our area, people come down, people show up for us, we’re going to do the same thing for them,” said West.
Last June, Galveston County Mark Henry gave the green light to use some of the county’s American Rescue Plan funds to support sending resources to the border. Among Henry’s stipulations are only those who volunteer can be sent to the border, and law enforcement could not leave any patrol areas uncovered. All those KPRC 2 spoke with said they’re using reserve deputies to fill in the gaps left by those working on the border. Trochesset said he foresees continuing this effort through June. In addition to ARP funds, the county is also using a $2 million state grant to pay for the effort.
Precinct 3 Constable Derreck Rose chose not to send any of his deputies to the border.
“We have shootings and crime in Galveston County we need to fight,” said Rose. “I think the resources we’re spending on the border are better spent here.”
Ranchers Bill and Carolyn Conoly said the extra help is welcome. The couple, along with Bill Conoly’s brothers, operate a cattle ranch and offered to house Galveston law enforcement.
“We have a visual presence of law enforcement coming and going in ways we’ve never had before,” said Carolyn.
The Conoly’s said they made the decision to offer housing to out-of-town law enforcement after seeing items stolen from their property and other encounters with immigrants crossing through the ranch.
“We have cameras up, we have lights on, we’re pretty much locked down when we’re not here, we’re locked up when we are here,” said Carolyn Conoly. “We don’t walk outside alone anymore, (it’s) from the house to the gate and back.”
A Growing Backlog
The record number of apprehensions along the border is contributing to a growing backlog in immigration court. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse maintained by Syracuse University shows a current backlog of nearly 1.6 million cases. TRAC data shows, nationally, it takes an average of 2.5 years for a case to make its way through immigration court, and adds more cases are being added at a faster pace. In Houston immigration court, it can take just over three years for a case to be decided.
“Congress has to solve this,” said Houston immigration attorney, Charles Foster.
Foster has worked with Democrats and Republicans on immigration reform for decades.
“What impact are you seeing in immigration court because of what is happening on the border?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“We have taken a bad situation and it’s getting worse daily,” said Foster. “We need more immigration judges, trial attorneys and asylum officers.”
Foster points to the backlog and the length of time it takes for a case to make its way through immigration court as being a “pull” for many immigrants. Foster also believes making faster decisions on asylum claims will help curb illegal immigration because it removes the chance of an immigrant being allowed to remain in the US for years while waiting for a decision. According to TRAC data, there are currently 671, 983 asylum claims pending.
TRAC data shows the majority of asylum claims are denied, but the percentage of denials has been dropping under President Joe Biden.
Associate Director for the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American studies, Jeronimo Cortina, said conditions in areas like Central America are not improving, which will continue to drive more people to the US where there are jobs and the chance of staying in the country for years because of a backlogged system. He warns if Congress does not get a handle on this problem, it will only get worse.
“This creates an endless chain of cases that are just going to be accumulated,” said Cortina. “They’re working and working and working and simply the backlog doesn’t go down at all.”
Cortina said the political division on Capitol Hill is only further stalling efforts to streamline our immigration system as a whole.
“I don’t see, so far, a meeting point in which politicians can sit down at the table and start discussing this,” said Cortina.