Thanks to local politics and a railroad, rural Kinney County accounts for most of Texas’ migrant arrests

A group of migrants walk off a pick-up truck after being apprehended by Department of Public Safety officers at a train depot in Spofford on Aug. 25, 2021.

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SPOFFORD — Arms wrapped around his head to shield his eyes from the midday sun, a Texas Ranger dozed on his dirt-colored all-terrain vehicle next to the railroad tracks. Numerous other state police officers camped out in marked and unmarked vehicles nearby, all waiting for the next cargo train to pass through this ghost town about 20 miles from the Mexican border.

When the northbound freight rolled in from Eagle Pass, the sluggish atmosphere vanished. Rangers raced about on their ATVs, dust swirling behind. Minutes later, an unmarked pickup truck returned with about a dozen people sitting in the bed handcuffed. Officers soon added another four men to the group.

Sweaty and exhausted, all were migrants from Mexico who said they crossed the border and jumped on the train. Over the next hour, a U.S. Border Patrol agent showed up and took two women and two minors into federal immigration processing — where they would probably quickly be sent back to Mexico.

The 11 remaining men, however, were now in custody of the state of Texas. Eight state troopers loaded them into two unmarked vans. The migrants likely will be charged with trespassing on Union Pacific Railroad property and spend weeks or months on the state’s dime in a prison recently repurposed into a Texas jail for migrants. And they are far from the first to leave the train station headed for the state lockup.

“[State police] are out here all day everyday,” Albert De Leon, the rail station’s operations director, said outside his office just before the arrests last week. “They have the Rangers, drones, helicopters.”

Texas Department of Public Safety officers ride all-terrain vehicles near a train depot in Spofford on Aug. 25, 2021. The officers were patrolling the area for migrants.

Texas Department of Public Safety officers ride all-terrain vehicles near a train depot in Spofford on Aug. 25, 2021. The officers were patrolling the area for migrants. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

A group of migrants wait near a private road after being apprehended by Department of Public Safety officers at a train depot in Spofford on Aug. 25, 2021.

A group of migrants wait near a private road after being apprehended by Department of Public Safety officers at a train depot in Spofford on Aug. 25, 2021. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

First: Texas Rangers look for migrants near a train depot in Spofford. Last: Migrants wait near a private road after being apprehended by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

The rural Texas border community of Kinney County consists mainly of ranch land visited by hunters seeking deer or exotic game, like zebras and antelope. Recently, however, the region has been flooded with state police tracking migrants, arresting hundreds for allegedly trespassing on private land after illegally crossing into the United States from Mexico.

Deep red politically, county residents and officials are eagerly taking part in Gov. Greg Abbott’s new order to arrest and jail migrants on state criminal charges, a reaction to a steep increase in border crossings. Although arrests under the order started in late July in the more populous Val Verde County, Kinney has quickly and considerably surpassed its neighbor in jailings.

Of the more than 630 migrants detained in the Briscoe state prison this week, according to a prison official, more than 440 had been picked up in Kinney — a county with 16 border miles, a few thousand residents and a minuscule criminal justice system.

Along with police train searches, ranchers send videos to law enforcement of migrants spotted walking past their motion-activated game cameras. And elected officials spit fury at President Joe Biden, blaming the Democratic administration for the skyrocketing number of border crossings by migrants, many of whom are seeking asylum from countries torn by violence or political and economic crises.

“It’s a flat-out invasion,” Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe said last week, invoking oft-repeated conservative rhetoric.

“The fear is, we don’t know who these people are,” he added, leaning over his desk to show a grainy video of people walking across a ranch at night. “We don’t know if they’ve got a criminal history, we don’t know if they’re sex offenders.”

Local officials, as well as the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, cite an urgency for the costly state operation based on fears that a swell of drug cartel operatives, gang members or rapists are crossing the border into Texas. DPS has stated that thousands of pounds of drugs and hundreds of guns have been seized in the border region since March. Coe also said there had been several burglaries and car thefts over the last few months in the usually sleepy ranch community.

But so far, the vast majority of the hundreds of migrants arrested and sent to the Briscoe prison under Abbott’s new “catch-and-jail” policy are accused only of trespassing on private property in Kinney and Val Verde counties, according to state and county officials. In at least 35 cases, Briscoe detainees have been accused of other crimes, like human smuggling and evading arrest, according to a prison spokesperson. The Val Verde County sheriff said nearly 20 of those were U.S. citizens accused of human smuggling in his county before Abbott’s latest initiative began in late July, but they were transferred to Briscoe as his jail overfilled.

“Statistically, these are nonviolent, non-personal offenses,” state Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, said at a legislative hearing last week on a proposal for the state to spend nearly $2 billion on increased border security efforts. “It’s literally walking across somebody’s property.”

Most of those held in the prison are Mexican nationals, the prison reported. Because of the coronavirus, Mexican migrants apprehended by federal immigration authorities near the border are usually now immediately sent back, according to Kat Russell, an attorney with the immigrant legal services group RAICES.

State police are arresting the migrants, and a state prison is holding them, but it’s up to the small-town prosecutors and judges to resolve their cases. Kinney County’s modest court system is now handling hundreds of court cases when it’s more accustomed to single digits.

That led to at least 155 migrants being jailed for weeks at the Briscoe state prison without lawyers, according to court officials and attorneys.

“There are people sitting in the Briscoe Unit that don’t have an advocate,” said Katy Dyer, a defense attorney and professor in the criminal defense clinic at the University of Texas at Austin’s law school. “And it’s very difficult to know the names of those people and for their families to know what’s happening.”

For about the first month, those arrested in Kinney County under Abbott’s initiative were taken to the parking lot of the county sheriff’s office in Brackettville, booked in droves near a shaded blue picnic table, and then taken to Val Verde County to await transport to Briscoe — without attorneys assigned to their cases.

In groups ranging from a few to dozens of men, the local justice of the peace said she, the county judge or the sheriff told them what criminal charges they were facing, set their bail and read them their rights, including their right to be appointed an attorney if they could not afford one.


Migrants who have been arrested are read their rights outside the Kinney County Sheriff’s Office before being sent to the Briscoe state prison. Credit: Kinney County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page

Narce Villarreal, the justice of the peace who conducted most of these hearings, said Friday that most of the men she processed requested attorneys, so she filled out the necessary indigent defense paperwork. But she said the county judge told her he didn’t fill out such forms, and she didn’t know how or if attorneys were actually assigned.

Dyer, the Austin attorney, said she witnessed County Judge Tully Shahan process three men last month, and their court forms had already been marked to show the defendant had waived their right to counsel before the hearing began.

“The only thing that wasn’t filled in was the signature of the person charged,” she said.

Dyer said the judge told her the migrants could get attorneys later in Briscoe, but there were no local attorneys available. Shahan didn’t respond to follow-up phone calls or emailed questions specifically about the forms, but he said in the county courthouse last week that he believed the state was appointing attorneys.

In any case, more than 150 men sat in Briscoe without attorneys, despite state statute requiring appointment of counsel within three days of a defendant’s request for one. And although some men had been jailed for weeks, the prosecutor had not yet filed criminal charges for any of the arrests until last week.

“The whole process is hard to streamline,” Brent Smith, the newly elected county attorney who prosecutes misdemeanor cases, said in a courthouse hallway conversation last Tuesday. “There’s a stack of files I have to go through.”

For Dyer, the delay by the prosecution demonstrates the importance of assigning attorneys quickly.

“There are laws in Texas that mandate that charges have to be filed within a certain time frame or somebody is entitled to a release from jail,” she said. “That time is passing, and there’s no lawyer to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this person should be getting out of jail, charges haven’t been filed.’”

Smith said last Tuesday he was unsure of the deadlines to file criminal charges in misdemeanor cases before needing to release defendants from jail due to delayed prosecution. State statute puts the limit at 30 days for Class A misdemeanors — the level of trespassing during a declared disaster, as Abbott has done on the border. Smith began filing charges against the alleged criminal trespassers the next day, the county clerk’s office said, but only in about 10 of the hundreds of arrests.

Behind the scenes, the discovery of a lack of representation for those arrested in Kinney County caused the state officials involved in Abbott’s border arrests to quickly regroup. The Lubbock Private Defenders Office, which was enlisted by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to connect jailed migrants to attorneys in July, said it hadn’t previously known defendants were sitting in a state prison for weeks with no attorney.

“All the individuals that were previously in there that we didn’t know about ... we have received all their affidavits of indigency now and we’re basically trying to remedy that as we speak,” Shannon Evans, executive director of the Lubbock office, said last week. “We got a … backlog from Kinney County.”

The Texas RioGrande Legal Aid group, which has been funded by the state to represent most of the migrants arrested in Val Verde County, will now handle Kinney County arrests as well, Evans said. When their resources are tapped, the office will reach out to other attorneys throughout the state.

Under the revised system, the migrants arrested off the train last week skipped the Kinney County sheriff’s office and instead were processed through the temporary state facility in Val Verde County. At the tent processing center in Del Rio, the Texas Supreme Court has assigned a rotating schedule of retired judges from throughout the state to hold migrants’ first hearings, where bail is set and the process to appoint attorneys is started.

Kinney County officials said the change was mostly logistical. In the hallway of the small courthouse last week, Shahan said the state was figuring out attorney appointments, but the entire court procedure — including holding hearings and potential trials with one judge and an ever-growing number of arrestees — will still need to be worked out.

“It’s a new ball game, it’s new procedures, and it can all be solved by President Biden,” he said, his voice rising in anger.

Like Shahan and Coe, Abbott has long blamed Biden for the increase in immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, pointing to the president’s halting of border fence construction and reversal of former President Donald Trump’s policy to force asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border to stay in Mexico before their cases are resolved. (The “remain in Mexico” policy was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court last week.)

Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe in his office in Bracketville on Aug. 24. 2021.

“My job is to deter them [migrants] from wanting to come into Kinney County,” says Sheriff Brad Coe. “If they get caught [and] they’re going to go to jail, maybe they’ll go someplace else.” Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

In Kinney, Republican officials point to a rise in migrant deaths as a cause for outrage with the president. Last week, Coe said officials found three bodies in their county within 36 hours. Shahan said the increase in migrants’ bodies found throughout his county was “sickening.”

Democrats and advocates for civil rights and immigrants have said the move to arrest and jail migrants accused only of trespassing at great expense to the state shows the intention is not spurred by public safety concerns, however, but is meant to promote fear-mongering against Hispanic immigrants.

“To me, those are hysterics and talking points,” said Amanda Woog with the Texas Fair Defense Project. “If you look at who’s actually being arrested and what they’re actually being arrested for, you can see this is just trying to arrest brown men.”

Coe, the county’s Republican sheriff, argued that migrants committing more serious crimes often aren’t caught. The criminal trespassing arrests, he hopes, will still make migrants think twice about coming into his county.

“My job is to deter them from wanting to come into Kinney County,” he said. “If they get caught [and] they’re going to go to jail, maybe they’ll go someplace else.”

And aside from the cited fear of migrants creating danger in Texas or facing danger themselves, Coe said the county residents want it to stop. The rise in crossings has affected the county’s economy.

“The exotic hunt is what keeps Kinney County afloat,” he said. “So with people running through and driving the animals out, and the animals aren’t showing up where they’re supposed to be, people aren’t making the money that they could have been making.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Union Pacific Railroad Co. have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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