HOUSTON — When authorities in Texas began charging migrants who entered the state from Mexico for trespassing last year, authorities quickly ran into a problem: The two small, rural counties tasked with prosecuting cases were overwhelmed.
Among the many problems — overcrowded jails, lack of defense attorneys — were not enough judges, especially in Kinney County, a border community about 120 miles west of San Antonio where the State efforts were applied most aggressively. Three retired judges were brought in by the state to help, beginning in late summer.
Then, last month, the county attorney accused the judges of impropriety. The following day, all three were replaced by others hand-picked by senior county official Tully Shahan.
The upheaval surprised judges and outraged lawyers for the migrants, hundreds of whom are still imprisoned and awaiting prosecution. Immigration advocates have accused Mr Shahan of ousting judges who did not rule the way he wanted in a county keen to use local law enforcement to roll back what authorities called a “invasion of illegal aliens”.
The program, created last year by Governor Greg Abbott and known as Operation Lone Star, has authorized state and local police departments to partner with frontier ranchers and use the laws on intrusions to stop migrants crossing their land. Only two of the state’s 32 border counties — Kinney and its neighbor to the west, Val Verde — have taken this approach.
More than 2,500 migrants have been arrested for trespassing, all of them men. (Under the Texas program, women and children found on private land are turned over directly to immigration officials.) About 900 remain in state prisons.
Arrests for misdemeanor trespassing, controversial from the start, have come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks.
This month, a state court judge dismissed the case of a migrant arrested for trespassing in Kinney County after his lawyers argued the arrest violated the US Constitution because only the federal government has jurisdiction over immigration law. The department appealed the decision.
Defense attorneys filed similar arguments the next day on behalf of more than 400 other migrants, hoping those cases would also be thrown out.
In some cases, prosecutors have been forced to release the men after detaining them for months because they failed to press charges.
This happened in the case of Jesus Manuel Rodriguez Mancha, a welder from Coahuila, Mexico, who moved to Texas hoping to find work to support his two children and his mother. He was arrested in September in Kinney County, turned over to immigration authorities three months later, and then deported to Mexico.
“We suffered a lot,” Rodriguez said in a video interview, describing his experience at a Texas state prison repurposed to hold migrants: bad food, insults from guards, 3 a.m. wake-ups and days without nothing to do and no information on his situation. “They never explained anything,” he said.
In neighboring Val Verde County, which has a population of about 47,500 and includes Del Rio, where thousands of Haitian migrants huddled under a bridge last fall, the county attorney has begun to dismiss or refuse to prosecute the most cases of intrusion. The county has since seen a sharp drop in the number of arrested migrants.
By contrast, officials in Kinney County, where about 3,100 people live in and around a small central town and on sprawling ranches, have taken the law-and-order state approach in the face of the sharp rise migrants from Mexico, an increase that last year reached levels not seen in more than two decades.
But the three judges who have been brought in to hear hundreds of cases have not always ruled the way county officials wanted. In many cases, they agreed to release migrants who had been detained for months without a hearing, pending a court date. Their replacements have so far rejected all requests for provisional release.
As a result, many migrants chose to plead guilty or not contest trespassing charges in exchange for an immediate release offered by prosecutors.
“It’s the only way they’re going to get a plea from one of our clients,” Kristin Etter, an attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said of Kinney County officials.
Mr. Shahan, the Kinney County official, did not respond to a request for comment.
In late November, Shahan tested positive for coronavirus and canceled the hearings he was chairing. During that period, defense attorneys filed more than 150 habeas corpus petitions, an effort to secure hearings for migrants arrested months earlier who had yet to see a judge.
The three retired judges originally named by the state to help Kinney County — Vivian Torres, Kitty Schild and Genie Wright — said they could help. “I offered to hear as many writs of habeas corpus as possible to add to my docket,” Judge Schild said.
Instead of letting judges hear the cases, County Attorney Brent Smith filed papers with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking to block them from granting further defense motions for hearings or to allow migrants to be released on personal bail. Mr. Smith wrote that the judges improperly discussed their cases with defense attorneys over email without including county prosecutors. The judges denied any impropriety.
“What he said in there were very vague accusations and they weren’t true,” Judge Schild said.
Mr. Smith declined to comment.
The following day Mr Shahan informed the judges that their services “would no longer be needed”.
In mid-December, scheduled hearings for Judge Torres were instead chaired by Allen Amos, a former civil servant from another rural county who had been chosen by Mr Shahan. Many of the cases involving migrants who had been arrested in early September involved versions of the same process: a request for provisional release at no cost or on personal bail; then a denial from Mr. Amos; then a man, often Mexican, accepting a guilty plea.
After their release, the men would be transferred to the custody of federal immigration officials. Many are quickly deported, but many more end up staying in the United States as they pursue asylum claims.
While a trespassing conviction alone won’t bar a migrant from seeking asylum, “the whole point of getting them to plead guilty is to have that conviction on their record,” said lawyer Anita Gupta. at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
“The objective of Operation Lone Star,” she said, “is to criminalize migrants and then hand them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for execution and deportation.”