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Texas Expands ‘Catch and Jail’ Initiative into Three Counties

Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the border arrest program will be extended into Webb, Brooks and Jim Hogg counties, all three of which are controlled by Democrats. Two of the counties are not on the state’s border.

(TNS) — Texas state authorities are now arresting migrants on misdemeanor trespass charges near the Rio Grande Valley and are planning to expand Gov. Greg Abbott's 'catch and jail' initiative into counties that are not on the border, the state's chief law enforcement official said Tuesday.

Under his Operation Lone Star program, Abbott has sent thousands of Texas National Guard troops and state police to the U.S.- Mexico border, where they are tasked with apprehending and referring migrants to federal authorities, seizing drugs and, in some cases, arresting migrants for allegedly trespassing on private property.

The trespass arrests, underway since last July, have remained almost entirely confined to Val Verde County, home to the border city of Del Rio, and neighboring Kinney County, a sparsely populated community that has served as the epicenter of the arrests. But in recent weeks, state authorities have started locking up migrants in Jim Hogg County, a rural area that hugs the border counties of Starr and Zapata. In February, they opened a new state-run booking facility for processing migrants who are arrested.

In a Senate committee hearing Tuesday, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said the effort will soon extend to Webb County, which includes Laredo and some 100 miles of the border, and to inland Brooks County, part of U.S. Border Patrol's heavily trafficked Rio Grande Valley sector.

On Tuesday, a total of 57 migrants arrested in Jim Hogg County were being held at the two state-run lockups outfitted to house Operation Lone Star detainees, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But even with DPS' expansion into South Texas, Kinney County remained the chief source of trespass arrests, accounting for roughly 85 percent of the 870 migrants currently jailed.

In a sharp break from Republican-dominated Kinney County, all three South Texas counties — Brooks, Jim Hogg and Webb — are controlled by Democrats and were carried comfortably by then-candidate Joe Biden in 2020.

The distinction is notable because Abbott's migrant arrest plan can only function in counties where it is supported by the elected county attorney, who represents the state in misdemeanor cases.

McCraw did not say when he expects state troopers to start making arrests in Brooks and Webb counties, and DPS officials did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the anticipated timeline.

Under questioning Tuesday from state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D- McAllen, McCraw acknowledged Operation Lone Star had initially overwhelmed Kinney County's relatively small criminal justice system, and said state officials were seeking to avoid the same mistakes in South Texas.

"We outstripped the capacity very quickly in Del Rio," McCraw said. "We want to make sure that we've got all of the indigent defense in place, prosecutors, all the resources that are necessary to ensure that when we start arresting people for criminal trespass ... that there's a system there in place."

State authorities are likely to be even busier in the new areas, McCraw said. He noted that Brooks County's only city, Falfurrias, operates a border patrol station that is among the busiest immigration checkpoints in the country.

"I think Jim Hogg, we would have already had that up and running, frankly, except the concern is that, well, let's make sure that it has the bandwidth to be able to sustain similar types of numbers, or greater," McCraw said.

For now, state officials are continuing to send migrants arrested in South Texas to the Briscoe and Segovia units, both of which are less than half full. Robert Hurst, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the agency would open the Lopez State Jail, located next to the Segovia Unit in Edinburg, if needed.

Abbott, who easily won his Republican primary last week over two prominent right-wing challengers, has touted his border operation as a proactive effort to address the surge in migrant apprehensions under President Joe Biden. But the program has faced a cascade of early missteps, at first overwhelming county officials who were unable to keep up with a deluge of cases. As a result, some migrants sat in jail for weeks without being formally charged or given access to an attorney.

More recently, Abbott and other top officials have come under criticism from a series of four National Guard suicide deaths last year, and reported struggles to pay Operation Lone Star soliders on time.

(c)2022 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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