By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune
After nearly two months in a Texas prison, Ignacio watched through a computer screen last week as a border county prosecutor announced he was dropping the criminal trespassing charge against him.
But that didn’t mean the 28-year-old migrant from Venezuela was going to be freed.
Instead, the next few days became a whirlwind of confusion, fear and, ultimately, a trip back to detention as a hastily built Texas system to “catch and jail” migrants suspected of illegally crossing the border struggled to adapt to releasing people from state custody. Ignacio’s return to lockup is the most recent example of cracks that have surfaced in the state’s new immigrant detention system.
“Nobody knows what to do, and every time somebody thinks they figure it out, something new happens,” said David Ortiz, Ignacio’s court-appointed attorney in his trespassing case.
The Texas Tribune agreed to use a pseudonym for Ignacio because he and his brother told attorneys they fear publicity will harm his chances for being granted asylum. More than 20,000 Venezuelans have been apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol in Texas this year, with many claiming they are fleeing political persecution, violence or economic crisis.
Last week, after nearly two months and hundreds of trespassing jailings under the new border arrest initiative, Val Verde County Attorney David Martinez dismissed dozens of cases against migrants “in the interest of justice.” He later explained that he was following what the state’s top cop told legislators last month: Police on the border want to target dangerous criminals, not the many migrants who are fleeing hardships or seeking asylum.
Court documents show that over two days of virtual court hearings for more than 70 migrant arrestees, Martinez dropped 40 cases, including Ignacio’s.
“[DPS Director Steve McCraw] said we’re not looking for people who are crossing the river and then looking for law enforcement officers to turn themselves in. We are looking for the ones who are getting away from us,” Martinez, a Democrat, said after the hearings. “I listened to that.”
He said he began working with defense lawyers to see if the defendants had asylum claims or medical issues he should consider before deciding whether he should proceed with prosecution. Martinez said he is still filing criminal cases in most instances, however, to get to the step of making that determination.
With court dockets few and far between in single-judge counties, that meant most of the dozens of men whose cases were dismissed last week had already been in prison for weeks.
In August, Martinez dropped one trespassing case against an 18-year-old who had been separated from his father, and offered plea deals that came with 15-day sentences for about 25 others. Having already spent at least 15 days in a state prison, they were then picked up by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials.
Arrested in Del Rio in July, Ignacio was one of the first to be jailed at a retooled state prison under Gov. Greg Abbott’s new initiative to lock up migrants on state criminal charges in response to a surge in illegal border crossings. Typically, people crossing the border illegally are apprehended and processed by U.S. Border Patrol, but Abbott has repeatedly blamed the increase in apprehensions on President Joe Biden and sought to ramp up state law enforcement at the border in response.
Ortiz said Ignacio and a group of other Venezuelans were seeking asylum and had been pointed toward private land on the Texas side of the Rio Grande by officials on a boat in the river.
They were arrested by the Texas Department of Public Safety on trespassing charges. Over the next several weeks, hundreds more migrants would be arrested in Val Verde and Kinney counties and detained in two Texas prisons converted into state immigration jails. Almost all of the migrants are jailed for allegedly trespassing on private property — a misdemeanor offense.
DPS reported this month that, since March, state police have made thousands of immigration-related arrests and seized thousands of pounds of drugs and millions of dollars. In recent weeks, state police have in part shifted away from Val Verde County, however, and started making a larger number of trespassing arrests in rural Kinney County.
On Monday, Abbott reiterated that “the policy in Texas is to arrest and to jail people who are coming across the border illegally and trespassing.” In a statement Friday, DPS officials said the agency is continuing to make arrests at the border.
“Ultimately, it is up to the discretion of the County and District Attorneys whether or not to dismiss a particular case,” the statement read.
Still, the dropped charges and release from prison haven’t necessarily led to a fast release into the United States for the migrants after weeks or months in detention.
ICE didn’t want to take custody of Ignacio or the others whose cases were dismissed because they had no criminal conviction, multiple officials said. And officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which processes migrants apprehended at the border, didn’t have an interest in Ignacio because he had already been in the state for nearly two months.
So Ignacio and a handful of other migrants released from the Briscoe prison after their cases were dismissed on Wednesday were taken back to the border town of Del Rio. Without any U.S. documentation aside from his prison release forms, Ignacio was dropped off with the others at a gas station bus stop, Ortiz said. Unsure what to do, he and a Honduran migrant started walking.
“They were scared to get a ride or even just walk along the highway,” said Maria Renteria, a law fellow at RAICES, an immigrant rights’ group. Renteria has been in touch with Ignacio’s brother, who lives in Dallas.
The next day, Ignacio and the other man were able to get in touch with Ortiz, who drove the men to Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, a group that helps connect resources to asylum-seekers released by federal authorities. Ignacio had entered Texas seeking asylum and hoping to reunite with his brother, Ortiz said, but he never had a chance to have his asylum claim heard since he had been arrested immediately after crossing the river.
Believing the men had the proper paperwork, a volunteer tried to drive them to San Antonio on Thursday with a group of migrants who had upcoming asylum hearings, said Tiffany Burrow, operations director for the coalition. But they were stopped at a federal immigration checkpoint, and the two men were taken into custody.
Ignacio found himself back in detention, this time in a CBP processing center in Eagle Pass. Federal authorities told Renteria last week that Ignacio could be there for days or weeks before officials could process him and decide whether to deport him — which is what they did with the Honduran man — or release him into the U.S. on an asylum bond.
It was unclear what happened to the other roughly half dozen men who were dropped off at the bus stop after their cases were dropped.
“[Ignacio is] lucky because his criminal attorney is great and was helpful, but for other people who didn’t get so lucky in terms of representation, I don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” Andani Alcantara Diaz, an attorney with RAICES, said Friday. “It’s very confusing. I’m sure it’s confusing for CBP as well.”
On Friday, after Ignacio was again detained, Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez said a new system had been put in place to process migrants released from the prison. Men whose cases had been dismissed in court Thursday would be transported from prison to the new state booking center in Del Rio before being turned over to CBP officials.
“Those that can be deported back to their home county are going to be deported, and those that have a legal [asylum] claim will be given a notice to appear, and they will move wherever they’re going,” the sheriff said.
On Monday, he reported that out of 17 men released under the new process, eight had been released pending asylum hearings. The rest were deported.