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Helicopters and High-Speed Chases: Inside Texas’ Push to Arrest Migrants

BRACKETTVILLE, Texas — Magdaleno Ruiz Jimenez huddled under a waxing moon in the rough brush of a Texas ranch. His journey to the small border community of Brackettville had been long, about 1,300 miles from his home in Mexico. But now a drone was buzzing overhead.

A lone officer, Sgt. Ryan Glenn, emerged from the darkness. He had a flashlight and a screen with coordinates for where Mr. Jimenez and six other men could be found on the cold caliche, blobs of heat visible to an infrared camera on the overhead drone. More officers soon arrived.

“I spent everything to get here,” Mr. Jimenez said after the officers wrested him and the other men from the brush.

The men assumed they had been detained by immigration officers for illegally crossing into the United States. They were wrong. Instead, they were arrested on charges of trespassing on a vast private ranch by highway patrol officers from the Texas state police

For several months now, Texas has been engaged in an effort to repurpose the tools of state law enforcement to stem the sudden increase of people crossing illegally into the country.

To do this, Texas officials led by Gov. Greg Abbott developed a way around the fact that immigration enforcement is a federal government job: State and local police departments partner with the owners of borderland ranches, and use trespassing laws to arrest migrants who cross their land.

“That’s an effective way of sending a message,” Mr. Abbott said, flanked by nine other Republican governors, at a news conference along the border this fall. “If you come into the state of Texas illegally, you have a high likelihood of not getting caught and released, but instead, arrested and jailed.”

The new approach relies on the participation of local officials and, so far, it has been adopted in just two of the state’s 32 border region counties: Kinney, which includes Brackettville, and Val Verde, its neighbor to the west.

State officials could not say what effect, if any, the program has had on reducing illegal crossings, which have surged to at least 1.2 million in Texas so far this year, the highest recorded figure in more than two decades. (It remains unclear how many migrants are trying to cross multiple times.) But the operation has upended life both for the migrants caught up in its ad hoc processes and for the rural residents living under its net.

Perhaps nowhere has that been more acutely felt than the town of Brackettville, a former frontier outpost of 1,700 known for its surrounding hunting and cattle ranches, an old fort that once housed the army’s Black Seminole scouts, and an aging replica of the Alamo built for a John Wayne film.

Lately, it has been flooded with state police.

High speed chases are so frequent that the local school installed rock barriers to protect against crashes. Helicopters patrol the night sky. Ranchers, who are mostly white, lock their doors and carry pistols around their own properties, which many never did before. Town residents, a majority of whom are poor and Hispanic, complain they are routinely followed by officers newly assigned to the area.

“That happens to a lot of people here in Brackett,” said the mayor, Eric Martinez, using the nickname for the town. He said he was followed and then pulled over after leaving a City Council meeting because, the officer told him, his license plate light was not bright enough.

The police push is part of an ongoing clash between Mr. Abbott and the Biden administration over how to handle the sudden increase of arrivals at the border with Mexico. Federal agents have been rapidly expelling migrants under a public health rule, but Mr. Abbott argues that the government has done little to halt the flow of them. He has dedicated $3 billion for a series of measures at the border, including sending state police and troops from the Texas State Guard, creating a border barrier with shipping containers and using the National Guard to construct several miles of fencing along the Rio Grande.

But the arrests of migrants for criminal trespassing has been a more disruptive element of what is known as Operation Lone Star, crowding courts and local jail populations and raising alarm among defense lawyers and advocates for migrants.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on the initiative, and federal agents are not partnering with the state police in making trespassing arrests.

Representative Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, has asked for a federal investigation of the Operation Lone Star, saying in a letter this fall to the Justice Department that the program was “wreaking havoc on Texas’ judicial system” and has “directly led to a violation of state laws and constitutional due process rights.”

The men arrested under the program, some 2,000 so far, have often been held for weeks without access to lawyers. More than 1,000 are currently being held in state prisons that were repurposed to house them. (Women and children have been turned over to federal agents.)

Because the process is new, and taking place in small rural counties, the usual system for assigning criminal defense lawyers has been overwhelmed. Kinney County has also struggled to file arrest paperwork in the time required by law.

After their arrests, migrants are transferred to a single processing center, a large tent in the border town of Del Rio — where a surge of Haitian migrants flooded the community earlier this year — and then transferred to the repurposed state prisons in other counties.

While the state police checks identification documents of those arrested, the men are not turned over to federal authorities until the end of their cases, a process that, so far, has often lasted several months. Among those who have gone before a judge, most have had their cases dismissed or have been released on bond as they await hearing dates, their lawyers said.

And many of those released who have sought asylum have been allowed to stay in the United States to pursue their cases, defense lawyers said, unlike those apprehended at the border by federal authorities, because the public health rule that is used to rapidly expel migrants applies to new arrivals, not those already in the country.

More than 50 Kinney County ranchers have signed up with the Texas Department of Public Safety to allow the state police to patrol on their property and arrest people for trespassing, the agency said.

In interviews, ranchers who signed up for the program described feeling increasingly unsafe on their own land, because of the possibility of running into groups of migrants, though none of the ranchers said they had been assaulted or threatened. They trade information via Facebook and by text message and share stories on the latest “bailout” — a familiar local term for the end of a police chase in which migrants attempt to run from a car or truck, often after it has crashed.

Seated on the oak-shadowed patio of their ranch, a few head of cattle walking slowly nearby, Bill and Carolyn Conoly said the situation this year was the worst they could remember.

“We’re constantly repairing,” Mr. Conoly said, referring to ranch fences that are bent or cut. “We keep the doors locked and I have a gun available.”

Motion-activated cameras on the ranch capture images of passing migrants, information that helps the state police locate them. Earlier that day, cameras had picked up a large group walking through the Conoly family ranch; the police caught up with the migrants at night on an adjacent ranch — 14 men and one woman.

For months, the Conolys have also had constables from Galveston, just south of Houston and about 370 miles away, staying in their white stucco guesthouse.

“If it makes a difference, I don’t know,” said one of the constables, Lt. Paul Edinburgh, who had never been to the border before. “But it’s better than me sitting on the couch reading about it.”

Around 9 p.m. on a recent weeknight, a row of state highway patrol SUVs sat outside the only gas station in town, as two officers, parked nearby, led a woman out of their car and removed her handcuffs.

The woman, an American citizen, had been caught transporting 10 undocumented people in a pickup truck, the officers said, a felony. But because Kinney County did not have a place to hold women, she was given a court date and released.

Not long after, an officer with a drone located a group of men on a nearby ranch. Sergeant Glenn, who was leading a team of seven officers that night, searched for tracks on the ground. It was then that he found Mr. Jimenez, the man who had traveled from Chiapas, Mexico.

A house painter looking for a job, Mr. Jimenez had tried to cross the border once before, in August. After being turned back, he gathered more money and paid to cross again — 150,000 pesos, he said, or about $7,000.

“There’s almost no work. They suffer,” he said of people in Chiapas, a Mexican state along the border with Guatemala. Now, with all his money spent on trying to cross, he would not have enough to return home. (He is currently being held on $2,500 bond.)

As the officers awaited their prisoner transport — rented white vans without official insignia — they received an alert of movement from a camera deep inside another ranch. It was 12:20 a.m.

The police vehicles bumped across overgrown ranch roads. A helicopter hovered over what appeared to be three migrants but was running out of gas.

The officers arrived at a locked gate and decided to cut the lock. When they could go no further by car, they started walking. But after a long march across rough terrain, and a meticulous search in the thorny brush, no one could be found.

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