More than 200 people jailed in connection with Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s border control operation are released after weeks of detention in state prisons without charge and away from lawyers.
Despite the release, Abbott’s program remains under fire from lawyers and others who say he is running an unconstitutional and illegal operation.
They allege that the operation is targeting Mexican and Central American men, that authorities are speeding up procedures for detainees without proper translation of hearings and documents, and moving the men to state prisons where they are being held without charge. beyond the time limits authorized by law.
Lawyers for two men held for more than 50 days in a state prison declared victory after a state district attorney dropped criminal trespassing charges against the men.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the state was unable to provide witnesses and evidence to support the charges that were ultimately filed.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the hearings.
“It’s absolutely a complete victory,” said Kevin Herrera, one of the attorneys for Ivan Ruano Nava and David Muñoz Vega, after the hearing in the state’s 63rd District Court.
In an earlier hearing in the same court, attorneys for Rural Legal Aid in Texas secured the release of 243 people on personal bail because formal charges were not filed within 15 days, as directed. state law for the Class B misdemeanor. Charges remain outstanding against their clients.
Lawyers said in addition to not filing charges, county and state officials were slow to provide documents explaining the alleged trespass. Lawyers said they also faced delays in getting the documents they were officially filing processed, as well as other logistical challenges.
Abbott, a Republican seen as a potential presidential candidate for 2024, launched what he dubbed Operation Lone Star in March by executive order, using state soldiers, the State National Guard and sheriff’s offices to arrest people for criminal trespassing at the border.
Federal law prohibits state officials from enforcing federal immigration laws. There has been an increase in arrests of immigrants at the border, although many are arriving and seeking asylum.
Most of the arrests take place in Val Verde and Kinney counties, two rural counties that lack large court offices and county staff.
The lawyers questioned the charges against Nava and Muñoz in their petition. They said the men were on public land next to Texas Highway 90, which is a busy public road. They were arrested when they asked for food and water.
Hundreds of people have similarly been arrested and are being prosecuted for “enhanced criminal intrusion”, a charge that is not applied in areas beyond the US border and not to people who are not presumed to be. foreign nationals, the lawyers said.
“Essentially, Operation Lone Star created a new, separate crime based on unauthorized classifications. In doing so, Texas has engaged in general selective prosecutions against individuals grouped together on the basis of their national origin, race and gender, ”the attorneys said in a habeas corpus petition.
“This is a mix of officials in this county [Kinney] not wanting to give us the things we need and get the things done on time combined with Governor Abbott putting the cart before the horse here, ”Angelica Cogliano, lawyer for Nava and Muñoz, told NBC News after the Zoom hearing .
“He created this giant project without providing the infrastructure to both prosecute and protect the rights of each accused, and because of it” clerks and courts are overwhelmed, she said. She also said the county attorney was unwilling to provide any documents they are usually able to obtain.
The Zoom hearing on Tuesday encountered logistical challenges, including attendees struggling to figure out how to use a translator without their audio disrupting the audience.
“Separate and unequal criminal justice system”
Recently, hundreds of Haitian asylum seekers arrived in Del Rio, Texas, in Val Verde County, where numerous criminal arrests for trespassing were made.
To deal with the thousands of people being held by the state for trespassing, Texas allowed a state prison in Dilley, the Dolph Briscoe Unit, to house them, Texas Public Radio reported.
Lawyers have said Abbott’s operation directed officers to arrest only men who appear to be foreign nationals, making it unconstitutional. It specifically exempts women and families, they said.
They also said Abbott’s operation violated state law regarding how long the state can detain people without charge. Nava was arrested on July 25, but charges were not filed until September 8.
Nava and Muñoz were held for more than 50 days in the Dolph Briscoe unit, where they were transferred from Kinney County Jail with others arrested in connection with the operation. The prison is over 100 miles from their place of arrest.
Alicia Torres, an activist for Grassroots Leadership, which opposes mass incarceration, said the group heard about the men from family members who had started receiving calls from them from prison and wanted to know what was going on.
“That’s when we started getting a lot more calls from across the country, especially California and Florida, from people wanting to confirm the whereabouts of their loved ones,” Torres said.
Lawyers said inmates could only be sent to a jail if it is determined that the county jail where they were arrested does not have enough beds. No such decision has been made for many of those who were sent to this prison or another in the Rio Grande Valley, they said.
The men were held without charge in prison until day 45, when they were charged with the trespass offense. Under state law, they must be charged within 30 days of their arrest, lawyers said.
“The program has resulted in a separate and unequal criminal justice system for those suspected of having entered the United States illegally,” lawyers for Nava and Muñoz said in the petition for their clients’ release. “In this ridiculous alternative, constitutional rights are suspended and due process is non-existent.”
Lawyers said they were still awaiting the return of the petition with the stamp indicating that it had been formally processed by the court.
To speed up the processing and detention, magistrates held proceedings via Zoom or in car parks. The Kinney County Sheriff’s Office posted a video of an ongoing parking lot on its Facebook page.
Lawyers said many male detainees were required to sign documents written only in English that waive their rights to a lawyer and say they have been made aware of their rights.
At the Nava magistrate’s hearing, a deputy sheriff, Eric Ortiz, who is believed to be the officer who arrested him, served as an interpreter, lawyers said.
Lawyers for Nava and Muñoz said they were unable to raise the constitutional arguments at the hearing on Tuesday, but that those arguments will be raised with other clients.
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