Gaston, a 57-year-old Venezuelan human rights lawyer, spent years visiting the country’s most deplorable prisons defending students imprisoned for protesting the socialist government.
Fearing retaliation from the authorities for his efforts, Gaston decided to flee, making his way to the US-Mexico border to seek asylum in the US. On August 8, he waded across the Rio Grande into Texas, hoping to turn himself in to US border officials.
Instead, he was apprehended by Texas state troopers, according to court records. It was one of approximately 1,600 trespassing arrests of recent border-crossers in Texas since July as part of Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star immigration crackdown. Abbott has claimed that Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration promotes a “catastrophic open border” policy that has resulted in record crossings this year, fueling local outrage. Val Verde and Kinney counties in Texas have joined the governor’s call for local police to arrest migrants for criminal trespassing.
Immigration advocates claim Abbott is improperly seizing control of immigration enforcement, which is a federal responsibility. They have also expressed concern about migrants being held in jail for months while their cases are being heard.
However, many of the trespassing cases appear to be unravelling on their own, according to a Reuters investigation. Many of the cases have been plagued by issues, according to defense attorneys and at least one county prosecutor, such as imprecise details of the alleged misdemeanors on charging documents and a lack of clarity about whether migrants were properly notified that they were about to potentially trespass.
County Attorney David Martinez told Reuters that his office has declined to pursue approximately 105 cases out of 231 migrant trespassing arrests turned over to his office as of late October in Val Verde County, where Gaston crossed.
Gaston was held for a month in a Texas state prison in the town of Dilley before Martinez dropped his case, citing his legal right to seek asylum. Gaston stated that he spent another three weeks in the custody of US federal immigration agencies before being released on September 29 to pursue his claims in immigration court.
“I’d never been imprisoned before, let alone in a high-security facility. It is not treatment for a migrant, but for a criminal “Gaston, who is currently in Florida, stated He requested that he only be identified by his first name in order to protect his wife and children who remain in Venezuela.
The majority of the 1,600 trespassing arrests in the state have occurred in Val Verde’s neighboring Kinney County, a smaller and more conservative county with more than 1,000 active cases, according to officials. Some of the same concerns about the legality of the charges have surfaced there as well.
Kristin Etter, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said all of the more than 100 charges filed in Kinney County that her organization has seen had “defective” elements, such as a lack of basic details such as the location of the alleged offence.
Kinney County Attorney Brent Smith disagreed, claiming that the problem is that the judges assigned to the cases have requested more information than is typical for criminal trespass cases.
“We expect to refile all of the cases that we can,” Smith, a Republican, said. The Kinney County sheriff, Brad Coe, emphasized that local landowners were tired of dealing with trash and broken fences left behind by an increasing number of crossing migrants. This fiscal year, 1.7 million migrants were encountered at the southwest border, the highest number ever recorded, though many may have crossed previously.
The Texas Department of Public Safety stated that it was up to prosecutors whether or not to pursue a case, but that the department remained committed to Operation Lone Star. In a statement, Abbott’s office stated that Texas would continue to invest resources in border security. A two-term Republican, Abbott is seeking to build on former Republican President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration legacy ahead of unexpectedly competitive Republican primaries in March 2022 and a gubernatorial vote in the state in November.