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Drones, choppers, chases: How Texas authorities pursue migrants under Abbott’s border effort

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Rancher Donna Schuster carried a sidearm as she stood on her 8,000-acre ranch near Brackettville in Kinney County on Aug. 19, 2022.
Rancher Donna Schuster carried a sidearm as she stood on her 8,000-acre ranch near Brackettville in Kinney County on Aug. 19, 2022. Schuster says she began carrying a pistol last year after she came face to face with a migrant in her garage at night. Photo Gallery

EAGLE PASS, Texas — On a sweltering August night, 16 vehicles idled beside a forlorn stretch of Texas Highway 131 in Maverick County.

Located on the Mexico border, more than two hours southwest of San Antonio, Maverick is poor and rural. Census figures show nearly 90% of its 58,000 people speak Spanish at home, one of the highest percentages in the nation. In the darkness, a state trooper peered at the glowing screen of a laptop revealing contours of the landscape all around.

For nearly six hours, he and another trooper piloted drones that whirred overhead, using infrared cameras to find migrants in the brush.

“It’s a waiting game,” Chris Olivarez, South Texas spokesman for the state’s Department of Public Safety, advised two journalists in his pickup.

Just after 1:40 a.m., a sergeant in hushed tones told the drone pilots, “I see eight men. They’re still brushed up.”

A large part of DPS’ mission is assisting the U.S. Border Patrol, especially with helicopter overflights. By day and night, it’s also seeking to grab migrants who’ve stepped on private land and charge them with the misdemeanor state offense of criminal trespassing — or criminal mischief, if they’ve damaged a state-placed barrier such as concertina wire. While all states have such laws, Texas is the first to systematically invoke them to incarcerate unauthorized immigrants.

“Most of America has not really understood the magnitude of the problem that we have on the border,” Gov. Greg Abbott said on Fox News last month.

Abbott and lawmakers have poured more than $4 billion in the two-year budget cycle that began Sept. 1, 2021, into Operation Lone Star, a fivefold increase over previous cycles. It’s a response to what he calls a crisis of President Joe Biden’s making, with the federal government largely responsible for border security.

The money pays for thousands of soldiers to patrol different border sectors, including near Big Bend National Park in far West Texas, and for state police to protect the interests of private landowners by arresting migrants who trespass on their property, mostly in the Eagle Pass-Del Rio region. The state also has funded a portion of permanent border wall in Starr County and cyclone fences or concertina wire for scores of miles along the Rio Grande, mostly in Maverick and adjacent Kinney County.

Despite the state’s increased expenditure and effort, the number of migrants caught crossing in Texas is rising, reaching record levels in the past year. Border Patrol has reported 1,816,353 apprehensions along the country’s southwest border from October 2021 through July, compared with 851,508 in 2019. A COVID-19 pandemic-related health order, Title 42, inflates the numbers because migrants can make repeat tries without legal consequence.

Scenes from the Eagle Pass region — which had the border’s highest number of apprehensions last month at nearly 50,000 — show that even with some multiple counts, the increase is unusually high. By comparison, the far more populous Rio Grande Valley had about 35,000, Border Patrol data shows.

Operation Lone Star “doesn’t seem to be having a significant impact. It hasn’t impacted the numbers at all,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former federal immigration official under Republican and Democratic presidents.

State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said critics who say the Texas effort hasn’t affected in-migration haven’t been to the border. “You can go and just simply watch and see it reducing the flow,” said Hancock, who’s made multiple visits.

“Since Governor Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, Texas National Guard and DPS have apprehended over 300,000 migrants and turned back over 25,000 more, arrested over 19,000 criminals, including human traffickers and smugglers, and seized enough lethal doses of fentanyl to kill every American,” she said in a written statement.

When Texas becomes the first state to erect its own border wall, it will “deter crossings and funnel illegal immigrants towards areas manned by law enforcement,” she said. “Until President Biden upholds his oath of office and protects our national security, Texas will continue utilizing every strategy to secure our border and protect Texans.”

With permission the Abbott administration only sparingly grants to news outlets, Dallas Morning News reporters and visual journalists spent several days near Eagle Pass, observing DPS officers by land and by air and talking with migrants and landowners to gain perspective on what’s happening at the border.

What happens when migrants are caught

That night on Highway 131, the troopers and Guard soldiers left their vehicles to peer over the drone pilots’ shoulders after one said he’d spotted “eight men” on foot more than a mile away.

Guided by drone pilots who could see when they veered off trails and paths, nine soldiers using night-vision goggles and several troopers entered a gate to the ranch, whose name and owner Olivarez would not disclose “for the safety of the ranchers and operational security reasons.” For nearly 40 minutes, the soldiers and troopers crashed through shrubs and around mesquite trees and cactus.

After tense moments when the pilots said they believed the migrants had escaped, the Guard and police contingent spotted the party. With inaudible drones 400 feet above detecting the heat of “bodies,” pilots watching white blobs on screens could, via radio headsets, direct soldiers and troopers to the right spot.

Stealthily, they approached and blinded a group of migrants with their flashlights. One male migrant crashed into a tree, hurting his leg.

Fifteen minutes later, the troopers and soldiers brought out of the woods five adult men and a 17-year-old girl. All were from Mexico. The men were taken to a state processing center in Del Rio, Olivarez later confirmed. The girl, who spoke briefly to a visual journalist as she was handcuffed and seated in a DPS van, said she was heading to Tampa, Florida, where relatives live. The teen said she didn’t know the men with whom she was traveling.

“She’ll be released to Border Patrol,” Olivarez said, citing the inability of local detention facilities to house women and girls.

None of the migrants who were interviewed during The News’ three-day visit said they paid anyone to transport them across Mexico.

State officials say many receive detailed instructions from coyotes, paid smugglers who are employed by criminal syndicates and cartels.

Migrants reportedly are told to cross at night, wear black or camouflage clothing and attach strips of carpet to their shoes to deter tracking by U.S. and Texas officials. All over the region, Border Patrol agents routinely drag huge tires behind their vehicles. The scouring scrapes the ground clean, making footprints easy to spot.

Was the evening a success? The “brush team” used drones, 16 vehicles and at least 20 personnel. During an eight-hour shift, it arrested the five men for criminal trespassing and turned the female teen over to the feds.

Olivarez, who admitted that scenes in which migrants are caught can tug at the emotions, nevertheless said the effort is necessary.

“One might have criminal history,” he said of the Mexican men detained.

“These individuals don’t want to be caught,” Olivarez said. “It raises questions as to why they want to avoid apprehension.”

DPS officials said they couldn’t produce data on how many migrants arrested for trespassing or destruction of property had criminal records. Compiling criminal histories from other states and the federal government is complicated and takes time, they explained. The News has requested it under the state’s open records law, but DPS spokesmen declined to elaborate on when such information might be available.

Border barriers of walls and wire

Abbott wants to carve out more legal leeway for states to crack down on illegal immigration. The governor, a former judge, has said he hopes to see a day when the U.S. Supreme Court rolls back a 2012 decision that largely quashed Arizona’s attempt to bring its law enforcement powers fully behind efforts to stop people from crossing the border without papers.

Critics say that migrants are being detained without access to legal representation or the required “probable cause,” and that motorists of color are being unconstitutionally racially profiled. In late July, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate possible civil rights violations in DPS traffic stops that are part of Operation Lone Star.

Since Operation Lone Star began on March 4, 2021, nearly 5,000 migrants have been arrested on trespassing charges. As of Aug. 25, 231 private landowners in six counties — 69% of them in Kinney, Maverick and Val Verde (whose county seat is Del Rio) — had authorized state troopers to make the arrests, said DPS press secretary Ericka Miller.

In early July, based on state emails obtained through open records requests, the Texas Tribune and Pro Publica reported that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Operation Lone Star for possible racial discrimination in the trespassing-arrest effort. Abbott’s office told the news outlets the arrests and prosecutions “are fully constitutional.”

As part of Operation Lone Star, the state has erected 1.8 miles of permanent border wall — steel bollards, put up by contractors hired by the Texas Facilities Commission. All of it is near Rio Grande City, in Starr County about 40 miles northwest of McAllen.

Under Abbott, the state National Guard also has installed 58 miles of chain-link fence and 42 miles of concertina wire — largely in the Eagle Pass-Del Rio region.

Eagle Pass lawyer Poncho Nevárez, a critic of Operation Lone Star, said that several weeks ago, he reluctantly agreed to have the state place the concertina wire — spirals of wire with sharp spikes — along about 2 miles of his ranch’s riverfront.

“I can’t handle all the trash anymore,” he said, noting that his cows eat from migrants’ garbage bags, a grave risk to their health.

In some places, the top of the wire is covered with clothing, offering migrants a safer grip to climb over. In others, it’s propped up with large logs, leaving enough space below for someone to crawl through.

On a recent Sunday morning on his 500-acre ranch, Nevárez said he spotted an exhausted, pregnant young migrant with an infant resting on the banks of the Rio Grande. A few scratches on her body were the only signs that she’d encountered the wire fence.

Over the next several hours, Nevárez provided water, food and dry clothing to the 17-year-old Honduran and her child. He directed them to a nearby picnic table with a canopy over it, to get out of the sun. He told her he’d summon the Border Patrol. The girl said she had an uncle in Miami and wanted to be turned over to the authorities, he recounted. For him to take her off his ranch, though, was potentially a no-no, Nevárez said.

“If I were to drive somebody from my property to just about anywhere, even to the Border Patrol station, I could be accused of transporting them,” he explained.

Nevárez used the Honduran girl’s crossing of Operation Lone Star’s barriers to make a point: They may redirect, but deterring migrants will take military force.

“Obviously, the border is not open. It doesn’t look open,” he said. “But it still gets beat.”

A former Democratic state representative, Nevárez said changing what drives migrants to take their desperate journeys to the U.S. is the only solution to reducing illegal immigration.

“What needs to happen is our government at the very top needs to solve it based on root causes,” he said, adding that the U.S. should vastly increase financial aid to improve economic conditions in countries migrants are fleeing.

“The problem is beyond doing all this [stuff] that looks good on a campaign mailer. It’s much bigger than that. And that’s real work and a lot of people don’t want to do it. They don’t want to have to tell those voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, ‘You know what? We’ve got to start investing in programs in Central America — Honduras, [El] Salvador and these other places.’”

Life on a border ranch

Twenty-five miles east of the river, rancher Donna Schuster began packing a pistol last year after she came face to face with a migrant in her garage at night. She shooed him away without incident but said she has been afraid ever since.

Now, as she performs ranch chores, she takes a newly acquired Texas heeler with her. The dog can warn Schuster if something’s amiss, she said.

On her family’s 8,000 acres in Kinney County, migrants have cut fences, smashed a hole in a livestock water-storage system and strewn trash, she said. Fence-cutting can endanger some cows’ lives by mixing ages and sexes at the wrong times, she explained. If cattle wander onto Highway 90 and a motorist is harmed, she could face legal liability.

Schuster, 51, who hopes to pass on the land to her three adult children, said when they were little she could rise before dawn, check on water troughs and windmills for an hour or two, and get home in time to cook breakfast for them.

“I don’t leave before daylight now,” she said. “It’s a different feeling. You don’t know who’s watching you. You feel like someone’s watching you all the time. It’s very unnerving.”

Donna and husband John Paul Schuster, a Realtor who’s the GOP nominee for county judge, have been forced to cancel vacations, she said. They don’t have a caretaker on payroll.

“We feel like we can’t leave,” she said. “If we leave, we only leave for like a day, maybe two days at the most — because we just don’t know what’s happening here.”

Schuster has told her story repeatedly to national and state TV news crews. She’s a fan of Operation Lone Star.

When told of Nevárez’s remarks, though, Schuster said she agreed with the Democrat’s contention that only more foreign aid to migrants’ countries of origin and improvements there would put a dent in the flow.

“We’ve got to do something else,” she said. “I don’t know that building a wall or — we’ve got to work with Mexico to do something. As long as the cartel seems to be in control, we’re not going to stop them.”

Crossing in Eagle Pass

At midafternoon on Aug. 17, four exhausted families sought shade from a mesquite tree after journeys spanning thousands of miles to reach the Texas-Mexico border.

They’d just arrived in the U.S. after wading across the Rio Grande — in broad daylight. Now they were waiting on Border Patrol to pick them up, hoping to apply for asylum. They sipped water given to them by Texas National Guard members who sat in a Humvee that faced the river.

In Eagle Pass, the National Guard and state troopers don’t appear to spend the bulk of their time in high-drama confrontations with smugglers. Usually, they’re watching the river, waiting with migrants until harried Border Patrol agents show up or searching for those who disappear into the brush.

Residents in this sparsely populated section of the border confront signs of the migration every day. In addition to the holes cut in fences that mark property lines, hotels are packed with Guard soldiers and state troopers, whose vehicles patrol all major roads. The Coahuila state police’s red helicopters weave in and out with Texas’ black and white ones along the river.

Under the mesquite tree

On the banks of the Rio Grande, migrants strip off their wet clothes and shoes that form heaps on the scruffy sand. Bands of silver razor wire line the stalks of Carrizo cane. Colorful shipping containers form a makeshift barrier plunked on the grass between the international bridges.

From adjoining Piedras Negras, young men in life vests cross the river and pluck clothes from the ground. They’ll sell them at the market on the Mexican side, said Olivarez, the DPS spokesman.

A number of factors make Eagle Pass a popular place to cross, experts say. There’s less danger from cartels in this stretch of Mexico, and the river is often passable by foot.

The water’s placid appearance, though, can conceal treacherous currents. Authorities in Eagle Pass recovered the bodies of three drowning victims on the morning of Aug. 17 after heavy rains pummeled the border.

The bodies of nine migrants were found Thursday after they died while trying to cross the rain-swollen Rio Grande near Eagle Pass. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said crews rescued 37 other migrants from the river and detained 16 more, while Mexican officials took 39 into custody.

Immigration policy by nationality

Conservative Texas politicians like to point to video clips of people crossing in small caravans of 100, 200, 300 as evidence the migrant flow is of epic proportions. The scene with the small group under the mesquite tree near Eagle Pass’ Bridge No. 2 is more typical, based on The News’ observations over three days.

The ones content to be processed by federal immigration officials, known as “give-ups,” wait for Border Patrol buses, which often don’t come until there are more than 100 gathered. But other small groups, mainly made up of migrants who may face almost certain expulsion, come furtively, by day and especially at night.

The four families under the tree that day — from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — said they’re motivated to come for a better life. Until conditions improve at home, that’s unlikely to change.

At times, the migrants wept when they discussed mistreatment they suffered from Mexican authorities as they made the long trek to Eagle Pass. A Cuban man’s voice broke with emotion when he learned from a Texas journalist that he’ll probably be allowed to stay in the U.S. to defend his case in immigration court.

Decisions about who stays and who is quickly forced out have less to do with the “credible fear” that an asylum-seeking migrant may have of being returned to his home country than with high-level diplomacy and which foreign governments have relationships with the U.S, policy experts say.

A large part of what’s happening might be called “immigration policy by nationality.” This is because of a strong shift in the nationalities of people crossing the southwest border.

Because the U.S. and Mexican governments have complicated relations with Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, migrants from those countries are unlikely to be sent back soon.

“Frosty diplomatic relations” are at play, said Andrew Selee, president of the D.C.-based, nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “There’s no (U.S.) agreement right now to return people to those countries. … And so the U.S. is taking them in.”

Very few are given a quick, coerced exit. Instead, they are released to await immigration court hearings and could wait an average of five years for their asylum cases to be processed, according to the Syracuse University nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Migrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are mostly expelled under Title 42, the pandemic-related health order. Exceptions to this are usually families and unaccompanied minors.

Title 42 has been used more than 2 million times since it was enacted in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, according to CBP. Without legal consequences, it has created a revolving door for repeat entries. In July, 22% of those who tried to cross the border had tried before, and for fiscal year 2021, 27% of those apprehended were repeat crossers, CBP officials said.

As he wrung out wet clothes, still dripping from crossing the Rio Grande, Edison, 34, one of the migrants under the tree, said back home in Venezuela, basic commodities are in short supply, or unaffordable. Because he will likely have a pending asylum case, The News is not using his surname.

“We have children, we have family members to support, and that forces us to leave our country,” Edison said. “It’s our only option. What do we do if we stay there? Will we let them be hungry? That is why one leaves.”

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