Texas Separates Migrant Families, Detaining Fathers on Trespassing Charges in Latest Border Move

Aug 7, 2023
5:14 PM

A mother migrating from Honduras holds her 1-year-old child as she surrenders to U.S. Border Patrol agents after illegally crossing the border near McAllen, Texas, Monday, June 25, 2018. Texas state police officers separated migrant families along the border with Mexico by detaining fathers on trespassing charges and turning over mothers and children to federal officials, the state Department of Public Safety said Thursday, August 3, 2023. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

By ACACIA CORONADO, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP)Texas state police officers separated migrant families along the border with Mexico by detaining fathers on trespassing charges and turning over mothers and children to federal officials, the state Department of Public Safety said Thursday.

The separations mark a shift from previous comments by Texas state police leaders who said families should stay together and be referred to federal officers. Amrutha Jindal, chief defender for Operation Lone Star Indigent Defense, told the Associated Press that, based on the cases her organization has seen, the number of family separations may be closer to 40 or more. She said exact data does not exist and their estimates are based on cases encountered by their attorneys.

Jindal said they have identified separations in Maverick County —which encompasses the border town of Eagle Pass— over the last month.

Jindal said her organization is unclear on how distinctions are being made on who is part of a family unit. She said attorneys her organization appointed to Operation Lone Star clients noticed the issue when they began hearing concerns from clients who didn’t know where their relatives were.

“Some were told that they would reunite with their wife and child,” Jindal said. “Of course, that didn’t happen. They were instead taken to a prison. Others were told they would never see their wife and child again.”

Travis Considine, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said in a statement that children have never been separated from their mothers, but “there have been instances in which DPS has arrested male migrants on state charges who were with their family when the alleged crime occurred.”

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office referred questions to Department of Public Safety officials, who did not respond to additional requests for comment, including how many families have been separated, when they began, and where the detained men are being taken.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Thursday that reports of separated families were troubling and should be investigated.

“Managing our border in a safe and humane way works best when we all work together to respect the dignity of every human being and keep our communities safe,” the department said.

Kristin Etter, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, told Hearst Newspapers —who first reported the separations— that she knew of 26 families who had been separated by Texas officials and called the move “nothing short of state-sponsored family separation.” Texas RioGrande Legal Aid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Texas’ latest move to secure the border without coordinating with the federal government drew widespread criticism from immigration advocates and some comparisons to Trump-era family separations, though they are markedly different. The Trump administration split thousands of children from all parents who were with them, assigned them to shelters, and struggled mightily to reunite them.

According to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection memo in April reviewed by the Associated Press, guidance from the Department of Homeland Security to the agency states a goal to “maintain the unity of family groups” to the greatest extent possible.

But Jennifer Babaie, director of advocacy and legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Group in El Paso, said that she sees cases of family separation through the federal immigration system almost weekly. She said in many cases, people are told they won’t be separated or will see each other soon and then detained separately, making knowing the whereabouts of the others near impossible until they are released from detention or deported.

Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers attempted to pass immigration laws, including the creation of a state border police force and increases in penalties for trespassing. Those attempts failed, but the Republican-controlled Legislature allocated more than $5 billion in border security funding and gave federal immigration officers power to make arrests under Texas laws.

The new funding followed Abbott’s $4 billion border policing operation, known as Operation Lone Star, which since 2021 has included sending Texas police and military officers to patrol the border, adding razor wire fencing along the border, and busing migrants to Democrat-led cities.

More recently, Abbott installed a 1,000-foot line of wrecking ball-sized buoys in the Rio Grande in the Eagle Pass area, which prompted the Justice Department to sue Texas over removing the floating barrier.

On Thursday, two bodies were recovered by Mexican officials along the Rio Grande near the border with Eagle Pass, one of which was found near the floating barrier.

Last month, Abbott’s border security operations drew criticism from the White House, state lawmakers, and immigration advocates following an account by a state trooper of migrants injured by razor wire and denied water by state officers.