Border Policy Update: ProBAR Supports Families Impacted by Operation Lone Star
by Deputy Director Aimee Korolev
Even after joining ProBAR just over two years ago, I remain surprised by what I learn every day through my work. My work with Luis* was no different and offers an insight into the complex web of Texas immigration enforcement policies known as Operation Lone Star.
In mid-August, I joined our team at Port Isabel Detention Center to assist with our services and learn more about the current needs of the people we serve. I watched our talented team member provide a detailed Know Your Rights presentation when it quickly became apparent over half of the group of approximately 20 men had been transferred into ICE custody from a state jail run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). They had been detained, pre-trial, under state misdemeanor criminal trespass charges as part of Texas Governor Abbott’s Operation Lone Star Program (OLS).
In this group, I met Luis. Luis explained he is from Venezuela and fled the country with his pregnant wife and three-year-old child after experiencing persecution, torture, and threats to his life and his family’s life. Luis and his family encountered many challenges along the harrowing journey. In Mexico, he was robbed of his only cell phone and the ability to use the CBP One Application, the new application used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to admit asylum seekers and travelers through southern border land ports of entry.
In mid-July, Luis arrived at the border near Eagle Pass, Texas. There, he and others encountered state and county officials across the border who were providing instructions on how to cross into the United States. The officials offered food and shelter to those families crossing this area. Luis thought he was leading his family to safety and security after such a long journey.
Immediately after crossing the river, the group was separated into men on one side and women and children on the other. At first, Luis believed this was to organize the group, but soon he was taken in one vehicle and his wife and child were taken in another. It became apparent to Luis that he had been separated from his family. Luis was devastated.
Along with many other separated fathers, Luis was shuffled to different detention centers including a makeshift facility in Val Verde County, Dolph Briscoe Unit in Frio County, and finally Segovia Unit, a correctional facility in the Rio Grande Valley. All these jails are used by the state and counties for pre-trial detention as part of Operation Lone Star. He was held for 35 days in state custody. Luis later found out he was charged with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor under Texas law. His “trespass” was his entry across the river, an action he was induced to take, believing he was leading his family to safety. Despite the low-level nature of this crime, Luis was held in detention without recourse. He was unable to speak to or know of the whereabouts of his family until he was transferred to Port Isabel Detention Center.
OLS operates in approximately 50 counties throughout Texas, utilizing enhanced state criminal trespassing charges to detain individuals in state detention centers after their entry into the United States. In short, the state of Texas is enforcing immigration under the guise of criminal laws. In the past, OLS was primarily used against single adults, not family units. The vast majority of individuals subject to OLS plead to criminal misdemeanor charges to avoid remaining in isolated and often unsanitary detention conditions. ProBAR received referrals from public defenders after the fathers had been separated from their families, detained for over a month or more, and transferred to ICE custody at Port Isabel Detention Center or El Valle Detention Facility. Luis’ case was referred to ProBAR by Attorney Joanna Serrato after she provided representation as his public defender in the criminal proceedings. The fathers were offered legal orientation services, and many, like Luis, were represented directly by the ProBAR legal team in their expedited removal proceedings.
I was grateful to support Luis during his credible fear interview and even happier to see the Asylum Officer recognize his credible claims. He received a positive result and was released from detention on his own recognizance. He is now reunited with his family as they await the arrival of their new child. To secure status in the United States they still must pursue legal relief, whether through asylum or through the newly expanded temporary protected status program. Luis and his family still have an uphill battle to gain permanent protection in the United States, but ProBAR was there to support at least a small part of his legal journey.
*Name changed to protect client privacy.