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Migrants apprehended under Operation Lone Star sue Gov. Abbott

Gabriel C. Pérez

A group of migrants apprehended under Operation Lone Star have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott, claiming the governor’s controversial border mission is unconstitutional.

The migrants were arrested and charged with criminal trespass in Kinney County, but claim they were held in custody even after posting bond or having their charges dismissed.

Angelica Cogliano, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told The Texas Newsroom her clients’ experiences show Operation Lone Star is unconstitutional.

“And the way you know that is because (the migrants) are being prosecuted for that state-level crime differently than anybody else in the state gets prosecuted for that state-level crime,” Cogliano said.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin, seeks an injunction. The plaintiffs are also asking the federal court to declare Operation Lone Star unconstitutional and award plaintiffs monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.

Additionally, Cogliano said the plaintiffs are asking for the defendants to stop holding those arrested under Operation Lone Star in custody after posting bonds, entering a plea or once charges are dismissed.

The defendants in the case are Gov. Greg Abbott, Department of Public Safety Dir. Steven McCraw, Department of Criminal Justice Dir. Bryan Collier, Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe, and Kinney County. All of them, except for the county, were sued in their individual capacities.

“Even if Operation Lone Star was constitutional because they were just enforcing their own state criminal laws, then they still need to follow the laws of our state criminal justice system,” Cogliano said. “And those laws are that once somebody’s criminal case has concluded … then there’s no jurisdiction to hold them anymore. They have to be released from custody.”

Abbott and Coe didn’t reply to The Texas Newsroom’s request for comment. McCraw and Collier declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Operation Lone Star was launched in 2021 by Gov. Greg Abbott, who claimed it would help catch Mexican cartels and smugglers trying to make their way into Texas.

But the mission has been plagued with controversies and judges have ruled that parts of the program have violated the law.

One of the most controversial issues surrounding the border security initiative is a direction by Abbott to charge unauthorized migrants of criminal trespassing.

That’s represented in this lawsuit. Jesus Curipoma, one of the migrants suing Abbott, was arrested on September 9, 2021 without a warrant for criminal trespass in Kinney County.

Curipoma was brought into the Dolph Briscoe Unit in Frio County before paying the Kinney County Sheriff’s Office $2,000 in cash bail. However, even though the bail was paid on the same day of Curipoma’s arrest, he was not released. Instead, he was held in custody until October 9, 2021 “only being released after exhaustive efforts by defense counsel,” the lawsuit states.

Other plaintiffs share similar stories.

While advocates for migrants' rights have called Operation Lone Star dysfunctional, Gov Gov. Abbott and state officials have strongly defended it. Abbott has also used Operation Lone Star — and immigration — as a cornerstone of his reelection campaign.

The program is sustained by about half of the Texas National Guard. Since their deployment, troops have complained about their working conditions and pay. Several have died by suicide.

Earlier this week, the body of Texas Army National Guard Specialist Bishop E. Evans was found after rescuing two migrants crossing the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass. Evans was part of the Operation Lone Star mission.

The finances of the program have also drawn attention. According to a 2022 analysis by The Texas Tribune, ProPublica, and The Marshall Project, the mission costs taxpayers $2.5 million a week.

Earlier this month, administration officials told lawmakers they needed additional money for the program to continue operating. On Friday, Republican leadership in the Texas Legislature approved transferring $495.3 million from the state’s General Revenue funds to Operation Lone Star. Nearly all of that money — $465.3 million — will go to the Texas National Guard.

Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.