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High-speed chases endanger lives of migrants and area residents in South Texas

Texas Highway Crash
AP
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Texas Department of Public Safety
Debris is strewn across a road near the border city of Del Rio, Texas after a collision Monday, March 15, 2021. Eight people in a pickup truck loaded with immigrants were killed when the vehicle collided with an SUV following a police chase, authorities said. (Texas Department of Public Safety via AP)

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In Texas along the border, high speed car chases where migrants are injured or killed are now commonplace.

As migrant crossings have dramatically increased, incidents of Texas Department of Public Safety officials and some local sheriffs chasing smuggling vehicles not only endanger the migrants and area residents, but are also being blamed in part for the response to the Uvalde mass school shooting.

On the official Kinney County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page, there are graphic videos of migrants being chased and subsequently struck or run over by other vehicles. These types of incidents are called bailouts because the smugglers generally respond to the chase by crashing the vehicle, and the passengers then run away on foot in different directions.

Bailouts have become commonplace in Kinney County, which has less than 4,000 people and shares 13 miles of border with Mexico.

Sheriff Brad Coe of Kinney County and his department, along with Texas Department of Public Safety officers, are responsible for more arrests of migrants than anywhere else in the state.

It’s all part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star,” which began in 2021 and has redirected thousands of DPS officers and Texas National Guard personnel to the border.

Coe recently spoke on Fox News. "I'm doing everything I can to protect the people of the residents of my county," he said. "We're declaring an invasion. Hopefully to get some relief from the governor's office and hopefully from the federal government."

Gage Brown is an artist and lifelong resident of Brackettville, the county seat of Kinney County. She said the high-speed chases through town happen at all hours of the day and night.

KinneyCountyMapGoogle.jpg
Screengrab
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Kinney County, between the Texas-Mexico border and Uvalde.

"Sometimes I like to sleep outside in a hammock," she said. "And I can't do that without being woken up multiple times a night because in the middle of the night, there will be cars speeding down the highway."

Brown said high speed chases through the middle of town are endangering the residents there.

"Actually, there was an incident where a police car had crashed into a building," she added. "Like along the main road — I believe that was last year. Then the school ended up putting big boulders around the perimeter of our school campus because it's also on that main street," she said. "And just seeing that, I don't understand how we can be okay with anticipating that kind of dangerous situation for kids on the school campus and people in our community."

Roberto Lopez, a community outreach coordinator at the Texas Civil Rights Project was also concerned.

"They shouldn't be doing this at all, period," he said, adding that immigration is the jurisdiction of the federal government, which typically does not engage in these kinds of high speed chases.

"Local and state actors should not be taking this from taking the role of Border Patrol or Customs and Border Protection," Lopez said. "And in our opinion, when we're looking at individuals who are coming across to seek safety, there shouldn't be a need to chase someone to their death."

State and local law enforcement are not allowed to enforce immigration laws, but one couldn’t tell that by their actions.

How does Coe and other law enforcement officers justify chasing and arresting migrants who cross the border?

Mary McCord, an attorney with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy & Protection at Georgetown University Law Center, explained that their approach is not new.

"What we're seeing in Kinney County and sometimes in other places as well is kind of getting around that by saying, 'Okay, well, what we're going to do is we're going to enforce state law.' Things like trespassing and other things like that because they know they can't enforce federal immigration law," she said.

Her organization recently sent a letter to the Kinney County sheriff, a city attorney and county judge warning them against directing or cooperating with any of the private militias who are operating in Kinney County.

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Gage Brown
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DPS vehicles parked at the Fort Clark Springs Motel in February of 2022

That includes the Patriots for America, an armed militia group that Coe has been accused of cooperating with their efforts to round up and detain migrants on private ranches.

"Trespassing is a misdemeanor," she continued. "It does not justify dangerous police tactics like high speed chases — certainly wouldn't warrant the kind of harms that can come from those high speed chases."

Brown said it's not migrants, but the massive amount of law enforcement in Kinney County that has led to the area feeling like a war zone. "And just in general, the message that sends to people visiting our county or town or even people who live here is that we're in some kind of war zone. And are we really, or who has instigated this war?" she asked.

The high speed car chases have not only posed a danger to the migrants and the public, but they also recently had an impact on the botched response to one of the worst shootings in U.S. history in Uvalde, just up the road.

According to a legislative report investigating the incident, there were 50 of these bailouts between February and March of this year in the Uvalde area. The report said all of the alerts and lockdowns related to high speed chases and bailouts contributed to a lack of vigilance when a gunman stormed Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children and two teachers.

According to CBP, encounters with migrants in the Del Rio sector have increased by 118.8 percent from Fiscal year 2021 to Fiscal year 2022. There were 326,177 encounters in Fiscal year 2022.

The Kinney County Sheriff’s Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety did not respond to TPR's requests for comment.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.