Texas arrests separating migrant families may hinge on a key element: Landowners’ permission

When Texas Department of Public Safety officials first approached Magali Urbina and her husband, Hugo, last year and asked them to sign a release allowing them to arrest asylum-seekers on their pecan farm along the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, the couple agreed, believing it would help border enforcement.

But, in the ensuing months, when they learned from Border Patrol agents that state authorities were arresting migrant parents who were taken away from their children, the couple said they had a change of heart. DPS asked them again in June to sign a document that would let them arrest people on their 400-acre farm and charge them with misdemeanor trespassing. This time, the Urbinas refused.

“It’s a really horrible position to be in to see families separated with children crying,” Magali Urbina said. “My husband and I both agreed we didn’t want the migrants arrested on the property and DPS separating families.”

In counties along and near the Texas-Mexico border, more than 100 landowners like the Urbinas now play a crucial but largely unseen role in the state’s effort to crack down on border crossers, USA TODAY has confirmed.

DPS acknowledges that it arrests some male border-crossers who arrive with their families – essentially separating parents from children, in a process that echoes the widely decried Trump-era policy of family separations. 

The separations DPS confirmed earlier this month have fueled further outcry in a region where state efforts to fortify the border have already drawn a federal lawsuit.

The arrests themselves, though, are based on charges of trespassing on private property – charges that may hinge on whether landowners have previously signed a release allowing them. And some in the region now believe DPS directs migrants toward land where they can be arrested. 

According to figures provided to USA TODAY, DPS has signed agreements – known as Criminal Trespassing affidavits – from 134 property owners in four counties in the border region, including 49 in Maverick County, home to Eagle Pass. 

The forms fast-track a trespassing charge, which would normally require that a property owner make a complaint. 

State police only arrest migrants on properties where owners, either through signed affidavits or verbal agreements, have agreed to prosecute for criminal trespass or criminal mischief, DPS spokesman Travis Considine said. 

“Having the affidavit on file with the local prosecutor alleviates the need to have the owner come in after every arrest and sign the paperwork,” he said. 

The USA TODAY Network in Texas reviewed various copies of the affidavits and arrest records. On one of them, DPS asks landowners to grant them legal “authority to act for the property owner” – essentially becoming a proxy for the landowner so they can make arrests on sight.

Property owners who spoke to USA TODAY were divided on whether to support the tactic.

Migrants hold hands as a strong current begins to drag them as they begin to cross the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras, Mexico into Eagle Pass, Texas on July 21, 2023.

Martin Wall, a rancher who owns more than 1,000 acres about a mile from the Rio Grande, said he readily signed the agreement last year. He was frustrated by the constant flow of migrants, holes in his fences and trash on his land. He said state troopers have made numerous arrests there. 

“DPS is the only one, hands down, doing anything,” Wall said. “I’m a very strong supporter.”

Others claimed to be uncertain of what role they or their property played in the arrests. But it’s clear the agreements are a factor in the region’s uneasy relationship with border security.

“We had been having meetings with DPS for two years,” Urbina said. “They’ve been asking the ranchers and landowners to sign these papers.” 

Family separations part of larger border fight 

Migrants climb onto a shipping container set by state officials as an officer tells them to go back to the south side of the Rio Grande in July 2023.

In addition to the arrests, on orders from Gov. Greg Abbott, the state law enforcement agency has strung nearly 100 miles of concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande and deployed a “floating wall” of buoys in the river. It’s all part of Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s $9.5 billion effort to enforce the border.

The efforts have drawn fire both from Mexico, which says the buoys violate international boundary treaties, and from President Joe Biden’s administration, which has sued to force Texas to remove them. The fortifications have been spotlighted recently with the discovery of two bodies in the river, and a USA TODAY report about how young children have been slashed by the razor wire.

Family separations drew new attention last week after a Houston Chronicle report about fathers being taken from children. On Tuesday, a delegation of Democratic U.S. lawmakers led by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, toured the riverfront near the buoys, spoke with landowners there and criticized the tactics.

Considine confirmed state agents have arrested migrants and in the process broken up families. 

“There have been instances in which DPS has arrested male migrants on state charges who were with their family when the alleged crime occurred,” Considine told the USA TODAY Network. “Children and their mothers were never separated but instead turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol together.” 

Even before the family separations were publicized, trespassing arrests of individual migrants were widely criticized. Last year, a group of attorneys representing migrants filed a federal lawsuit against Abbott and other state and local officials to halt the arrests and compensate those held in the jails. 

Migrants rest near Buoys on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas on July 20, 2023. The buoys were installed on orders by Texas Governor Greg Abbot to prevent migrants from reaching the north embankment of the Rio Grande on the international boundary between Mexico and the U.S.

Kristin Etter, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aide who represents migrants in the area, said most of those arrested either plead guilty or mount other legal challenges. Few, if any, make it to trial. After they go through the court system, asylum-seekers are handed over to federal immigration authorities, which is what many of Etter’s asylum-seeking clients wanted in the first place. 

“It’s literally a political stunt that only creates a detour to the asylum process,” she said. “The criminal justice system has been misappropriated to enforce immigration law – something it wasn’t designed to do … Why did we create this billion-dollar illegal detour to the asylum process?”

Private property agreement for a public park

Texas Department of Public Safety officers observe as migrants struggle to walk through concertina wire in Del Rio, Texas in July 2023.

The use of landowner agreements came to light following earlier efforts to make migrant arrests in a city park. 

Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas in June signed a DPS document that effectively turned municipally owned Shelby Park, on the banks of the Rio Grande, into “private property.” By signing the document, Salinas gave troopers authority to act as his agents and arrest migrants on state misdemeanor criminal trespass charges.

Court cases show how DPS used that authority. A criminal complaint in a July case shows how agents identified a group of more than half a dozen people in the public park, writing “They did not have permission to be on this property. Rolando Salinas has provided DPS with a criminal trespass statement that persons are not allowed to be on the property without permission.” 

But after more than 500 such arrests at Shelby Park, public outcry prompted the Eagle Pass City Council to reverse the mayor’s action. Salinas joined the four other council members last week, voting to rescind the permission granted in the affidavit.

Less scrutinized, however, are the more than 100 private property owners in the region who have also enabled the arrests. 

Arrests records reveal agreements

Border Patrol pulls out of a Heavenly Farms pecan grove on Thursday, July 20, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas. The agency leases a section of the property from owners Hugo and Magali Urbina.

Arrest affidavits filed in late June and early July, reviewed by USA TODAY, show DPS has pursued “criminal trespass” charges against border-crossers arrested on the Cerna Ranch property, private land just downstream of Shelby Park.

“The owner of the Cerna Ranch Property has signed a criminal trespass affidavit authorizing the Texas Department of Public Safety and its Agents to enter the property and arrest any/all persons found to be in the land without consent,” a trooper wrote.  

Javier Cerna, 73, co-owner of the property, told USA TODAY he signed a document earlier this year presented to him by a Border Patrol official. But he was told the document gave the agency permission to put ads in the local newspaper in Piedras Negras, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, warning migrants not to cross into his property or risk being detained. Cerna, who lives in Dallas, said he wasn’t aware that state police were making arrests on his property. 

Cerna said the flow of migrants over the years has left clothes strewn across his 24-acre property and smugglers have broken gates to let the migrants through. He said he agreed with DPS or Border Patrol detaining migrants if it kept them off his property. 

“I don’t have any reason to be against them having a chance to make their life better,” Cerna said in an interview. “I just think there has to be a better way to do this.”

Urbina, who has asked DPS to remove rows of razor wire along the banks of her pecan farm, said she has seen state troopers and National Guardsmen direct asylum seekers crossing the river to the eastern edge of her property, where the razor wire ends. She said she believed authorities steered migrants toward an area where they had permission to make arrests. 

A park along the Rio Grande is used as a staging area for Operation Loan Star on Friday, July 21, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Beyer Junfin, a co-owner of the property directly east of Urbina’s, said he wasn’t familiar with the releases and wasn’t sure if migrants were being arrested on his property. 

But an affidavit for a June 30 arrest suggests that troopers still depend on the private landowner’s agreement. “Mr. Junfin has provided Texas Department of Public Safety … with a verbal criminal trespass statement,” a trooper wrote in that case.

Junfin, in an interview with USA TODAY, said he empathized with the hardships migrants endured but recognized something needed to be done to staunch the flow of asylum-seekers through his and other properties.

“As landowners, we’re in this Catch-22,” he said. “We’ve lost fences. We’ve lost cattle, lost sheep. We’re kind of sitting in the middle of this deal and want to survive.”

Junfin said he supports improved immigration legislation that could better process the migrants into the U.S. And while court filings suggest he has cooperated with DPS, Junfin said he is uneasy with the large presence of state police and National Guardsmen swarming his property. 

“My land is now overrun by people in law enforcement,” he said.

Steered toward arrest?

August 4, 2023: Migrants cross the Rio Grande into the United States in Eagle Pass, Texas as seen from Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico.

Starting in June, Etter noticed that many of her clients were arrested in Shelby Park. Then, after the city rescinded the trespass affidavit, arrests began piling up downriver at the Junfin property. 

Like Urbina, advocates say they believe DPS steers border-crossers specifically to the sites where they can be readily arrested.

“That’s exactly what they’re doing with the buoys,” Etter said. “It’s to funnel them to certain locations to better arrest them.”

Considine, from DPS, pushed back on allegations that migrants were being funneled toward specific sites that allowed arrests, saying, “Never heard those before.” 

But arrest records show some state agents encouraging migrants to enter properties with arrest agreements – only to then detain them and charge them with trespassing.

In one instance on July 23, a state trooper described how a DPS agent warned a group of migrants arriving at the shoreline at Shelby Park that they were trespassing, then another DPS agent “instructed the individuals to cross into the main land by saying, ‘Come on, let’s go, we’re here’ and waved them with his hand to proceed walking,” according to the probable cause affidavit. 

The seven migrants were promptly arrested. 

Amrutha Jindal, a Lubbock-based attorney who represents many of the migrants, said her clients routinely report being waved toward properties along the river where the arrests occur. She called the property owner agreements “crucial” to DPS’s border strategy. 

“It’s what’s enabling this operation to begin with,” Jindal said. 

Some of Etter’s clients have reported that law enforcement agents in boats directed them to wade downriver after arriving at the riverside concertina wire. Another client was recently told by a DPS officer to go down to the end of the razor-wire fence because immigration officers were awaiting them there. After walking downriver for two hours, instead of being met by Border Patrol agents, they were arrested by DPS, Etter said. 

“Our clients are clearly collateral damage in this process,” she said.

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