A group of migrants walks to a U.S. Border Patrol van after requesting asylum in Del Rio last month.

Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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Through a small Zoom square from inside a Texas prison, nine immigrants in orange jumpsuits appeared for the first court hearings Wednesday under Gov. Greg Abbott’s new directive for state troopers to arrest people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and jail them for state crimes.

Over three hours, each of the men — all from Venezuela — pleaded guilty to trespassing on private property in Del Rio last month. Each was given a sentence of 15 days in jail for the misdemeanor offense, which they have already served in the Briscoe Unit, a prison recently converted into a state-run jail for migrants at the governor’s order.

Their state cases now complete, the men must wait for up to two days to see if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials decide to take them into federal custody. ICE had previously asked the state to hold the migrants sentenced Wednesday, according to the local prosecutor. If taken into federal custody, the men could quickly be deported. If not, they will be released.

“A plea of guilty or nolo contendere for the defense charged may result in deportation, the exclusion from admission to this country or the denial of naturalization under federal law,” Val Verde County Court Judge Sergio Gonzalez warned each defendant in the virtual hearings.

ICE officials did not respond to questions Tuesday about the migrants.

Nine Venezuelan migrants in a Texas prison appeared virtually in the Val Verde County court Wednesday and pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing.

Credit: Zoom screenshot

The arraignment hearings, where defendants hear the charges against them and enter a plea, were the latest experiment in what is essentially a new Texas criminal justice system for migrants accused of crossing the border illegally. Though illegally crossing is a federal crime, soaring numbers of migrants at the Texas border seeking asylum from troubled countries and an ongoing feud with the federal administration led Abbott to send hundreds of state police and Texas National Guard personnel to arrest crossing migrants on state charges.

On Thursday, about another 20 detained migrants are set to go before Gonzalez, the only judge in Val Verde County who handles misdemeanors, as well as family, juvenile and civil dockets. And his caseload is growing rapidly, with as many as 20 new immigrants sent to the Briscoe prison in one day.

Since Abbott’s directive began last month, the Val Verde County sheriff said more than 230 migrants have been jailed at the Briscoe prison in Dilley, a small town between Laredo and San Antonio. As of last week, all of the migrants are accused of trespassing onto private property, often just off the Rio Grande.

More than 150 of those arrests have occurred in Del Rio, but Gonzalez so far only has two other court hearings set for migrants arrested under Abbott’s orders. After Thursday’s hearing, the next set of detained migrants isn’t scheduled to appear for their first court appearance until September or November, Gonzalez said last week.

“It’s a whole new world,” he said. “My goal is to make sure these things flow and see where they’re going and see what the numbers are.”

Police have also arrested dozens of migrants in neighboring Kinney County, but a prison spokesperson said those detainees have not yet appeared in court.

Abbott, a Republican who is seeking reelection next year, has focused his attention on hardening border policies this summer, blaming Democratic President Joe Biden’s “dangerous and reckless open border policies,” according to a spokesperson.

“While the federal gov’t does nothing, Texas is building a border wall & arresting illegal migrants caught trespassing,” Abbott posted on Twitter last week. “No more catch & release.”

The Del Rio region has seen a surge of border crossings by asylum seekers from countries torn by combinations of violence, political turmoil and economic crisis. Nearly 150,000 migrants were apprehended by federal officials in the area between October and June, most from Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela and Haiti. That’s up from about 40,000 in the entire year prior.

In Val Verde County, local officials acknowledge there’s a crisis, with a lack of transportation, shelter and other resources for the incoming migrants. The move to arrest those who don’t enter at main crossing points, however, has prompted outrage from immigrant rights advocates. After the hearing Wednesday, Laura Peña, legal director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said she is eyeing the next move by the federal government closely.

“The big question is to what extent is the Biden administration going to be complicit in this state effort to usurp federal immigration law,” she said. “We know that they are already complicit because they’re already issuing ICE detainers. Now what?”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas has also argued the arrests could interfere with people’s constitutional right to seek asylum in the United States. Typically, migrants apprehended crossing the border are turned over to federal immigration authorities, who either deport them or let them stay in the country if they have pending asylum claims. Texas Department of Public Safety officials have not said if state troopers are arresting those who say they are seeking asylum.

In small border towns, the surge of law enforcement has also sparked confusion as federal, local and state authorities weave around each other. In Del Rio, local law enforcement officials said DPS told them state police would only be arresting men who were crossing the border without family. But The Texas Tribune journalists witnessed one Venezuelan man separated from his wife last month, and the county attorney counted at least three other migrant arrests where defense attorneys later told him their client had been separated from a wife, sister or parents before being arrested by state police.

“From day one, there were representations made to us by DPS that that wasn’t going to happen, and I’ve certainly made it known to them I don’t want any hand in separating families,” Val Verde County Attorney David Martinez, who prosecutes misdemeanor cases, said.

Martinez said he has either rejected or planned to dismiss cases where he learns the arrestee has been separated from family, but Peña argued at that point the harm has been done.

“The whole system is being weaponized against recently arrived asylum seekers,” she said.

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