Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
A Texas prison has officially started detaining immigrants accused of state crimes after allegedly crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s heightened border security efforts.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Wednesday that Val Verde County, home to Del Rio, sent three people arrested under Abbott’s border initiative Tuesday to the Briscoe Unit in Dilley, a small town between San Antonio and Laredo. The number of detainees is expected to grow rapidly; the Val Verde county attorney predicted about 50 arrests of immigrants a day, ramping up to as many as 200 daily by August.
The Val Verde County sheriff’s office said the Briscoe detainees had been arrested on accusations of criminal trespassing. County officials previously said state police would begin arresting immigrants crossing the border, largely on trespassing and criminal mischief charges — both misdemeanors that could result in up to a year in jail. It’s a novel approach ordered by Abbott to allow state and local law enforcement officers to arrest immigrants for state crimes, since they have no jurisdictional power to arrest someone accused of the federal crime of crossing the border illegally.
“If you cross the river, and almost everyone down there has posted ‘no trespassing’ signs, so once you cross and get on the property, you will be picked up and taken to jail for trespassing,” Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens said last week.
The judge, a Democrat, said Border Patrol agents have apprehended more than 149,000 immigrants in the Del Rio sector alone this fiscal year, the second most after the Rio Grande Valley, according to federal statistics. Hundreds of others evade detection by crossing further away from major entry points, often traversing private land, frightening landowners not used to such levels of migration, Owens said.
Under Abbott’s border initiative, dubbed Operation Lone Star, the governor has sent about 1,000 Texas Department of Public Safety officers — about a quarter of the state police force — to counties on or near the border. After declaring the rise in illegal immigration a disaster in May, the governor warned in June that his police force would begin making arrests on state charges and directed the prison system to open up space to jail immigrants.
But converting the Briscoe prison into a jail for Abbott’s initiative has proved controversial. After transferring all state prisoners out of the unit in June, nearly 150 prison guards were left to monitor an empty unit for over a month as officials scrambled to figure out what changes were needed to house immigrant detainees. Meanwhile, the rest of the prison system remained dangerously understaffed. The prison was also pegged for Abbott’s border security initiative shortly after he and other state leaders moved to siphon $250 million — at least temporarily — from the prison department to instead go toward building a border wall.
It’s still unclear whether the Briscoe prison now meets the minimum standards for a Texas jail, which don’t often align with how state prisons are run since they hold different populations. While Texas prisons house people convicted of state felonies, Texas jails primarily detain people who have been accused but not convicted of crimes, including low-level offenses.
In a statement Wednesday, TDCJ officials said the agency has been working with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to convert the prison into an appropriate jail. For example, the prison officers were temporarily licensed as jailers, more medical staff and guards were added, and the unit installed temporary air conditioning in housing areas.
Texas county jails are required to be cooled at or below 85 degrees, while most Texas prisons — including Briscoe — notoriously lack air conditioning in housing areas. TDCJ spokesperson Robert Hurst said that air conditioning is now being sent into the building through ducts and powered by portable generators.
“Providing public safety is part of the core mission of the TDCJ,” Bryan Collier, the prisons’ executive director, said in the statement. “The agency will continue to work with stakeholders and state leadership to assist counties as they deal with this significant challenge.”
Brandon Wood, executive director of the jail standards commission, said one building at the Briscoe Unit has so far been cleared to house jail detainees, and it is holding the three people incarcerated so far. The other buildings, he said, will be cleared to jail people after unspecified issues are resolved.
Aside from meeting housing standards at Briscoe, Val Verde County Attorney David Martinez said this week that space and resources under Abbott’s directive will be a problem. His office has two prosecutors, with a third coming in two weeks, and the local jail was full in early July, the sheriff told county commissioners.
Martinez said arrested immigrants would be taken to a tent-like structure outside the jail in Del Rio for processing before heading to Briscoe within 24 hours. He said he would offer most arrested on misdemeanor charges a sentence of time served once they get through the criminal justice system, which he estimated would take about 10 days, and then they would be handed off to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where many would likely be quickly deported.
“This is going to be very grating on everyone in the process,” he said. “If we start seeing numbers of 50-plus a day of arrests, we could easily be consumed by it.”