Carolea Hassard, a rancher in rural Kinney County, population 3,100, received a jury summons in April. “They called more than 175 of us for a six-member jury selection,” she said. “I felt like I was in a murder trial. But this was for a misdemeanor trespassing case.”
The trial was for an undocumented Honduran man who had crossed the border into Kinney County, 120 miles west of San Antonio. He was being prosecuted for trespassing on private ranchland by the county attorney, Brent Smith, a major proponent of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, which seeks to bypass the federal immigration system by detaining asylum-seekers and migrants on low-level state trespassing charges.
In the end, Hassard wasn’t chosen for the jury. She lost half a day’s work plus gas since it was an hourlong trip to the county courthouse and back. “It was really a waste of time,” she said. “Calling 175 people for a misdemeanor jury is going overboard.”
Like other residents in the border county, Hassard said she’s grown tired of Operation Lone Star and fearmongering by local elected officials like Smith, who paint the region as being under invasion. Over the last year, the formerly quiet ranching community has become a backdrop for Fox News and far-right media to promote the idea that states can declare an invasion under the U.S. Constitution and use force against migrants seeking refuge as if they were a hostile foreign power.
The attention has thrust Smith, Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe and County Judge Tully Shahan into the national spotlight. The three have led the charge in Texas, working to push Abbott, who is up for reelection in November, even further to the right. After Shahan and Smith declared a state of disaster last year due to “illegal aliens invading Kinney County,” Abbott quickly followed suit, issuing a broader disaster declaration that granted him emergency powers usually reserved for responding to events like hurricanes or floods. Instead, Abbott used the declaration to tap into state and federal funding and deploy thousands of state police and National Guard members to the border under Operation Lone Star, which has already cost more than $4 billion. But that wasn’t enough for the Kinney County officials.
This past July, the trio held a press conference to declare their 16 miles of border with Mexico under invasion. They called on Abbott to make a statewide declaration and exercise his authority under the Texas and U.S. constitutions to immediately “remove all persons invading the sovereignty of Texas and that of the United States.”
The officials were joined by a handful of other county leaders in the two-stoplight town of Brackettville, Kinney’s largest with just 1,400 residents. “They’re coming through here in droves,” Shahan said of migrants and asylum-seekers. “Ranches are getting their fences cut every day. … The Biden administration is using this as a political act to bring people to the United States so they can go vote.” Shahan declined to be interviewed for this story.
The narrative of fences being cut and ranchers packing pistols due to President Joe Biden’s “open-border policies” has drawn not only dozens of right-wing media outlets, YouTube content creators and armed militias to the county, but also former members of the Trump administration and candidates vying for the former president’s endorsement leading up to the midterm elections.
This explained the unusual presence of two former Trump administration officials at the local press conference: Mark Morgan, former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Ken Cuccinelli, who served as acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Both now work for right-wing think tanks.
Since Biden took office, Cuccinelli and Morgan have pressured elected officials nationwide to adopt the fringe concept — which legal experts say would be rejected in a court of law — that states and counties can declare themselves under invasion. Cuccinelli explained how it would work in a Breitbart radio interview: “Because they’re acting under war powers, there’s no due process,” he said. “They can literally just line their National Guard up, presumably with riot gear like they would if they had a civil disturbance, and turn people back at the border.”
At the press conference, Cuccinelli praised Shahan for being the first judge in the nation to declare an invasion. “For the first time in American history, a judge has found, as a matter of law, that the United States is being invaded,” he said. In Texas, county judges oversee the local governing body and preside over minor criminal and civil cases; Shahan’s invasion declaration was not a judicial ruling.
Still, the declaration succeeded in pumping more money into the county’s coffers. While Abbott stopped short of declaring a statewide invasion, a day after the press conference, he directed another $30 million into Operation Lone Star to be disbursed to Kinney County and other participating jurisdictions.
Texas striking out alone on immigration enforcement might make good Fox News ratings, but it has done little to curb migration. The growing number of arrivals is part of a hemisphere-wide phenomenon as people flee their homes due to climate change, authoritarianism and pandemic-wrecked economies.
What Operation Lone Star has done is militarize already overpoliced Latino communities and deny migrants a right to due process and asylum, said Anita Gupta, a Texas-based staff attorney with the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “It also drains resources from border communities,” she said. “It’s just funneling money away from real needs, all for the purpose of expanding the criminal legal system to conduct immigration enforcement.” Without federal intervention, Gupta and other advocates worry that more states will adopt the Texas model, further persecuting people of color. “It has real national implications,” she said.
Lone Star’s poster child
For nearly a decade, the Rio Grande Valley, more than 300 miles from Kinney County, has received the largest number of Central Americans and other migrants because it is the stretch of U.S. border closest to Central America. But as the Trump administration implemented “remain in Mexico,” which required asylum-seekers to await U.S. immigration proceedings in Mexican border cities, and then Title 42, which blocked asylum access at ports of entry, migrants and human smugglers began to search for other routes.
That’s when the normally quiet stretch of border that includes Kinney County began to see a large uptick in migrants crossing through its cattle and hunting ranches as they headed north for larger cities in the United States.
Notably, when Abbott declared the border a disaster in May 2021, the border’s most populous counties in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso pushed back, refusing to sign local disaster declarations. “We don’t feel we have a disaster,” Starr County Judge Eloy Vera told Border Report after the counties asked to be carved out of Abbott’s plan to arrest migrants.
Many cash-poor counties like Kinney, meanwhile, secured millions in Operation Lone Star money after declaring a disaster. Abbott granted nearly $3.2 million to the county for law enforcement and the prosecution of migrants over a two-year period. Between August 2021 and July 2022, the county prosecuted more than 3,500 migrants for trespassing, according to Smith, a majority of the cases statewide.
The county has reaped as much as $3 million in bond money from the migrants it has prosecuted.
The local officials also solicit donations through the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo with the message “We the people will save our country!” The campaign has generated around $22,000.
On top of the influx of cash from Operation Lone Star, the county has reaped as much as $3 million in bond money from the migrants it has prosecuted, according to an estimate from sheriff’s department spokesperson Matt Benacci. Because bail bond companies usually won’t bail out jailed migrants, defendants’ families have to pay the cash bonds in person. In theory, the families should get the money back if the migrants show up for their trial dates. Once migrants are released from jail, however, defense lawyers say they are often deported, and the county makes it almost impossible for them to recoup the bond money.
In one Zoom hearing I witnessed, held by the cantankerous Shahan, several men in Honduras and Mexico waited on hold for hours with their defense attorneys in Texas, only to be told to dial in again later. The hearing turned out to be nothing more than a roll call. But anyone who didn’t appear, one defense attorney told me, would forfeit his bond money.
In an interview at the county courthouse in downtown Brackettville last December, Smith, in a white button-down shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, sat at a desk stacked with empty manila folders, which would soon hold more Operation Lone Star cases. Behind him was a framed replica of the Texas independence flag with its black cannon and “Come and Take It” rejoinder.
The 42-year-old is a former oil and gas attorney from a prominent ranching family in the area. Before Operation Lone Star, the county handled around 10 misdemeanor prosecutions a month, he told me, usually for shoplifting or hunters trespassing on private land. But since he’d started as county attorney in January 2021, he said, they were prosecuting 500 to 600 migrants a month. According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of migrants arrested in the county, Smith has pressed charges for criminal trespass on his land in at least eight cases, making him both the complainant and prosecutor. Coe, the sheriff, has been a complainant at least three times, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
With the Operation Lone Star money, Smith said he wanted to create a judicial center with additional staff. Acknowledging that it would be difficult to convince attorneys to move to rural Kinney County to prosecute migrants, Smith said he envisioned something more like the ad hoc “man camps” that house workers at oil and gas rigs. “You have the man camps in Midland and West Texas,” he said. “It’s the same concept, only they’re prosecution camps.” (In August, the county’s spokesperson said that Smith had yet to build his judicial camp but did recently hire a former prosecutor from neighboring Uvalde County.)
Young and ambitious, Smith, along with Shahan, has worked to convince other counties to declare an invasion, giving interviews to right-wing media, penning newspaper op-eds and speaking at political rallies. He’s also an ardent secessionist, serving on the advisory board for the Texas Nationalist Movement.
All the attention, he said, has brought Republican officials to his doorstep trying to recruit him to run for statewide office. Smith declined to name these officials but said he’d told them a statewide run would have to wait.
“If Operation Lone Star is Abbott’s baby,” Smith said, “then we’re his poster child.”
Out and about somewhere
As I drove through Kinney County, I was startled to see several National Guard Humvees lined up on the shoulder of the empty highway, their machine guns pointed south toward the Rio Grande as if awaiting an attack. Uniformed guard members stood around looking bored, scrolling through their phones as they leaned against the bumpers of the vehicles.
Armed militia men, housed by local ranchers in Kinney County, were also out patrolling the wide expanses of scrub brush and mesquite for migrants, whom they turned over to Coe and his deputies or state police.
At his office adjacent to the county courthouse, Coe had “Let’s Go Brandon” and Trump campaign stickers prominently displayed on his desk. He also had a life-sized cardboard cutout of Vice President Kamala Harris, a prop he used to lampoon the administration at press events. A retired Border Patrol agent, Coe refers to border crossers as “give ups” and “got aways.” The “give ups” are asylum-seekers who present themselves to Border Patrol, but it’s the “got aways” who are passing through Kinney County, he told me, and trying to evade law enforcement.
“We are the funnel point,” he said, noting that surrounding counties have Border Patrol checkpoints but not Kinney. “This is a very quiet county. We don’t have industry. We don’t have factories. Our biggest employers are the electric co-op and the school,” he added. “And our ranchers and exotic game hunters. We lose them, we lose the county. So we’ve got to protect the ranchers.”
Like Smith, Coe is counting on Lone Star money. “We’re looking at new vehicles, new radios, additional manpower, new computers,” he said. “I just got a new one the other day because I couldn’t open Word anymore.”
Militia members film the apprehensions, then upload the footage to right-wing social media sites like Rumble.
Last October, Coe appeared ready to deputize militia members using Lone Star money to help his six deputies patrol the county’s 1,360 square miles. The idea was quashed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, but it generated weeks of media coverage, drawing far-right YouTube personalities to the county like Anthony Aguero, an ally of Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as outlets such as Real America’s Voice, which largely serves as a platform for Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.
That same month, in a “War Room” interview, Coe invoked an oft-used racist trope and equated Haitian migrants with disease, saying that some of them had brought chicken pox and leprosy to Texas. “What’s next?” Coe said. “Tuberculosis? Smallpox?”
Coe told me that he had no authority to stop private militias from chasing down migrants if ranchers agreed to give them access to their land. During my visit, neither Coe nor Smith would say where militias were patrolling or if any members were being housed on Smith’s property. But in July, Texas Monthly reported that a member of a Texas militia, the Patriot Boys, was arrested at a ranch belonging to Smith’s family for involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection.
One militia in particular, Patriots for America, run by a former missionary from North Texas named Samuel Hall, has spent several months in and out of the county. Hall and his group wear ballistic vests and Punisher regalia and carry assault-style rifles when they detain migrants. They film the apprehensions, then upload the footage to right-wing social media sites like Rumble to recruit new members and raise money. Hall, who has angel’s wings tattooed on his arms, has raised thousands of dollars through GiveSendGo for his “humanitarian mission” in Kinney County, referring to himself as “the hands and feet of Christ.”
In one video Hall posted on Rumble, a frightened Nicaraguan man detained by militia members in the middle of the night pleads for help and says he’s fleeing Nicaragua’s dictatorship. The man expresses fear, then confusion, as he tries to figure out whether Hall’s men are going to hurt him. At one point, the Nicaraguan man asks for asylum and apoyo, or help. A militia member in an American flag headband responds, “Chicken?” Finally, a Kinney County sheriff’s deputy arrives and takes him away.
Coe called Hall a “straightforward, strong Christian man.” When asked where the militia was operating, Coe said he had no idea. “He’s out and about somewhere,” he said. “As long as he’s staying on private property and not creating a ruckus, he’s free to come and go as he pleases.”
Confusion and fear
Not everyone in Kinney County is on board with the idea of declaring an invasion and spending millions on prosecuting and jailing migrants.
Several residents said they wondered whether the money devoted to Operation Lone Star might not be better invested in the state’s power grid, which failed in February 2021 due to extreme cold. Residents had to survive several days in freezing temperatures without heat or running water. Or it could be invested in preserving the state’s groundwater. In April, Las Moras Springs and Creek, which are critical for the county, dried up due to extreme drought.
Many of the roads in Brackettville are riddled with potholes or unpaved. Nearly 18% of residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Residents told me that there was a wide economic divide between wealthy ranching families like Smith’s who are white — and run the county’s government — and Latino families who live in town.
“There’s no jobs here for people,” one resident said of the county’s unemployment rate, which is higher than the state average. The resident asked to remain anonymous, citing a fear of reprisal from Smith, Coe and Shahan. “Some don’t even have cars to get out of town,” she said. “You can see the need. And yet we’re spending all this money on arresting people.”
Residents said they found the invasion talk both frightening and confusing. With Brackettville being a small town where everyone knows one another, they worried that criticism of the county’s leaders could not only end long-term friendships but also divide families or even result in someone losing their job. The fearmongering has polarized a community already hurting from political division over the 2020 presidential election. Of the county’s 2,270 registered voters, 1,603 people turned out to vote. Donald Trump won by a margin of nearly 3 to 1.
Democrats said they’d lost friends after putting out political signs supporting Biden. Some said their yard signs had been destroyed in the middle of the night. One resident told me that a neighbor, a staunch Trump supporter, had taken to walking around his yard with a pistol tucked into his waistband. “Do you feel safe?” he asked one morning. “There are illegals coming right through here.”
“How many of these people passing through our county are really criminals?” asked another resident. “And how many carried drugs or had a weapon? The sheriff’s never really explained it, and he’s been asked. They just make everybody afraid.”
I met with Kelly Perry, vice president of the local affiliate of the Texas Federation of Republican Women, at her house in Fort Clark. The gated community, a former military barracks built after the Mexican American War, is home to many military and Border Patrol retirees. Since Biden took office, local Tea Party groups, the women’s federation and other conservative organizations have held “Border Invasion Awareness” rallies in Kinney and surrounding rural counties, featuring speakers such as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Maria Espinoza of the Remembrance Project, which demonizes immigrants as murderers and rapists and has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Perry owns a business selling owner-financed homes. “But my real area of work is a support system for the county,” she said. One way she does this is by organizing the rallies. Her job, she said, was to sound the alarm to protect America because Kinney County was the “gateway for illegals to the United States” and “the worst of the worst.” The Biden administration was letting them in, she added. “I’m very upset with what I’m seeing with the changes in the United States right now under a Democratic president.”
At times the rallies veer into extremist QAnon conspiracies that claim that traffickers are harvesting organs and worshipping Satan. At a rally in Kinney County last year, Mike Miller, founder of an anti-immigrant nonprofit called Warriors for Ranchers, told residents that Hondurans had been “capturing kids and harvesting their organs.”
As we sat at her dining room table, Perry mentioned that she’d been flown by the Trump-aligned FreedomWorks to Washington, D.C., for an election integrity summit before the 2020 election, where she learned about the fraud that Democrats planned to commit nationwide. “I learned a lot about the things that were being done to hurt our values as Americans,” she said.
Later, I spoke with a resident who broke down in tears as she described losing longtime friends in the county who were Republicans. They now viewed her as the enemy, she said, because she was a Democrat and had questioned the need for Operation Lone Star and the police and soldiers in her town. “Everyone is so afraid now,” she told me. “I want to honor their fear, but I’m not afraid. I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t think that being fearful fixes anything.”
Hassard said she moved to Kinney County because it’s quiet and she can see the stars at night. “I live up in the hills and it’s real pretty,” she said. She’s seen two migrants on her ranch in the last two years. “When I opened up my window, they turned and ran like the devil was on their heels,” she said.
It’s not the migrants who bother her but the armed militia members who’ve been drawn to the county by the endless invasion talk. Not long ago, Hassard met a couple on an ATV near her ranch who said they were patrolling with a group called Texas Border Rescue. “They say they rescue migrants,” Hassard said. “But they’re carrying guns. You can phrase it however you want, but they’re here to chase human beings. I call them a vigilante group.”
Disclosure: FreedomWorks, Southern Poverty Law Center and Texas Monthly have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Originally published on Oct. 12, 2022. Republished with permission from The Intercept, an award-winning nonprofit news organization dedicated to holding the powerful accountable through fearless, adversarial journalism, in partnership with Type Investigations. Sign up for The Intercept’s Newsletter.
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