The great unifying sin of Gov. Greg Abbott’s tenure is that, of course, he knows better.
This is a man who served as a state Supreme Court justice and Texas’ longtime attorney general before ascending to the governor’s office. He knows it’s blatantly unconstitutional to arrest people and not provide representation or due process for weeks on end.
One doesn’t have to be an attorney to know and understand this, but for a public official with Abbott’s legal pedigree, the failure to honor due process is galling.
In launching Operation Lone Star and creating a new legal system to detain immigrants on state trespassing charges, Abbott has blatantly disregarded constitutional rights at the altar of political expedience found in anti-immigrant posturing.
Regardless of one’s feelings about immigration and border security — whether the federal government is doing its job (comprehensive reform is long overdue), or a border wall is necessary (it is not), whether Dreamers should have a pathway to citizenship (they should), or the application of Title 42 under the Trump and Biden administrations is a moral failure (it is) — all Texans should be concerned about Abbott’s jailing of immigrants because it is an assault on due process and civil liberties.
Hundreds of immigrants have been detained for weeks on trespassing charges without representation, violating state law and overwhelming county justice systems, all while undercutting federal due process. Immigration is a federal issue.
As the Texas Tribune has reported, those facing criminal charges in Texas must be assigned counsel within three days of asking for an attorney. Prosecutors must also file charges within 15 to 30 days in typical trespassing cases. But these basic standards are not being met.
In rural Kinney County, where the vast majority of immigrants have been detained, the Texas Tribune reported, there aren’t enough local defense attorneys to take cases. Meanwhile, prosecutors have been slow to file charges, and The Washington Post has reported that non-English speaking detainees were asked to sign documents to decline representation. These documents were not in their native language.
In an example of how flawed this “system” is, about 250 migrants who were detained for more than a month without charges were recently released, thanks to the efforts of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
Since its launch in March, Operation Lone Star has resulted in 6,000 arrests on charges ranging from trespassing to smuggling and human trafficking, state officials have said. To make room for these defendants, the state has converted prison space at the Briscoe Unit in Dilley and Segovia Unit in Edinburg, The Washington Post has reported.
But, clearly, the system isn’t prepared for this type of influx and capacity. If it were, detainees would be represented, not languishing in jail waiting for charges.
For example, the Lubbock Private Defenders Office, a fabulous model for indigent defense, has been asked to help appoint attorneys. But Lubbock is nowhere near the border, and the outfit is too small to take on so many cases. To provide legal representation would cost millions in addition to housing costs — and after disposition of these trespassing cases, the migrants are sent to federal authorities for processing.
At best, Abbott’s system is duplicative and costly. At worst, it is a violation of due process that plays to fears of migrants.
Like so many other politicians, Abbott, through his efforts to build a wall, rhetoric and willingness to cast aside due process, is invested (through taxpayer dollars) in the fight over immigration, not in solutions that balance security and economic concerns with human dignity.
• San Antonio Express-News editorial board via The Associated Press