By Alexandra Ulmer
DEL RIO, Texas (Reuters) - Gaston, a 57-year-old Venezuelan human rights lawyer, spent years visiting the country's most squalid prisons as he defended students jailed for protesting its socialist government.
Fearing retaliation by the authorities for his work, Gaston decided to flee, heading to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum in the United States. On Aug. 8, he waded across the Rio Grande into Texas, hoping to surrender to U.S border officials.
Instead he was arrested by Texas state troopers, court records show. It was one of roughly 1,600 trespassing arrests of recent border-crossers in Texas since July under an immigration crackdown by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, dubbed Operation Lone Star.
Abbott has said the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden promotes a "catastrophic open border" policy culminating in record crossings that have stoked local anger this year. Two Texas counties - Val Verde and Kinney - have rallied to the governor's call for local police to arrest migrants for criminal trespassing.
Immigration advocates say Abbott is improperly taking immigration enforcement, a federal responsibility, into his own hands. They have also raised concerns about migrants being held for months in jail while waiting for their case to be heard.
But many of the trespassing cases appear to be falling apart on their own, a Reuters review found. Defense lawyers and at least one county prosecutor have cited problems with many of the cases, including imprecise details of the alleged misdemeanors on charging documents and lack of clarity about whether migrants were properly given notice that they were about to potentially trespass.
In Val Verde county, where Gaston crossed, County Attorney David Martinez told Reuters his office has declined to pursue around 105 cases out of 231 migrant trespassing arrests turned over to his office as of late October.
"Where I can determine that the violation appears to be as simple as someone walking across somebody's property to get to a public road area, and they've not damaged a fence, they've not harassed anyone," Martinez, a Democrat in a bilingual and heavily Hispanic county, said, "they deserve to be let out." He said migrants are often looking for law enforcement so they can ask about submitting an asylum request.
There was no immediate response to Reuters requests for data on the outcomes of cases that have gone before judges in the county.
WEEKS BEHIND BARS
Gaston was held in a Texas state prison in the town of Dilley for a month until Martinez dropped his case, citing his legal right to request asylum. Gaston said he spent another three weeks in custody of U.S. federal immigration agencies before being released on Sept. 29 so he can pursue his claims in immigration court.
"I had never been detained, least of all in a high-security prison. It's treatment for a criminal, not a migrant," said Gaston, now in Florida. He asked that he only be identified by his first name to protect his wife and children still in Venezuela.
The bulk of the 1,600 trespassing arrests statewide have been in Val Verde's neighboring Kinney County, a smaller and more conservative county where officials said they have more than 1,000 active cases.
Some of the same concerns about the legal validity of the charges have also emerged there.
Kristin Etter, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said all of the more than 100 charges brought in Kinney County that her group has seen had "defective" elements, including lack of basic details such as where the offense was allegedly committed.
Kinney County Attorney Brent Smith disputed that, saying the issue is that judges assigned to the cases have asked for more information than is typically requested for criminal trespass.
"We expect to refile all of the cases we can," said Smith, a Republican.
County Judge Tully Shahan did not respond to requests for comment on case outcomes.
The Kinney County sheriff, Brad Coe, stressed that local landowners were tired of dealing with what he said was trash and cut fences left behind by growing numbers of crossing migrants. This fiscal year, 1.7 million migrants were encountered at the southwest border, the highest number ever recorded, though many may be repeat crossers.
The Texas Department of Public Safety said it was up to prosecutors whether to pursue a case and added that the department remained committed to Operation Lone Star. Abbott's office said in a statement that Texas would continue to invest resources in securing the border.
A two-term Republican, Abbott is seeking to build on former Republican President Donald Trump's anti-immigration legacy ahead of unexpectedly competitive Republican primaries in March 2022 and a gubernatorial vote in the state in November.
"We are the first & last line of defense at our border," Abbott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Del Rio, Texas; Editing by Kristina Cooke, Mica Rosenberg and Daniel Wallis)