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Texas charging another large group of migrants with “riot participation”

Texas law enforcement and National Guard soldiers operate a border fence gate in El Paso.
Aaron Montes / KTEP News
Texas law enforcement and National Guard soldiers operate a border fence gate in El Paso.

EL PASO, Texas (KTEP) - The state of Texas is charging another large group of migrants with “riot participation” after they scaled a chain link fence on the border.

Over 140 people have been charged prompting El Paso county officials to express concern about jail capacity. On Monday, the commissioners court voted in favor of Judge Ricardo Samaniego sending a letter to El Paso’s state delegation over state law enforcement practices.

“These political games are going to cost El Paso taxpayers more than a million dollars if at least 300 people are booked into our jail, and we’ll lose much more if we have to move federal prisoners out to accommodate these state arrestees,” El Paso County Commissioner for Precinct 2 David Stout told KTEP.

The county has a contract with the federal government to hold inmates facing federal charges in county jails. The agreement allocates $101 a day for each federal inmate for an estimated $92 million in revenue over four years. The contract expires next year.

“We’ve lost probably $8 million or $9 million already this year because we are having to worry about not utilizing (space),” Judge Samaniego said. “All the smuggler cases, they used to be federal and now they’re state. And, now we treat them as a state, which we don’t get revenue from.”

Republican District Attorney Bill Hicks said he and the Texas Department of Public Safety have a proposal to use separate existing facilities to house migrants during pre-trial periods, reducing the strain on the downtown jail and annex facility in East El Paso.

The proposal needs approval by DPS under Operation Lone Star, Texas’ border security initiative, he said. County departments including the sheriff’s office also have to sign off on the plan.

“It would be like either the TDC (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) facility at Rogelio Sanchez, the West Texas Detention Facility in Hudspeth County, or the Hudspeth County Jail, or some combination of thereof,” Hicks said. “There are other TDC facilities, although we really don’t want to go further than Hudspeth county.”

Hicks said early proposals aim for a facility to have 300 beds. He said similar practices are done in other cities along the Texas border where the state expects arrests to spike if SB4 takes effect.

In those communities, migrants are taken to a separate processing center for booking and moved to a TDCJ facility. A similar process would be used in El Paso, he added.

Recent mass arrests at the border in El Paso have given county officials a “peek” at issues related to Texas’ border enforcement bill known as SB4 County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said

“I don’t want it to be SB4 already in process. When you do that, you’re finding loopholes in things that you can do,” Samaniego said.

The new law gives any peace officer in Texas the authority to arrest migrants suspected of illegally crossing the border. The U.S. Department of Justice, immigrant rights groups and the county are challenging the law’s constitutionality in federal court and it remains on hold until the court decides the issue.

The latest criminal charges are related to a large group that climbed over a temporary chain link fence topped with razor wire on April 12th. At least 300 people, including women and children made their way past the fence in an effort to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents.

The state of Texas charged 142 people with the class B misdemeanor, which is punishable up to 180 days or a fine up to $2,000. At least three men from the Dominican Republic were charged with criminal mischief charges for allegedly removing razor wire on top of the fence with bolt cutters.

About 140 people charged from the group were booked into the county jail, according to a spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

KTEP did not get a response from a request for information or a comment from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

According to the Border Patrol more than 100 migrants from Friday’s group are subject to removal proceedings for unlawfully entering the U.S. Agents took the migrants into custody for processing after they scaled the chain link fence set up by Texas National Guard troops.

It is the second time the state of Texas pursues criminal cases against a large group of migrants after they went over or through temporary fencing at the border.

The state of Texas charged 214 migrants with “riot participation” for knocking down the fencing on March 21.

Seven people in that group face felony charges including Junior Eravisto Benitez, who allegedly hit a National Guard soldier during the incident.

El Paso County’s chief public defender Kelli Childress said 52 migrants from the original group are being held at the county jail. But despite many attempts, she has been unable to reach the people held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE in federal facilities.

“What the state of Texas has in funding for anti-migrant efforts, we will make up for in work ethic and great lawyering,” she said. “Our biggest challenge will be overcoming the misinformation being fed to the public. But we trust in the courts, and we know that in time the real story will be told.”

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