BRACING FOR THE SURGE
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SOUTH TEXAS AGENCIES HANDLE ORGANIZED CRIME FROM BORDER AFTER TITLE 42
Growing immigrant pressure on the nation’s border may reach its apogee this week as enforcement of the federal government’s Title 42 comes to an end, and thousands of asylum seekers have amassed in readiness to enter the United States.
Title 42 was created during World War II as a legal means by which the United States could reject immigrants based on a threat of spreading disease; the coronavirus pandemic between 2019 and 2022 prompted renewed activation of the measure as one of several tools federal and state law enforcement agents could use either to deny entry to the country or deport immigrants at short notice.
Reports of a surge of asylum seekers crowding the US-Mexico border have been confirmed by aerial video surveillance and national news media over the past week, and while many of those seeking admission to the United States are registering at ports of entry, some are finding illegal means to cross the border.
While the federal government insists that the end of Title 42 enforcement on Thursday, May 11, does not mean the border has been opened to all immigrants, law enforcement agents in border regions believe misinformation has been spread across Mexico and Central and South American countries, with the result that those seeking entry believing they will be admitted.
US President Joe Biden announced deployment last week of 1,500 active-duty armed forces personnel to the border to help control the flow of immigrants into the country, although troops will not be deployed in a law enforcement capacity.
The federal government continues offering its Operation Stonegarden program to border-area agencies to support the overtime pay of officers taking on additional patrols specific to border security. At the state level, Texas Governor Greg Abbott continues his Operation Lone Star, which combines funding with the redeployment of hundreds of law enforcement agents to the border counties.
Of concern to local law enforcement agencies are the criminal smuggling operations that stand to benefit from transporting undocumented immigrants through South Texas.
In Frio and La Salle counties, local law enforcement agencies have begun preparing for a possible surge of illegal immigrants into South Texas, notably those who circumvent the legitimate border crossing points and ports of entry and who are smuggled by criminal organizations that include drug cartels.
The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office confirmed this week that all of its deputies, senior officers and investigators are registered for additional patrols supported by both operations Stonegarden and Lone Star, and that administrators work in close cooperation with the US Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and federal Homeland Security Investigations in coordinating interception of immigrant smuggling and related crime.
“There is no question that criminal organizations such as the Mexican drug cartels are heavily involved in human smuggling,” La Salle Sheriff’s Lieutenant Homar Olivarez said on Tuesday. “Their involvement runs deep, and we support federal investigation of trans-national crime from the ground up.”
La Salle Sheriff Anthony Zertuche was given the green light in April to purchase a surveillance drone and to have a number of his officers trained in its use. The drone will become part of his agency’s arsenal of tools in helping intercept criminal enterprises in human smuggling, specifically in the pursuit and tracking of those who transport undocumented immigrants or who evade capture when intercepted by patrol officers.
The sheriff reiterates, however, that his agency’s principal concern is the safety of La Salle County residents.
“We cannot solve the border crisis, and that’s neither our mission nor our goal,” the lieutenant said on behalf of the sheriff. “We are charged with the protection of the people of our county, and that means preventing the criminal element from putting the people of La Salle County in danger.”
The La Salle County government will host a public meeting in the AB Alexander Convention Center on the IH-35 access road in Cotulla from 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday, May 25, for area landowners to discuss the Operation Lone Star criminal trespass initiative related to the border crisis. Landowners and business representatives met with government and law enforcement representatives in a similar setting more than two years ago to voice concerns and gain feedback on policies and preventive measures related to a growing number of incidents in which smugglers have broken through ranch fences, damaged property, or led officers in pursuits onto private property.
Attempts by law enforcement to halt smugglers have resulted in daily pursuits through La Salle and Frio counties, and although agencies based in Encinal, Cotulla, Dilley and Pearsall have striven to prevent those pursuits from reaching downtown areas or residential neighborhoods, some have left the interstate and either passed through or ended in towns.
The crisis of criminal human smuggling and persistence among drivers to evade capture have been highlighted in the past two years by fatal crashes and high-speed pursuits close to homes and schools.
The pursuit of a tanker truck ended in a crash on Tilden Street in Cotulla after a Dilley man steered the 18-wheel freighter at speed along residential streets despite having lost several of his tires. After the truck crashed into a utility pole, officers found that its tanker trailer contained more than 60 undocumented immigrants.
Pursuit of a heavy-duty dump truck in Encinal last year resulted in the discovery of more than 80 immigrants in its cargo box.
The crash of a stolen van beside IH-35 north of Cotulla last year resulted in the death of an undocumented immigrant when the driver leapt from the vehicle while being pursued by local deputies and Highway Patrol officers and while the vehicle’s transmission was still engaged. A passenger was crushed by the vehicle when it crested an earthen berm and tipped over beside the Union Pacific Railroad line.
Fugitive pursuits through Cotulla during March and April reached speeds of 100 miles per hour on Main Street. A recent incident saw officers repeatedly trying to block a smuggler from endangering pedestrians, although the driver twice approached the elementary school at a time when students were walking home; deputies’ dash-cam footage showed the vehicle bouncing over intersections with sufficient violence to launch passengers out of the bed of the stolen pickup truck.
“What we are having to address is the serious risk to the safety of our residents when organized criminal activity such as human smuggling encroaches upon the lives of ordinary South Texans,” Lt. Olivarez said. “With the pressure of immigrants on the border, there is an increased likelihood that criminal enterprises will capitalize on the numbers of those desperate to enter the United States by any means. The threat to peoples’ safety is not necessarily from the immigrants themselves, but from the organizations looking to profit from their smuggling.”
Frio County deputies were engaged in three pursuits in and around Pearsall during a 12-hour period last week, and in one of the incidents undocumented immigrants were seen to flee from a vehicle, dispersing in residential neighborhoods and near the junior high school on Cedar Street. Seven were ultimately captured. In another incident, as many as 20 undocumented immigrants fled into the brush after the truck in which they were being smuggled had been pursued for five miles.
The pursuit of a smuggler’s pickup truck in Moore last year ended when the driver steered off the interstate and caused the truck to roll over, killing two passengers and seriously injuring a small child. Several others were ejected from the truck during the roll-over.
The Frio County Sheriff’s Office has a policy of not engaging in high-speed pursuits inside city limits; deputies involved in last week’s incidents turned off their emergency lights and reduced their speed during the operations that led them along residential streets and near schools.
“The criminal organizations profit from the border crisis,” Frio County Sheriff Mike Morse said in an interview last week. “The Frio County Sheriff’s Office stands united with our law enforcement partners in order to deter this unlawful activity that affects all our citizens on some level.”