In the aftermath of enhanced smuggling charges, Brewster County seeks to expand jail 

ALPINE — In the months after a package of enhanced human smuggling laws were handed down from Governor Greg Abbott’s office, Brewster County officials have struggled to keep the county jail under capacity. The jail currently holds 55 people, but Sheriff Ronny Dodson would like to see that number doubled. The county recently applied for $5.9 million in funding through the governor’s Operation Lone Star initiative, which funnels money into border counties to beef up law enforcement, in hopes of doubling the size of the facility and making other improvements. 

In the past year, Gov. Abbott’s office has made a number of changes to state immigration law under Operation Lone Star, the umbrella term for a set of policies to address what Abbott has deemed “a crisis at the southern border.” Border counties across the state have received funding for law enforcement — Dodson’s department has already netted just under $1 million — but Operation Lone Star also involves a massive deployment of military force to the border and changes to state law that make it easier to arrest people on smuggling charges and hands down enhanced penalties for the crime.

Prior to the new laws, people suspected of smuggling could only be charged by the state if law enforcement was able to prove that they had received money for their services. That proof is no longer needed to charge someone with human smuggling. Abbott’s laws also upgrade all smuggling charges to felonies, with extra penalties for trespassing on private land. 

Prior to September 1, 2021, those caught transporting migrants in their vehicle would more often than not be let go. Now, they can be charged with felony human smuggling. What the exact punishment should be for transporting migrants has long been subject to debate and controversy in the Big Bend, as smuggling laws can occasionally rope in Good Samaritans trying to help strangers in need. In a press release, Abbott’s office specified that the law is intended to target “Mexican cartels and other smugglers,” not everyday residents of border counties.

Brewster County has struggled for years with large groups of migrants guided by coyotes, one of a few border terms for smugglers — now, per the new law, those smugglers are getting detained and hit with state felony charges. Dodson says these groups are often apprehended in the county’s remote southern reaches. “We’re getting hammered,” he said. “Between September and today’s date, we have filed more felonies than we did all of last year.”

In the past seven months, Dodson has had to coordinate moving pieces between state and federal agencies to accommodate the surge in accused smugglers. Border Patrol agents are not peace officers, meaning they do not handle arrests and the filing of charges, so suspected smugglers apprehended by CBP are turned over to the sheriff’s office for processing. Officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) can arrest suspected smugglers on the new state felony charges; Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is often the agency involved on the federal level. 

American citizens charged with human smuggling can be released on bond, but non-citizens need to wait out their indictment and trial in jail, taking up limited space for longer periods of time. To make matters worse, the state court system is so backed up that it could take years before accused smugglers see a jury. “We’ve been told by the [District Attorney]’s office we’re so far behind that we may not see these guys go to trial for two or three years,” Dodson explained. (The office of 83rd District Attorney Ori White did not return a request for comment.)

The explosion in smuggling charges isn’t just tied to the new penalties. General migrant apprehensions have increased substantially over the past two years — between fiscal years 2020 and 2021, numbers tripled. Both Dodson and Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez pointed fingers at immigration policy changes between the Trump and Biden administrations as a possible driver of activity along the border.

Customs and Border Protection doesn’t publicly track data about human smugglers as a specific category, and hard numbers are scant. An investigation by the Texas Tribune cast doubt on numbers reported by the State of Texas used to illustrate that Operation Lone Star was combating crime: in many cases, officials used multiple charges against the same person to inflate statistics and culled arrest data far beyond the border for the same reason. 

Anecdotally, law enforcement officials like Dodson have noticed that groups of migrants apprehended along the border are larger than they were in the past, and that the demographics skew younger and male. “The cameras and sensors that we got out there are doing all kinds of good catching these people,” Dodson said. “But you got to remember, we’re missing some of them. How many do we miss?” 

Jails and prisons are reliable revenue streams for public and private entities across Texas, and Brewster County is no exception. Before the new laws, Dodson estimates the county was on track to make around $900,000 from housing federal prisoners for fiscal year 2021, but now the jail is at capacity with people arrested on state felony charges. State prisoners are held at the county’s — in other words, the taxpayer’s — expense. “It looks like this year, we’ll lose about $600,000,” Dodson said. 

Most of Dodson’s overflow ends up in the prison in Sierra Blanca. “We ended up making a deal with Sierra Blanca, so all the DPS arrests through Operation Lonestar — not your local DWIs and stuff — have to go to Sierra Blanca.”

In a February interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Dodson stated that, in the event that the jail space were doubled, the county would avoid putting that cost on local taxpayers. “We’d look for bonds and stuff, so that we wouldn’t have to ever burden the taxpayer on it,” he said.

Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton pushed back against the idea that local taxpayers would be directly footing the bill for the increase in state prisoners. “The governor’s office has set aside money for border counties for these kinds of situations,” he said. 

Operation Lone Star funding is finite, though, and Abbott is up for reelection at the end of this year. A statement from Nan Tolson, spokesperson for Gov. Abbott’s office, indicated the fate of the jail project was up in the air: “The priority of awards issued in December were for agencies that had not already received an award. Due to the changing operational landscape of Operation Lone Star, the jail construction project is still under review and may be considered for future funding.” Dodson himself said he was not optimistic that the funding would come through.

Next door in Presidio County, the situation doesn’t seem to be as dire. “We haven’t seen as many state charges for smuggling in Presidio County as they have in Brewster County,” Ponton explained. “I guess it’s mainly geography. I think the smugglers are bringing over a lot of groups to hike into the U.S. through Brewster County and not in Presidio County because of the presence of Border Patrol along the river and in the city of Presidio.”

The border along the river in the southern reaches of Presidio County is fairly populated, whereas much of Brewster County’s riverfront is located in the extremely remote reaches of Big Bend National Park. Last fall, Customs and Border Protection apprehended a group of 70 Venezuelans on the eastern fringe of the park; the number of large groups discovered on smuggling routes through the desert in the interior of the park appears to be growing. 

“We’re all good here,” said Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez.