Presidio County approves Operation Lone Star application for county attorney’s office

PRESIDIO COUNTY — At Monday’s meeting of the Presidio County Commissioners Court, County Attorney Rod Ponton’s request to apply for Operation Lone Star funds was approved unanimously. Ponton is seeking $140,000 to $150,000 to support two new positions in his office: a legal assistant and a paralegal who will carry out investigative tasks. The grant Ponton applied for does not involve matching funds from the county. 

Operation Lone Star is an initiative launched by Governor Greg Abbott in the spring of 2021 to help fund law enforcement operations in border counties. “Texas supports legal immigration but will not be an accomplice to the open border policies that cause, rather than prevent, a humanitarian crisis in our state and endanger the lives of Texans,” his office wrote in a press release. “We will surge the resources and law enforcement personnel needed to confront this crisis.”

Presidio County has been awarded around $1.5 million from the state through Operation Lone Star for fiscal years 2022 and 2023. Ponton clarified that he was applying for the money on his own and wouldn’t be taking away from the pot of money already awarded to the county. “It’s just from that statewide pool,” he explained. “I want some of that money awarded to Presidio County.”

To support the need for additional funding, Ponton told commissioners that District Attorney Ori White currently has 179 pending immigration cases in Presidio and Brewster counties alone. White deals with felony immigration cases, and Ponton handles misdemeanors. “Remember that some felony cases can be reduced to misdemeanors,” Ponton said.

Smaller amounts of drugs like marijuana and meth can be handled as misdemeanor cases; other types of smuggling like the recently-publicized seizures of Mexican bologna at the border can also be prosecuted as such. Misdemeanor charges can impact a person’s immigration status — U.S. Customs has established a system with a baseline of “crimes involving moral turpitude” to determine if a person ought to belong in the United States. 

The “moral turpitude” standard dates back to 19th century immigration law and generally encapsulates instances of fraud and crimes causing bodily harm. Convictions involving “moral turpitude” — especially if an individual has committed multiple — can result in deportation from the United States. 

At Monday’s meeting, County Clerk Florcita Zubia — who handles jury calls and records involving crimes handled within the county — questioned the need for additional funding for Presidio County’s legal system. “This grant is also for clerks to be able to apply for more help, but I don’t feel like there’s enough of these crimes coming in for me to be able to apply,” she explained. 

Precinct 2 Commissioner Brenda Bentley was also concerned about the practicality of adding two more employees to the county attorney’s staff. “I know that your spaces — especially the one in Presidio — are not adequate for two more people,” she said. Ponton explained that the dollar amount he was requesting was specifically for salaries and not for overhead costs like supplies and office space. “Let’s get the grant first and then worry about practicalities,” he said. 

Ponton explained that despite the relatively low number of cases being prosecuted by the county now, that he was expecting more as local law enforcement efforts ramped up as a result of Operation Lone Star funding. “There’ll be more prosecutions in Presidio County,” he said. “The purpose of doing this is to make it clear to the smugglers that there’s no free ride, and so they start avoiding [Presidio County].”