The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that appeals filed by illegal immigrants arrested at the southern border cannot be heard in counties removed from the border.
The ruling favors an ongoing, multistate effort by Texas officials to stem the flow of illegal immigration at the United States-Mexico border. As of September, the Department of Homeland Security had recorded over 2 million encounters with illegal immigrants.
Since Governor Greg Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in July of 2021, more than 5,600 men have been arrested on trespassing charges in Kinney County. The volume of arrests made the judicial system slow and left some of the arrested men waiting several weeks before they could appear before a judge.
In January, a judge in Travis County – which includes the state’s capital Austin – agreed to hear a case filed on behalf of Jesús Alberto Guzmán Curipoma, an oil engineer from Ecuador who was arrested on Sept. 16, 2021. His attorney argued his arrest was unconstitutional because Texas officials were annexing authority to enforce border law that belonged to the federal government.
Travis County District Judge Jan Soifer ruled in Curipoma’s favor, stating his arrest “violates the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and represents an impermissible attempt to intrude on federal immigration policy.”
Soifer’s ruling prompted Texas RioGrande Legal Aid to file similar complaints in Travis County on behalf of 450 other illegal immigrants with the aim of having their arrest dismissed on the same grounds.
Kristin Etter, the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney representing the immigrants, said none of these cases involve men who were arrested in connection to Operation Lone Star, per The Texas Tribune.
The legal aid organization opposes Abbott’s border security initiative, which it says “is spending billions of dollars installing fencing and deploying state police to arrest refugees from all over the world into Texas — seeking a better life.”
While the organization receives taxpayer funding to act as the migrants’ public defender, the TRLA also solicits donations to cover the costs of legal expenses.
Travis County is about 200 miles from where the arrests were made.
Kinney County officials asked the Appeals Court to intercede and prohibit Travis County from ruling on the remaining appeals, arguing the illegal immigrants and their representation were “forum shopping” in hopes of finding a more sympathetic judge to hear their cases.
The justices of the Court of Criminal Appeals handed down a unanimous ruling on Dec. 7 in favor of Kinney County.
“Because a district court in Travis County is not a local court for these misdemeanor cases arising out of Kinney County, the District Court is required to refrain from resolving the merits in these habeas cases,” the ruling states.
“Absent these kinds of unusual circumstances or specific statutory authority, a trial court should never consider the merits of a habeas application for an offense arising outside its geographic boundaries, even assuming it had jurisdiction to do so,” the ruling continues. “We conclude the district court in Travis County is required to refrain from resolving the merits of habeas applications for misdemeanor cases arising in Kinney County.”
Curipoma was present when oral arguments were presented during the appeals process. He currently lives in Midland and is working on his dissertation. His federal asylum hearing has not yet happened.