BRACKETTVILLE (Texas)–This South Texas border county has seen an increase in illegal border crossings. Sheriff Brad Coe is working with groups of armed private citizens and police to patrol the border and detain migrants who are trespassing.
For months, the Kinney County sheriff was in constant contact with a group consisting of men wearing body armor and rifles who patrolled to search for migrants. A second armed group offered to use a high-tech drone and went along with the sheriff on patrol. It also explored potential partnerships with private security companies.
Texas’ new law permits migrants to be detained for trespassing. This has attracted many groups. Local officials have either offered tacit support or are openly welcoming them. These groups claim they want to stop migrants they find and give them to law enforcement for arrest.
Former Border Patrol agent Mr. Coe said that he’s looking for help in driving migrant traffic to other places.
He stated that “The whole premise is if [migrants] know they’ll be arrested, they’ll go somewhere else.”
These private operations have been resisted by the state authorities, who claim they are concerned about civilians using their arms to enforce the law. The ACLU and nine other groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday. They asked that the department investigate Texas state agencies as well as local governments involved in the attempt to deport immigrants. They expressed concern about the support Kinney County gave private groups, whether tacitly or openly.
It’s not clear how many migrants these private groups have stopped and arrested.
Governor Greg Abbott and county leaders declared the border situation a disaster over the summer. Greg Abbott, a Republican, declared the border situation to be a disaster. This classification is usually used for hurricanes. Republican Mr. Abbott started an experimental state effort in order to enforce federal immigration law. State troopers were used to arrest and imprison migrants on misdemeanor theft charges.
The majority of the approximately 2,000 state trooper arrests made under Operation Lone Star by the program have been in Kinney County. The sheer volume of arrests has overburdened the courts of the small community. There has been only one jury trial in the last seven years. Migrants have been held in jail for several months before they are finally brought to trial. Few convictions have been made by the arrests.
Kinney County is a ranching county with 3,569 inhabitants. It lies midway between Texas’s 1,254 mile border with Mexico. This was once one the most peaceful areas for illegal border crossings. The result was a shift in immigration patterns and an increase in illegal crossings following the Covid-19 pandemic .
Samuel Hall, the leader of Patriots for America Militia in North Texas, stated that his volunteer group conducts patrols on public properties looking for migrants who have crossed illegally. They also administer humanitarian aid when necessary, and call authorities when necessary.
He said that he does not forcibly hold anyone. That would be illegal. He said that he understands that foreigners may not be able to comprehend the situation when they encounter heavily armed people.
Mr. Coe meets with Mr. Hall periodically, Mr. Coe said, but hasn’t worked with him officially. “I don’t know if they’ve caught anything or not,” Mr. Coe said of the group’s efforts to intercept migrants. Mr. Hall said he has worked closely with Mr. Coe and has called his office whenever the group has encountered immigrants.
The sheriff received Patriots for America in October and thought about deputizing some members to his department. He said that the Texas Department of Public Safety opposed the plan. Some officials expressed concern that the state might pull resources from the county if the county partners with private militias.
Travis Considine, a spokesperson for Texas Department of Public Safety said that the agency does not support partnerships with militia-type groups. Considine said that the agency has never threatened to take resources from the county. He said, “We do not want to work with [militias], but we do not control the sheriffs.”
According to Mr. Coe, this year saw a rise in high-speed chases, and reports of migrants entering homes seeking food and water. Ranchers have been disturbed by strangers crossing their land and frustrated by fence damage that allowed livestock to escape. According to Mr. Coe, at least 16 migrants died in the area since April. There have been no reports of violent crimes.
Kinney County is embracing the state’s trespassing law enforcement efforts. This is a conservative area, where the sheriff has placed Donald Trump stickers all over his desk. He also keeps a life-size cutout from Vice President Kamala Harris in the office for mocking during televised news interviews.
Mr. Coe filed trespassing accusations on behalf of property owners. He claimed he was acting as an agent for several ranches. He drives west through ranch land to reach the border and rattles off the number of migrants and smugglers that the Department of Public Safety had made there recently.
The county is seeking additional funding from the private sector to support border efforts. Its home page on its government website states that the county is “drawing an ink line” and links to a website asking for donations to address the border “invasion”. The site has raised almost $21,000.
Patriots for America’s Mr. Hall thanked the county commissioners for their support at a meeting this week.
After the meeting, Tully Shahan (the local elected executive) told Mr. Hall “Don’t come to us and use us for a photo op.” Outside the meeting Mr. Shahan stated that Mr. Hall’s group wasn’t invited in county efforts, and that he supports Texas DPS. He declined further comment.
Mark Frerich, another commissioner, stopped Mr. Hall outside of the meeting to voice a different opinion. He said that he supports the group being there. Frerich stated, “Don’t take this to heart, it’s good that you’re doing well.”
To conduct immigrant patrols, the county has reached out to other private, armed groups. Officials approved in July a letter of intent to employ Garrison Trading Associates operatives. This private security contractor cited work done in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to those involved, the deal was canceled due to a Garrison leadership shift and because the county couldn’t afford it.
Ms. Christie Hutcherson was welcomed by Mr. Coe to Women Fighting for America. This group has been patrolling various border areas and is looking for partners with law enforcement. He said that the sheriff joined forces with Ms. Hutcherson’s organization and her members, who were armed to patrol county at night. A drone was used to locate large numbers of migrants. The group submitted a proposal to formalize their partnership with the county.
Mr. Coe stated that the county could not afford Ms. Hutcherson’s proposal. He described it as an expense higher than the Sheriff Department’s annual operating budget. He instead asked commissioners to grant permission to purchase a similar drone using the county’s online donations.
Southern Poverty Law Center tracks extremist groups and flagged Ms. Hutcherson for spreading conspiracy theories.
Ms. Hutcherson stated that her organization wasn’t a militia. She said that the organization believes in working with law enforcement channels. She said she didn’t see how the SPLC described her and that “I’m no extremist.” I’m a patriot.”
According to a North Texas spokesman, he was on Kinney County’s private ranch looking for migrants. He was charged with participating in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Federal authorities claimed that he was part of the Patriot Boys Militia.
Kate Huddleston is a staff attorney for the ACLU. She said that the ACLU is concerned about the actions of private organisations and the potential partnership of the county with one of them. Ms. Huddleston stated that any group interfering in anyone’s freedom to travel on the basis of suspicions they might be migrants is interference in other people’s rights.
She said that Kinney County did not seek to partner with militias but also with war contractors. “This indicates a level militarization that is especially concerning and alarming in its potential for violence.”
Mr. Hall stated that objections will not dissuade his decision.
He said, “We are here because God called us” and that he would continue to operate.
“Kinney County has not just sought to partner with militias, but also war contractors,” she said. “That indicates a level of militarization that is particularly concerning and alarming in the potential for violence.”
Mr. Hall said objections won’t dissuade him.
“We’re here because God called us and we’re going to keep operating,” he said.