Gov. Greg Abbott’s border enforcement effort violates the U.S. Constitution, a Travis County state district judge on Thursday ruled, threatening Operation Lone Star’s future and opening the gates to a flood of court challenges.
Travis County state District Judge Jan Soifer’s ruling came in a legal challenge to the detention of a man from Ecuador who is seeking asylum. His lawyers say he is among thousands of migrants arrested as part of Abbott’s effort to combat illegal border crossings.
Soifer’s ruling “sets a clear pathway for everybody arrested under Operation Lone Star to challenge their arrests,” said Kristin Etter, a special project director at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represents about 800 defendants arrested as part of the operation. Etter also testified during the hearing.
“We are in the process of evaluating strategies moving forward, and that is one of them,” she said.
The man at the center of Thursday’s hearing — Jesus Alberto Guzman Curipoma, an engineer with no criminal history — was arrested Sept. 17 at a railroad switching yard on a misdemeanor criminal trespassing charge in Kinney County, along the Texas-Mexico border about 200 miles south of Austin. He has since been released on bond and remains in Texas.
Guzman Curipoma’s attorney contended that Abbott’s operation violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which stipulates that federal laws supersede state laws and that states cannot “obstruct or discriminate” with enforcement of immigration federal laws.
The hearing was the latest in a series of challenges filed in Travis County over Operation Lone Star misdemeanor charges, though it was the first to have a hearing in the Austin area.
Criminal defense attorneys previously filed petitions in Travis County challenging the detention of their clients at the border, but after Soifer set hearings, authorities released the defendants from jail. Building on that success in Travis County, the attorneys then challenged the constitutionality of Abbott’s Operation Lone Star.
As a result, the Travis County district attorney’s office represented the state in the case and sided with defense attorneys at Thursday’s hearing. A lawyer for Kinney County also appeared at the hearing, disagreeing that Travis County had any authority in the matter.
Soifer’s solution was to allow both Travis and Kinney counties to participate in the hearing, though she said she was skeptical that Kinney County had the authority to weigh in.
Austin private attorney David Schulman was contracted to be an acting county attorney for Kinney County on several recent cases in Travis County. During Thursday’s hearing, Schulman said he received a text from the Texas attorney general’s office saying they wanted the hearing to be halted, but he said he couldn’t verify its authenticity.
Schulman contended that no evidence exists that Guzman Curipoma’s charge was connected to Operation Lone Star, even though Guzman Curipoma was arrested by Texas Department of Public Safety troopers. Schulman also argued that the attorney general’s office should be involved in this case because Operational Lone Star was the topic of the hearing.
Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
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Abbott unveiled Operation Lone Star in March, saying he was deploying thousands of DPS officers and Texas National Guard troops to the southern border amid a sharp increase in migrants crossing from Mexico illegally or to seek asylum.
“We will surge the resources and law enforcement personnel needed to confront this crisis,” Abbott said at the time, blaming the Biden administration for policies that invited illegal immigration and roiled the border in a growing humanitarian crisis.
A central focus of Operation Lone Star was the arrest and detention of border crossers, and Abbott’s office last year committed almost $75 million to the effort, including $22.3 million allocated in December toward efforts to prosecute state crimes committed along the border.
Abbott called Operation Lone Star a state investment in security that the federal government refused to make, but opponents — including Democrats and immigration advocates — criticized the effort for militarizing the border and interfering with immigration enforcement, a federal responsibility.
Defense attorneys spent the majority of Thursday’s hearing building a case through testimony that those charged through Operation Lone Star are not afforded the rights they should be under the U.S. Constitution.
Defense attorney appointments are “delayed and very slow because there are not enough attorneys to take those cases,” testified Kathryn Dyer, a University of Texas law professor who has represented people charged under Operation Lone Star.
Dyer spoke of Kinney County judges and justices of the peace pressuring defendants to waive their right to an attorney via documents that were only in English, as well as defendants sitting in jail while their hearings went unscheduled.
She was unable to reach prosecutors by phone or email to communicate about her clients’ cases and engage in negotiation, she said. Dyer finally was able to move the cases forward once she drove to the border.
“It was nothing like anything I have experienced as a criminal defense lawyer,” she said.
Many of the defendants remain behind bars.
Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell contributed to this article.