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Texas prison officials stall release of migrants despite judge's order

Attorneys chased a prison bus and threatened a lawsuit to find men arrested in Gov. Greg Abbott's Operation Lone Star.
The entrance to to the Dolphe Briscoe Unit in Dilley, Texas.
The entrance to the Dolph Briscoe Unit in Dilley, Texas.Google maps

Attorneys had to threaten Texas state officials with legal action and chase prison buses to find two men who were imprisoned in Gov. Greg Abbott’s border immigration operation, but who were ordered released when trespassing charges against them were dropped this week.

The men, Ivan Ruano Nava and David Vega Muñoz, should have been released from the Dolph Briscoe Unit state prison in Dilley by Thursday afternoon when a federal immigration detainer, good for 48 hours, expired at 1:47 p.m., attorneys said. 

“They should have been released immediately,” said Alicia Torres, an advocate with Grassroots Leadership, which opposes mass incarceration and had been contacted by families of the men and other migrants.

But the men were not released when Torres went to retrieve them Thursday or immediately after attorneys sent the state prison warden a letter demanding their freedom and threatening to sue the state if they held the men longer.

“It has been wild, wild, wild,’ said Kevin Herrera, an attorney with the group Just Futures Law and an attorney for the men. “We are still not entirely sure where they are.”

By Friday afternoon, an attorney for the men was chasing a bus to Val Verde County, about three hours from the prison. By the time she reached the county, she learned they had been turned over to Customs and Border Protection.

CBP at the DHS headquarters declined to comment.

Nava and Muñoz were arrested in Kinney County on a highway in July after crossing the border without legal documents. They presented themselves to a state trooper and asked for asylum, attorneys said in court documents.

They were charged with a state misdemeanor of criminal trespassing, a charge the governor is using to arrest migrants through what he’s dubbed Operation Lone Star.

The governor’s operation has been blasted by immigration advocates and attorneys, who say it is unconstitutional for denying people due process, violates state laws, creates chaos in local governments and overwhelms local officials.

They have said that the operation is targeting Mexican and Central American men who are being whisked from county jails to state prisons even though space exists in the county jails.  

In state prisons, the migrants have less access to attorneys and advocacy groups, attorneys have said. Many migrants have sat in the prisons for weeks with no charges filed against them.

The governor, considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, launched the operation in March. State officials said they have turned over tens of thousands of migrants to Customs and Border Protection and made thousands of criminal arrests, as well as seized contraband through the operation.

Nava and Muñoz were imprisoned more than 50 days, past the 45 days the state had to charge them. In a hearing Tuesday, a judge dismissed the charges and ordered them released.

Attorneys for them said in the letter emailed to the Briscoe prison’s senior warden, Maria Ramirez, that the men were being unlawfully detained and demanding their immediate release, according to a copy provided to NBC News.

Robert Hurst, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the agency received dismissal orders for the men from the Kinney County Attorney at 9:30 a.m. Friday.

Hurst said the agency does not release people directly from those prisons. Sending them to the Val Verde County processing center is part of the usual process and complies with the judge’s order, he said. 

Attorneys: There should be no exceptions

According to the attorneys’ letter, there are no exceptions to the requirement that a prisoner be released promptly if the 48-hour immigration detainer has expired and ICE has not taken custody of the person.

The judge who ordered the release of Nava and Muñoz also ordered the release of more than 200 other people on personal recognizance bonds. Charges remain pending against them. 

The county is home to Del Rio, where thousands of Haitian migrants seeking asylum had crossed the border and camped under a bridge.

The governor's operation has created confusion about what to do with the migrants who are released.

Many of the criminal trespass arrests have taken place in Kinney County, where Nava and Muñoz were arrested.

The conservative county has been flooded with state troopers and their equipment to chase migrants who have crossed the border, including some who jump off trains passing through onto railroad owned land, the Tribune reported.  

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