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Lubbock Private Defenders Office Plays Key Role in Operation Lonestar

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Rob Avila
/
Texas Tech Public Media
The Lubbock Private Defenders Office.

Chief Defender at the Lubbock Private Defenders Office (LPDO), Philip Wischkaemper, received a call from a Val Verde County prosecutor notifying him of unusual case, back in October. A Ghana man, seeking asylum across the border, had been picked up on criminal trespassing charges and separated from his pregnant fiancé.

“They were fleeing Ghana, because [the man’s] uncle had been killed over there because of his sexuality,'' said Wischkaemper. “And they feared that something might happen to them.”

The man was arrested as part of Governor Abbott’s Operation Lonestar border initiative, in which about 2,200 men have been arrested for alleged trespassing.

Operation Lonestar is a nearly $2 Billion law enforcement-led border security program enacted by Governor Greg Abbott to address the surge in border migration. Abbott deemed the border policies by the Biden Administration ineffective and announced in March the operation was designed to combat the alleged “smuggling of people and drugs into Texas.”

The operation has been under scrutiny for potential constitutional rights violations in the process of arresting and detaining migrants for trespass. The discrepancies have led many charges to be dropped or rejected due to incorrect procedure or other legal errors in cases, including reports of migrants being unknowingly led onto private property by law enforcement before arrest.

Wischkaemper’s team at LPDO has been tasked with assigning attorneys to the criminal cases brought through Operation Lonestar since July, when the state began charging migrants for criminal trespass crossing private properties in counties near the Del Rio Border. Funded by the state, the attorneys provide constitutionally required representation for migrants in these cases.

Wischkaemper said most of LPDO’s clients have been Mexican nationals, Cubans, Venezuelans or Columbians with similar charges of criminal trespass. He testified in a Texas legislative committee for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission in October, that out of 1008 clients facing criminal charges they had at the time, only 14 of them—less than 2 percent—were felony offenses, such as human or drug smuggling, a main driver of Operation Lonestar.

“These are people coming over here trying to make a better life for themselves and send money home to Mexico,” he said. “They can apply [at the border] and wait for weeks, months or years for a work permit or they’re going to come here and find someone to hire them.”

Last week, 100 immigrant and civil rights advocacy groups filed a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice over Abbott’s initiative to arrest migrants on criminal trespass charges, requesting the DOJ launch an investigation into the operation.

The complaint group argued discriminatory practices in part, due to the missteps in the criminal trespass charges, the conditions of migrant confinement, and the separate court system the state created for their cases.

In the case of the man from Ghana, Rocky Ramirez, a local Lubbock defense attorney, was eventually assigned his case. Charges against his client were ultimately dropped. He’s now in Virginia with his brother and wife, awaiting his asylum request.

“I told him, I'm happy that you're here and the Constitution is going to protect you,” said Ramirez. “But I knew in his case, his situation, things were looking good for him—I can't really say that about my other clients down there.”