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Texas DPS absolves its leaders of wrongdoing after investigating migrant mistreatment claims

By Uriel J. García, The Texas Tribune

Texas DPS absolves its leaders of wrongdoing after investigating migrant mistreatment claims” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Five months after a Texas Department of Public Safety medic told his superiors that troopers were ordered to push migrants back into the Rio Grande and deny them water, an internal DPS investigation found no systemic wrongdoing by its personnel on the Texas-Mexico border.

According to a two-page report summary, investigators with the DPS Office of Inspector General found “no reasonable cause to believe that the South Texas leadership of the department institutionally engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violated law or department policy.”

The investigation was launched after the DPS medic sent an email to a sergeant on July 3 detailing some of the things he said he witnessed in Eagle Pass while assigned to the border as part of Operation Lone Star, Gov. Greg Abbott’s multi-prong effort to stop migrants from illegally crossing into Texas.

According to the report’s findings, supervisors didn’t order troopers to withhold water from migrants under any circumstances. “Rather, the directive was not to provide water to everyone under every circumstance in an effort not to incentivize migrants to cross the river. Migrants were provided water in occurrences water was needed.”

The report also says investigators found no evidence that supervisors ordered troopers to push migrants into the Rio Grande. The report says that troopers told migrants to go back to Mexico and cross the border at a port of entry.

“The term push in this regard was never intended, nor was it widely interpreted to mean troopers should physically force migrants back toward the river,” the report says.

Investigators said some migrants were injured as they tried to push past the concertina wire, but they didn’t find evidence that the wire was “deliberately placed with the intent to cause migrant injuries,” according to the report.

“An unprecedented and largely unimpeded migrant surge compelled the State of Texas to provide security and assurance to the City of Eagle Pass from being overwhelmed with a mass humanitarian event,” the report summary said. “Most of the concerns that precipitated these administrative investigations occurred to varying degrees but did not equate to violations of established policy or law.”

On Thursday Phillip Ayala, the agency’s inspector general, told the Public Safety Commission in a public meeting that investigators interviewed 51 people, viewed 108 gigabytes of body camera footage and read reports, messages and other documents as part of its investigation. The five-member commission oversees DPS.

“Our work comes under a lot of scrutiny, we welcome that scrutiny because we’re able to defend it with facts, and I’m confident in this regard, that has been accomplished,” Ayala told the panel.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said in a statement that DPS can’t be trusted and cast doubt on investigators’ findings.

“Individual DPS troopers risked their careers to blow the whistle about the abuses that are part of Operation Lone Star, and their accounts align with what asylum-seekers have also said,” Castro said. “Operation Lone Star is a political stunt, and DPS leaders have become little more than spokespeople for Governor Abbott. They’ve lost all credibility, and there is no reason to trust that they can honestly investigate themselves.”

The trooper said in the email that he was out on patrol around 10 p.m. on June 25 when he and other troopers came across a group of about 120 people, including small children and nursing babies, who were “exhausted, hungry and tired” along a fence line on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.

“We called the shift officer in command, and we were given orders to push the people back into the water to go to Mexico,” said the email, which was later leaked to journalists. “We decided that this was not the correct thing to do. With the very real potential of exhausted people drowning. We made contact with command again and expressed our concerns and we were given the order to tell them to go to Mexico.”

The trooper wrote in the email that five days later, a 4-year-old girl who attempted to cross the razor wire “was pressed back by Texas Guard soldiers due to the orders given to them.” The temperature “was well over 100 degrees” and the girl passed out, the email said, adding that she received medical treatment.

In the investigative report summary, investigators said troopers never denied medical care to migrants who needed it.

That same day, a man rescued his child who got stuck on a barrel in the water covered with razor wire, according to the trooper’s email. During the rescue, the man got a “significant” cut on his left leg, the trooper wrote. A 15-year-old boy also broke his leg while trying to walk around the razor wire in the river and his father had to carry him across to the U.S. side, the trooper wrote.

Later that night, troopers found a 19-year-old woman stuck in the razor wire having a miscarriage, the trooper’s email said.

The trooper’s email called the razor wire an “inhumane trap” that should be removed because it “forces people to cross in other areas that are deeper and not as safe for people carrying kids and bags.

“I believe we have stepped over a line into the inhumane. We need to operate it correctly in the eyes of God,” the trooper wrote in the email. “We need to recognize that these are people who are made in the image of God and need to be treated as such.”

Ayala disputed the medic’s account of two of those incidents during Thursday’s meeting.

He said the 19-year-old woman was not having a miscarriage, but instead was having abdominal pain when she was found stuck in the concertina wire, Ayala said. A sonogram taken later at a clinic showed the woman had a healthy 12-week-old fetus, Ayala said.

And the 15-year-old boy with a broken leg suffered his injury nearly two months earlier in Colombia, Ayala said.

“The report in the email had some information that wasn’t complete,” Ayala said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/07/texas-department-public-safety-border-migrants-investigation/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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