Lure of easy money fueling border smuggling cases and enticing Houston drivers for transport

April 19, 2024: Smuggling is a large portion of the reason Galveston County continues sending law enforcement resources to the Texas-Mexico border. (Copyright 2024 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

KINNEY COUNTY, Texas – The lure of quick cash helps fuel a steady stream of smuggling cases being filed in rural Texas counties along the southern border.

According to data obtained by KPRC 2 Investigates, smuggling accounts for 28-percent of the crimes attached to arrests made under Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star since March of 2021.

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The Gov.’s Office reports Operation Lone Star has led to 41,500 criminal arrests and the filing of more than 36,900 felony charges.

“When I first took office, we had grand jury once every six months. We’d take in our ten, 12, 14 cases, in and out. Now I have a grand jury once a month, and they’re bringing in 50 to 100 cases at a time,” Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe said.

The number of border related cases filed in Kinney County has grown to the point court is held in the Brackettville Community Center instead of the courthouse.

Coe said the historic number of migrants being arrested and accused of illegally crossing our southern border has fueled a rise in individuals with no prior connection to the border or smuggling coming to the area to make quick cash. Everyone from attorneys to educators, to military reservists have been caught giving rides to migrants who turned out to be in the country illegally.

Coe said those connected to the smuggling trade offer a person anywhere from $500 to $1,500 per person to drive individuals from the border to points north. DPS’s data shows those arrested range in age from 13-77.

KPRC 2 Investigates spoke with one man outside the community center who said he was being arraigned on four counts of smuggling. Tyris Nickels said he moved to Harris County from Atlanta and was offered $500 to drive 3 people from a ranch near Eagle Pass to San Antonio. He insists he had no idea what he did was wrong.

“If I had known what I was doing, I would never have came, I would have stayed at home,” said Nickels.

Nickels, and others KPRC 2 has spoken to, expressed confusion about being charged with smuggling when they didn’t transport anyone across the border. Texas’ penal code reads a person can be charged with smuggling if they’re paid to transport someone to conceal them from law enforcement or “encourages or induces a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

Smuggling is a large portion of the reason Galveston County continues sending law enforcement resources to Kinney County. The work is voluntary and paid for through Operation Lone Star.

“Unless we come down here and help, they’re overwhelmed,” said Galveston County Precinct 4 Constable Justin West. “Us being here is a force multiplier for these counties.”

West said different Galveston County law enforcement agencies rotate sending one to two deputies at a time to the border to ensure no shifts are left uncovered back home. West adds the work is more than making arrests. His deputies report holes cut in the fence and gather intelligence about who is crossing into Texas.

When KPRC 2 followed West and his deputies to several spots along the border, they marked places where fences had been cut and collected discarded immigration documents from foreign countries. One discarded backpack also contained several handwritten notes with the address of a home in Indiana.

West said the information is then given to state and federal officials for further investigation.

“Almost every trip that we’re down here, one of the Galveston County crew, whether it’s the Sheriff’s Office or Constable’s agency, interacts with either a driver from Galveston County or a target in Galveston County where they are dropping off the people they’re smuggling,” said West.

To that point, KPRC 2 was with Sgt. Mitchell Stephenson and Dep. Gabriel Garza from the Sheriff’s Office as they patrolled a known smuggling route in Kinney County. The pair came across a car registered out of Houston and were subsequently led on a slow-speed chase when the driver refused to stop.

The car eventually came to a stop, and two men jumped out and ran off. Stephenson prevented the other men in the car from running away. The two who ran off were caught a short time later by state troopers and Kinney County deputies.

Stephenson said the three passengers are believed to be in the country illegally and were handed over to Border Patrol. Stephenson said the driver is now facing state smuggling charges.

“He explained to me that the vehicle is not his. He doesn’t know where he got the vehicle from, and he is apparently from the Houston area, and he is 19 years of age,” said Stephenson.

Galveston County’s efforts on the border began more than two years ago. In that time, Coe said 25 percent of the arrests and criminal cases made in his county have been the work of Galveston County officials.

Coe did say he believes the effort is having an impact in slowing down the illegal activity in his area. He said Galveston County’s presence, coupled with the state’s efforts in Eagle Pass, have slowed the number smugglers coming through the county. Coe said there were 910 smuggling cases in the county in 2023 and in the first quarter of 2024 there have only been 40 cases.

While Congress remains deadlocked on border security and the wider issue of immigration reform, President Joe Biden is expected to sign an executive order relating to border security by the end of the month.

The number of apprehensions along the southern border has surged during his presidency. According to data from Customs and Border Protection there were a total of nearly 6-million apprehensions along the southern border during fiscal years 2021, 2022 and 2023. So far, this fiscal year, there have been more than 1 million apprehensions reported by CBP.

About the Author

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”

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