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U.S. citizens have been accidentally caught up in the Texas crackdown on migrants

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Under Governor Greg Abbott's controversial border plan, Operation Lone Star, Texas has installed miles of razor wire, bussed tens of thousands of migrants to Democratic-run cities and pursued hundreds of vehicles they suspect are transporting undocumented migrants. Some U.S. citizens have been accidentally caught up in the governor's crackdown. Now there's worry that under a new Texas law, those car stops will only increase. The law, which takes effect in March, allows any Texas law enforcement officer to arrest people suspected of entering the country illegally. Angela Kocherga of member station KTEP has one family's story.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: The Ayalas, like many El Paso families, routinely visit relatives just across the border in Mexico. Gerardo Ayala says one evening in October, after they cleared customs and immigration, they made their usual drive back to their house on the Texas side.

GERARDO AYALA: We were coming home, traveling any normal day with my family. It was four of us in a Chevy Cruze.

KOCHERGA: His wife, their 13-year-old daughter and her grandmother were in the car with him on a busy, well-lit road. Suddenly, two unmarked trucks seem to appear out of nowhere and boxed in his family's compact car.

AYALA: All of a sudden, this vehicle rams us from behind, pushes us into the other vehicle. The other vehicle puts his truck in reverse and actually reverses into us.

KOCHERGA: At first, Ayala says he thought it was a chain-reaction pileup on this busy roadway near the border. The car was damaged but running. Already shaken, it only got worse for the family. He says at least four men wearing street clothes and tactical vests quickly surrounded the car. They were pointing semi-automatic rifles at them. Alejandra Lopez is Ayala's wife.

ALEJANDRA LOPEZ: When they started coming out with their guns, the first thing I did was look back, you know, to my daughter and my mom. I mean, they were the first things that I thought about. I saw her little face scared. I had never seen her face so scared.

KOCHERGA: The Ayalas are U.S. citizens. They say there was no probable cause to pull them over and certainly none to ram their car and threaten them with guns. It's not clear how often these improper stops happen. The Texas Department of Public Safety has a complaint process but does not specifically track those involving Operation Lone Star. Human rights organizations say they will soon begin training Texans about their rights and how to file profiling and other complaints. The Ayalas' 13-year-old daughter, Isabella, says the experience has changed her view of law enforcement.

ISABELLA: It was kind of traumatizing. I don't feel safe anymore 'cause they don't do their job correctly, I'm guessing.

KOCHERGA: The Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS, has special agents in plain clothes and unmarked vehicles working in the area to break up smuggling rings. Gerardo Ayala says a DPS supervisor that night told him the family car was similar to a vehicle they were tracking.

AYALA: They came in charging. I mean, they looked like furious bulls coming at us. As soon as I open that door and I told them this is just me and my family, their faces just changed drastically.

KOCHERGA: The family wants an apology, their car repaired and medical expenses covered that include X-rays at a hospital the night they were hit. Ayala says his 67-year-old mother-in-law has lingering back pain. A Texas DPS spokesperson only said that they're looking into the allegation. A new law is set to take effect in Texas that makes crossing the border illegally a state crime. Now more than 50 immigrant and civil rights organizations are raising concerns. They're worried more U.S. citizens of color living on the border will be profiled and improperly stopped like the Ayalas. Fernando Garcia directs the Border Network for Human Rights. He says the state crackdown is out of control.

FERNANDO GARCIA: They need to launch an investigation on the actual consequences of Operation Lone Star, on migrants dying, of U.S. residents being abused, on waste of money, of our taxpayers' dollars.

KOCHERGA: For their part, the Ayalas are considering hiring a lawyer. Gerardo Ayala says he wants those who targeted his family by mistake held accountable. After his experience, he's deeply worried about the new state law.

AYALA: How is this not going to affect us? It's going to affect every single individual here in the borderland, everyone.

KOCHERGA: Ayala says he needs DPS held responsible for the sake of his family and others in this border city, where more U.S. citizens could find themselves mistakenly caught up in a Texas law enforcement crackdown.

For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Angela Kocherga
Emmy winning multimedia journalist Angela Kocherga is news director with KTEP and Borderzine. She is also multimedia editor with ElPasoMatters.org, an independent news organization.
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