AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas state police officers separated migrant families along the border with Mexico by detaining fathers on trespassing charges and turning over mothers and children to federal officials, the state Department of Public Safety said Thursday.
The separations mark a shift from previous comments by Texas state police leaders who said families should stay together and be referred to federal officers. Hearst Newspapers, which first reported the shift, said the families were separated last month in Eagle Pass, a border town of about 30,000 people west of San Antonio.
Travis Considine, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said in a statement that children have never been separated from their mothers, but “there have been instances in which DPS has arrested male migrants on state charges who were with their family when the alleged crime occurred.”
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office referred questions to Department of Public Safety officials, who did not respond to additional requests for comment, including how many families have been separated, when they began and where the detained men are being taken.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Thursday that reports of separated families were troubling and should be investigated. “Managing our border in a safe and humane way works best when we all work together to respect the dignity of every human being and keep our communities safe,” the department said.
Kristin Etter, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, told Hearst Newspapers that she knew of 26 families who had been separated by Texas officials and called the move “nothing short of state-sponsored family separation.” Texas RioGrande Legal Aid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Texas’ latest move to secure the border without coordinating with the federal government drew widespread criticism from immigration advocates and some comparisons to Trump-era family separations, though they are markedly different. The Trump administration split thousands of children from all parents who were with them, assigned them to shelters, and struggled mightily to reunite them.
Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers attempted to pass immigration laws, including the creation of a state border police force and increases in penalties for trespassing. Those attempts failed but the Republican-controlled Legislature allocated more than $5 billion in border security funding, and gave federal immigration officers power to make arrests under Texas laws.
The new funding followed Abbott’s $4 billion border policing operation, known as Operation Lone Star, which since 2021 has included sending Texas police and military officers to patrol the border, adding razor wire fencing on the border and busing migrants to Democrat-led cities.
More recently, Abbott installed a 1,000-foot (305-meter) line of wrecking ball-sized buoys in the Rio Granded along the Eagle Pass region, which prompted the Justice Department to sue Texas over removing the floating barrier.
On Thursday, two bodies were recovered by Mexican officials along the Rio Grande near the border with Eagle Pass, one of which was found near the floating barrier.
Last month, Abbott’s border security operations drew criticism from the White House, state lawmakers and immigration advocates following an account by a state trooper of migrants injured by razor wire and denied water by state officers.