First guilty verdict secured in Operation Lone Star in Texas border county

(The Center Square) – The first guilty verdict was rendered against an illegal immigrant apprehended and prosecuted as a result of a new law passed by the state legislature, a new border security initiative created by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and in the border county that issued the first disaster declaration more than one year ago.

Events have come full circle for Kinney County, which issued a disaster declaration April 21, 2021, in response to increased crime stemming from illegal immigration. This week, it was the first county in which a jury issued a guilty verdict against an illegal immigrant for criminal trespass. It took jurors 20 minutes to deliberate before delivering the verdict.

The defendant, Honduran national Lester Hidalgo Aguilar, was found guilty of criminal trespass after being arrested on a local ranch on Sept. 13, 2021. He was sentenced to the maximum jail time of one year and ordered to pay court costs. After having been in jail for eight months, he’s already served most of his sentence.

Under Operation Lone Star, state and local law enforcement officers have been arresting illegal immigrants for criminal trespass, a state crime, after the state legislature passed a series of laws during the last legislative session to strengthen Texas’ border security efforts. Under the law, a criminal trespass charge can be enhanced to a Class B misdemeanor if the perpetrator is beyond 100 feet inside the property line of an agricultural operation. It’s elevated to a Class A if the crime occurs during a declared state disaster. Aguilar was charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

Unlike Aguilar, most defendants have either pleaded guilty or no contest to trespass or other misdemeanor charges; they’ve also reached plea deals.

Over the last year, Operation Lone Star has come under scrutiny, and Kinney County has been sued by attorneys representing illegal immigrants. The county and state remain undeterred, however. The majority of the Operation Lone Star arrests have occurred in Kinney County so far.

The county shares 16 miles of border with Mexico and is one of the most heavily traversed by illegal immigrants who evade capture of law enforcement or don’t surrender to Border Patrol agents, known as “gotaways.” According to preliminary data obtained by The Center Square, in the Del Rio Sector, which includes Kinney County, there were an estimated known and documented 16,000 gotaways last month alone. That’s in addition to 42,564 people who were apprehended by Border Patrol agents. Under the Biden administration’s catch and release program, and noncompliance with court orders to reinstate the Remain in Mexico Policy, the majority of those being apprehended are being released into the U.S.

Gotaways are able to make their way north into the U.S. by coordinating with human smugglers and cartel operatives. They cross private land, follow power lines or railroad tracks, and use GPS coordinates on cell phones to reach specific locations, where they arrange to meet drivers who illegally transport them north. Those who get caught, face human smuggling charges, with enhanced penalties also passed by the state legislature. The charges add up if those caught have illicit drugs in their possession.

Kinney County Attorney Brent Smith, who served as the second chair for the prosecution, told The Center Square that Aguilar was convicted by a jury comprised solely of Hispanic jurors.

“Questioning during trial revealed an extensive criminal history in both California and Florida,” he said. “Mr. Aguilar spoke perfect English and allegedly earned his high school diploma while growing up in Florida,” he added, after his parents had illegally brought him there when he was 6 years old.

Aguilar testified to having a criminal history, including a 1996 shoplifting charge in Omaha, Nebraska, participating in a home invasion in Florida in 1999, and buying cocaine in California in 2002. After he was jailed in California for the drug charge, he was extradited to Florida for the home invasion charge. Later on, instead of being deported, he voluntarily returned to Honduras and then later moved to Mexico. He later entered the U.S. illegally in Texas, and was arrested.

“I believe the residents of Kinney County have made their position clear. We will uphold the rule [of law] and seek justice from those who violate it,” Smith told The Center Square.

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