The migrant surge at the Texas-Mexico border has created a crisis that has reached Kerr County, according to Kerr County Sheriff Larry Leitha.
“I said at the beginning that it was just a matter of time,” Leitha said. “And, it’s here.”
Leitha’s comments come on the heels of two major events that occurred in back-to-back weeks that resulted in the arrests of three individuals charged with human smuggling and the detention of 18 suspected illegal immigrants attempting to enter the United States.
On Sept. 25, Leitha said a routine traffic stop turned into a short pursuit and ended with the discovery of nine male illegal immigrants and and one arrest.
“A Kerr County Sheriff’s Office deputy observed a vehicle on Interstate 10 East with expired registration,” Leitha said. “After he attempted to initiate a traffic stop, the vehicle attempted to evade for a short period of time before finally stopping in the area of Mile Marker 504,” Leitha said. “In the rear of the vehicle were discovered nine male illegal immigrants.”
The driver, Joseph Ashton Rendon, 34, of Austin, was arrested on charges of human smuggling and evading arrest by KCSO deputies. Rendon is also facing an additional charge for an outstanding warrant for violation of a protective order issued out of Travis County.
Rendon remains in custody pending bonds totaling $102,500.
The nine individuals being transported were taken into custody by United States Border Patrol agents, Leitha said.
“The border situation is having a continued and increasing effect on Kerr County,” Leitha said shortly after the incident. “In our jurisdiction, we will use all available and legal techniques to intercept those who are profiting off others in this way. We will continue to work with our local, state and federal jurisdictions to prevent the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border from reaching further into Kerr County.”
Exactly one week later on Oct. 6, KCSO deputies arrested two more individuals and located nine Mexican nationals that were concealed inside a vehicle reportedly attempting to make entry into the United States illegally.
“At 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 6, two KCSO patrol division deputies observed a vehicle on Highway 83 in Kerr County that failed to maintain a proper lane,” Leitha said. “Upon effecting a traffic stop, deputies discovered nine male illegal immigrants concealed in the rear of the vehicle.”
Leitha said U.S. Border Patrol agents assisted in making the stop and processing the scene.
“The nine illegal immigrants, all from Mexico, were released into the custody of the Border Patrol,” Leitha said.
The two U.S. citizens believed to be trafficking the immigrants were arrested.
Armando Ortega, 35, and Juan Carlos Correa, 23, both of Rice, Texas, were each charged with nine counts of human smuggling.
“Mr. Ortega stated to law enforcement on scene that his destination was a job site in Kerrville,” Leitha said.
Both Ortega and Correa were booked into the Kerr County Jail and released the next day on bonds each totaling $90,000.
“Once again, the worsening situation on the border is having an effect on Kerr County,” Leitha said. “Our deputies did a great job in recognizing and safely apprehending these suspects. Our office will continue our work with our law enforcement colleagues at every level.”
These two incidents followed a week earlier in September in which Leitha said his deputies were involved in assisting in four separate pursuits of human smuggling suspects that came into Kerr County from other counties and the subsequent manhunt that followed after the suspects bailed out of the vehicle.
While the incidents of the border crisis spilling into Kerr County are increasing, Leitha has been preparing for and updating his deputies on the situation since shortly after taking office in January.
“I meet with other sheriffs regularly and am in constant contact with border patrol intelligence officers,” Leitha said. “We receive regular briefs on the situation and I pass that along to the deputies.”
As sheriff, Leitha said his biggest concern is for the safety of Kerr County citizens and is asking that local residents be vigilant and observant of their surroundings, but not confrontational.
“We want you to call us if you see something concerning,” Leitha said. “We will check out every report. Lock your doors and let us do our jobs. Please, don’t confront anyone yourself.”
Leitha said most immigrants are harmless and are just trying to get to where they plan on going.
“Most of them are just looking for food and water,” Leitha said. “They are not violent in nature, but a confrontation could turn ugly quickly if they feel threatened.”
Leitha also explained what his deputies are legally able to do.
“We can’t just stop anyone for any reason. We have to have probable cause of an offense before we can make contact with any individual,” Leitha said. “We will arrest anyone suspected of human smuggling and release any immigrants we locate to border patrol. This is what we are legally able to do.”
Leitha said he has formed a special unit devoted to identifying suspected human smugglers inside the county.
“This is part of our newly-formed Special Operation Divison,” Leitha said. “I want Kerr County citizens to know we have more manpower on the streets keeping them safe.”
As in all criminal cases, Leitha said charges to the three suspects charged in human smuggling may be added or modified prior to trial and all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
He also urged citizens to call (830) 896-TIPS (8477) or the KCSO at (830) 896-1266 if they believe to have information that human smuggling is taking place.