McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Low-income migrants arrested in Texas under Operation Lone Star can receive legal counsel, the state’s highest court says, and that’s welcome news for a nonprofit that represents migrants in court.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday renewed a previous order that grants qualifying migrants the right to a defense lawyer if they are arrested in any of the 58 counties that Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a state of disaster concerning border security.

This is “to protect the constitutionally and statutorily guaranteed right to counsel of indigent criminal defendants,” according to the court’s renewed “Emergency Order Regarding Indigent Defense and the Border Security State of Disaster.”

A group of migrants walks on a levee in Brownsville, Texas, on Oct. 1, 2023, after being apprehended for illegally crossing into the United States. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Migrants must be deemed indigent and brought before magistrates at a designated Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility, the order says.

Under federal immigration law, immigrants charged with a misdemeanor have the right to hire legal counsel, but public defenders are not provided for them.

But the state’s highest court says the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) must “provide for the appointment of counsel to represent defendants arrested and charged with jailable misdemeanors and/or felonies as part of Operation Lone Star in certain counties,” according to an explainer posted by TIDC on its website.

The number of indigent defense counsel needed to represent migrants in Texas could greatly increase if the Texas Legislature passes controversial immigration measures that would allow for the arrest and prosecution of those who cross illegally into the state.

Texas Department of Safety law enforcement guard the banks of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Oct. 24, 2023, during a visit by Texas House Speaker Dad Phelan. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Last week, in its third Special Session, the Texas House passed HB4, which would create a Class B misdemeanor for anyone to enter Texas illegally. The bill has been sent to the Senate.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, and three state representatives visited the South Texas border city of Eagle Pass on Tuesday, prior to the debate of HB4 to view Operation Lone Star law enforcement positioned on the banks of the Rio Grande, which has had an increase in migrant crossings in the past few months.

Under the Texas Supreme Court’s renewed order, migrants must request the appointment of counsel and fill out an affidavit of indigence to qualify. And courts must assign lawyers to migrants who qualify within 24 hours.

Priscilla Orta, supervising attorney for Lawyers for Good Government’s Project Corazon, which provides free legal aid for migrants, says she is glad that the state’s highest court understands the need for migrants in Texas to have legal representation.

“It does help folks. First, it helps them understand what is going on and what the consequences are. Second, it helps those that want to fight, and actually defend their cases. And third, it forces the government to be accountable for their actions,” Orta told Border Report on Monday.

“Most of the folks do know that attorneys are free for those that can’t pay for them — it’s a feature of the American justice system that they’ve seen on TV. In fact, some folks think that we give out attorneys for all cases. They don’t realize it’s only for criminal cases,” Orta said.

Defense lawyers appointed to represent migrants may include any lawyer authorized to practice within Texas, public defender offices, governmental entities, and nonprofits.

A standard fee of $150 per hour will be compensated to private lawyers who represent defendants arrested under Operation Lone Star felony cases, and $120 per hour for misdemeanor cases, according to TIDC.

In the two South Texas counties of Maverick and Zavala, where it’s been increasingly difficult to find representation for migrants, lawyers are being paid $200 per hour for felony cases there, the agency says.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at