Teresa Todd pulled over one recent night on a dark West Texas highway to support three teenage Central American migrants who had flagged her down.
Ms Todd-an public official, policy prosecutor and single mother in a desert border area outside Big Bend National Park-said she was heading into ” total mum mode” as she noticed the three boys, all of whom seemed to be very sick.
Ms Todd, struggling to communicate using her broken Spanish, told the three youths to get out of the cold and into their car.
“They asked me to step behind my car, and the supervisor came and started Mirandising me,” said Ms Todd, referring to being read her Miranda rights.
“And then he says that I could be found guilty of transporting illegal aliens, and I’m, like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Last evening, Ms Todd had spent 45 minutes in a detention cell.
To access her devices, federal investigators received a search warrant, and she became the target of an inquiry that might lead to federal criminal charges.
As the Trump administration works on several fronts to close down unauthorized border crossings, it has also stepped up draconian legislation against private civilians that offer humanitarian assistance to refugees — “good Samaritan” relief that is mostly intended to save life along a frontier that stretches across hundreds of miles of rugged land that can be shockingly unforgiving.
Earlier this year, federal agents searched a volunteer ‘s home in the Texas border town of Brownsville that offers food , shelter and other assistance to migrants.
In Arizona, after leaving water and prepared food for travelers traveling through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, four volunteers for No Further Fatalities, a non-profit located in Tucson, were accused on minor felony charges.
Five other volunteers were also charged, including one felony case now pending in Tucson’s US District Court.
“I honestly don’t feel like I ever did anything wrong: I stopped to help some kids” said Ms Todd, 53, who serves as Marfa, Texas city manager and Jeff Davis County county attorney, an elected post.
“It’s been pretty transformative for me, to be perfectly honest. To have devoted my life to public service, and then to be Mirandised, detained and investigated as if I’m a human smuggler. The whole thing was really, really, very surreal. It was like a ‘Twilight Zone’.”
In some cases, federal agents at the border work closely with non-profit shelters and volunteers to coordinate housing and transport logistics for migrants in border towns recently released from Border Patrol custody.
But often, volunteers who help border crossers illegally before they are in custody are treated differently.
For Ms Todd, it started on 27 February at around 10 pm, just outside Marfa’s funky desert city.
That night, Ms Todd was busy: she had attended a planning and zoning meeting at Marfa City Hall, had a late dinner at the Saint George Hotel and was driving home to nearby Fort Davis.
Suddenly a young man in a white shirt ran from a ditch and began to wave at her.
“I have two teenage boys,” Todd said. “I have a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old, and he looks about the same size as my 15-year-old son, and so I literally think, ‘oh my God, it’s like this kid on the side of the road.’ I turn around and go back, because I can’t leave a kid on the side of the road.”
She learned he was a little older than a teenager, as he and his siblings began telling her what had happened.
Originally from El Salvador-Carlos, 22, his uncle, Francisco, 20, and Esmeralda, 18, their niece.
They had fled their homeland years ago and were living in Guatemala with an aunt.
Worsening gang violence forced them to leave — two of Carlos’ friends were murdered, and according to court documents, a gang leader wanted Esmeralda to be his girlfriend.
The three left for the US and reached the U.S.-Mexico border with a party of refugees and traffickers in a small patch of desert. Yet Esmeralda got sick and still had difficulty keeping up.
The majority of the party went on, but her brothers stood beside her.
The three of them got confused as they headed north, running short of food and water, according to comments they sent to the office of the federal public defender. The health of Esmeralda had worsened by the time they marked Todd down.
“I can tell she needs immediate medical attention,” Ms Todd recalled. “She’s having a really hard time walking.”
She had the siblings get in her car and started to contact friends-one who works for a refugee services non-profit and another who is a lawyer for the Border Patrol.
Moments later a neighboring Presidio County sheriff’s deputy pulled up behind her, lights flashing.
The deputy and Ms. Todd know each other, but he was immediately suspicious, she said, asking if she thought the backpacks of migrants smelled like dope. The deputy has alerted Border Patrol, whose agents are reading her rights to Ms Todd.
Ms Todd was placed in a holding cell at a nearby Border Patrol station, who routinely puts misdemeanor lawbreakers behind bars as county attorney. Her purse was confiscated, as were other personal items.
Days later, back to work at Marfa City Hall, an official of federal National Security Inquiries and a Texas Ranger visited her desk.
The federal agent gave her a search warrant for her phone, and she gave it over. One of the friends she had written that night told Ms Todd that she had been interrogated by agents and examined her phone too.
Ms Todd has not been charged with a crime and the three refugees from El Salvador have been kept as potential witnesses for some time , indicating that federal authorities have been contemplating including them in a court case against her.
They are now in El Paso’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, and may face deportation.
Ms Todd was not charged with a crime but the three migrants from El Salvador had been kept as potential witnesses for some time , indicating that federal authorities were possibly using them in a criminal case against her.
They are now in El Paso’s immigration and customs enforcement facility, and may face deportation.
“All three remain in ICE custody pending disposition of their immigration cases,” an ICE spokesperson said in a statement.
A Border Patrol spokesman confirmed the accident remained “an active case” but refused to elaborate more, as did the US attorney’s office.
Ms Todd and her friends and coworkers in Jeff Davis County have also been frustrated and perplexed by the story.
William Kitts, the Jeff Davis sheriff and Ms Todd’s county government counterpart, said several people have helped refugees, supplying them with water or bringing them to his office for a lift. No one was arrested, so then Mr Kitts claimed Ms Todd would not be charged.
The sheriff said that he thinks Esmeralda might have died if Ms Todd didn’t try to rescue her.
Border Patrol officers rushed her to the Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, Texas, according to court documents, where she was hospitalized for four days for malnutrition, diarrhea, contaminated wounds from cactus spines where rhabdomyolysis, a critical disease that may contribute to kidney failure.
“Harbouring is a big jump for them to make in my book,” Mr Kitts said of the threatened criminal charges against Ms Todd. “There’s a human component to this. We’ll let Congress and the politicians fight it out, but if somebody’s hungry or thirsty or needs some help, we’re going to help them.”
Kenneth Magidson, who worked as the chief federal prosecutor in Houston and the South Texas border area from 2011 to 2017, said that since Donald Trump assumed power, the government has started to pursue “a tougher approach” to investigating these crimes.
“Providing drinks of water or someone needs immediate medical assistance and you take them to a hospital – you’re stretching it,” he said.
“You have to look at the entire context of the case. Was it at the person’s house? Were they spending the night? It’s more than just giving somebody on the side of the road some water.”
Ms Todd said she wants to collaborate on bills for her congressional colleagues exempting good Samaritans from criminal indictment.
“There is something bigger at stake than just me here, because this does send a message to try to chill people from helping others,” she said.
“They took it at 11:30 in the morning and said I would have it back by 3 in the afternoon, 5 at the latest,” she said. “And 53 days later, I got my phone back.”