Reflections from Texas

A POGO colleague shares what she learned on a trip to the border.

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Reflections from Texas

In past editions of The Bridge, I’ve told you about Operation Lone Star: a Texas state initiative that’s interfering with Border Patrol’s operations and attempting to commandeer federal immigration authority. Since last year, the eye of Operation Lone Star’s storm has been Shelby Park — a 47.4-acre stretch of riverbank in Eagle Pass, Texas, that sits on the Rio Grande, parallel to the Mexican city of Piedras Negras. Annually, thousands of migrants traverse this stretch of the river to access the U.S.-Mexico border, and it’s here that Operation Lone Star has deployed some of its most aggressive tactics, including the erection of razor wire fences and floating buoy barriers.

The clash between Texas state law enforcement and federal immigration authorities came to a head in January, after reports that Texas officials had prevented Border Patrol agents from accessing part of Shelby Park to rescue migrants who had drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande. The tragic incident illustrates just how dangerous it can be when Texas law enforcement refuses to let federal authorities do their jobs. Shortly afterwards, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court order that Texas used to justify blocking federal agents from accessing the border — a ruling that Texas Governor Greg Abbott has openly criticized.

Shelby Park has become the main stage for the standoff between Operation Lone Star and the federal government. In February, former President Donald Trump delivered remarks from Shelby Park during his and President Joe Biden’s dueling campaign visits to the border. The very next day, my colleague, Katherine Hawkins, senior legal analyst for The Constitution Project at POGO, also stopped in to Shelby Park. Katherine was visiting the Texas-Mexico border to get a better sense of what’s happening at the site of so much friction caused by Operation Lone Star’s attempt to usurp federal immigration authority. This week, she’s joining us for a Q&A about what she saw, what she learned, and how it will inform POGO’s work in the coming months.

Katherine, tell us about your visit to Shelby Park.

There’s a tremendous amount of concertina wire strung around the park. This is the area where a Texas Department of Public Safety whistleblower complained to his supervisors about people getting injured and trapped by barbed wire. There have even been drownings in the river here. At one point, Texas was actually blocking Border Patrol from using the boat ramp in the park to get to the river.

The park is essentially blocked off to the general public, but a canoe and kayak operator had sued the state of Texas for obstructing his business’s access to the river and had been permitted to continue taking people on trips of the river. I went on a canoe tour of the river with him.

We canoed for miles down the river. All along the north side, the Texas side, there’s just miles and miles of barbed wire. The vegetation is largely dead, and you can see all kinds of clothing, blankets, and other things that have been left behind by people trying to cross over the wire. In addition to all the wire along the shoreline, there’s the buoys in the river with wires between them. It’s very dangerous.

In contrast, on the southern banks of the river, on the Mexico side, there is no wire. It is quite pretty and very quiet.

But visiting Shelby Park and getting a sense of what things are like on the ground was only one part of my visit. I was also there to attend a conference organized for both Texas and national groups on a law called Senate Bill 4 (S.B. 4) that was passed by Texas state government last fall.

Texas’s S.B. 4 is the latest escalation of Operation Lone Star. The bill has passed but has thankfully not gone into effect yet. It will be tremendously harmful if it does start getting enforced.

What should our readers know about Texas’s Senate Bill 4? How could it escalate Operation Lone Star’s attempt to usurp the federal government’s authority over immigration?

Currently, under Operation Lone Star, people are being arrested for trespassing. As in, for being on private property without the owner’s consent. But Texas’s S.B. 4 has created a new criminal offense that is explicitly about entering Texas between ports of entry without legal authorization.

One of the most unconstitutional things about it is that it allows Texas officials to deport people. The law also says that if someone who was previously deported or denied admission to the U.S. is found re-entering, it would be considered a felony.

It’s a mess of a law. And Texas doesn’t seem to have a lot of clear answers about how it plans to enforce it. It seems like it was drafted in a deliberately broad way that would give Operation Lone Star a lot of troubling leeway in how they’d go about enforcing the law.

For now, we have just the Operation Lone Star status quo, which is worrisome as is. But things could get immediately much worse under Texas’s S.B. 4.

What to know about S.B. 4 (The Texas Tribune)

That sounds like an extreme overreach of state power. What’s next in Texas’s clash with the federal government? And how will TCP’s work intersect with these issues in the coming months?

Of course, I hope Texas’s S.B. 4 will remain stayed and just never go into effect. But I don’t think that’s something one can count on.

If Texas’s S.B. 4 goes into effect, it’s important to remember that the role of the administration does not end. We’re trying to ensure that the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security are actually paying attention to what’s going on, as that will influence how Border Patrol will be directed to respond.

We’ve also filed some open records requests with both DHS and the state of Texas. It’s important that we keep pushing for public access to information regarding how migrants are being treated at the border.

There’s also room for congressional oversight. We’ve already talked to Congress about various actions they could take if the worst happens.

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