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The Bridge: Operation Lone Star is Wreaking Havoc

Texas is commandeering federal immigration power — and wielding it violently.

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Reign of terror

Operation Lone Star — a Texas state border security initiative launched by Governor Greg Abbott in March 2021 — has been mired in controversy since the very start. Abbott’s office has called Operation Lone Star a success. But a trooper employed by the operation had another word for its actions — “inhumane.”

And he’s not the only one. Several major allegations that the operation is responsible for human rights violations have come to the public’s attention, including instances in which state troopers were allegedly directed to push migrants back into the Rio Grande River and when pregnant women were allegedly denied water in the extreme heat. The latest of the operation’s cruel tactics involves laying razor wire and buoys with “circular saw blades” along and in the Rio Grande. This measure, which a spokesperson for Abbott described as an “anti-climbing deterrent,” may have already killed and injured multiple people, including children. The Justice Department is currently suing Texas over the buoy barrier.

As two of POGO’s policy experts explain in today’s issue of The Bridge, enforcing immigration law is a federal responsibility, and the right to seek asylum is protected by federal law as well as U.S. treaty obligations. So why hasn’t the Texas-run Operation Lone Star been shut down?

In this edition:

  • The operation’s origins
  • Blocking the path to asylum
  • Questions of legality
  • Shutting it down

To understand more about Operation Lone Star, I talked to Sarah Turberville, who directs The Constitution Project at POGO, and Senior Legal Analyst Katherine Hawkins. They told me the operation has been deeply problematic since its inception.

The origins 

Operation Lone Star was launched more than two years ago with the ostensible purpose of preventing criminal activity, such as human and drug trafficking, at the border. Issuing a disaster declaration in dozens of counties and citing the federal government’s inaction on the so-called border crisis as a catalyst, Abbot deployed workers from the Texas Department of Public Safety along with thousands of troops from the Texas National Guard down to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Soon after, Abbott announced an unprecedented tactic. In what The Texas Tribune described as a sort of workaround, state and local law enforcement were authorized under Operation Lone Star to arrest migrants on petty misdemeanor charges, like trespassing and criminal mischief. These arrests prevented people who crossed the border between ports of entry from seeking out the federal immigration officers who process asylum claims. Within months, trespassing cases — not trafficking cases — became the majority share of Operation Lone Star’s arrests.

What makes this even more troubling are credible reports that Texas law enforcement agents have been directing migrants onto private property, where they can then arrest them on trespassing charges. In a town called Eagle Pass, the Texas Department of Public Safety even requested a public park along the Rio Grande be made private so that migrants crossing through could be charged with trespassing — a request that was later blocked by the town’s city council.

Intents and purposes 

According to law and treaty, people who cross the border between ports of entry may legally seek asylum in the United States. Asylum-seekers who enter the country this way often turn themselves over to Border Patrol agents, who are obligated to process their claims. “But under Operation Lone Star, Border Patrol is no longer originally encountering many of these individuals. State and local law enforcement are,” Sarah explained.

“At its core, Operation Lone Star is trying to criminalizeseeking asylum,” Sarah told me.

Statements from Abbott himself suggest she’s right about the program’s goals. In the summer of 2021, Abbot retweeted a Newsmax article that called the new program a “Catch and Jail” system — an alternative to what he called the federal “plan to catch & release.”

“That racially charged phrase [“catch & release”] is Abbot’s way of describing a migrant seeking asylum and not being jailed by the government while their asylum case is pending,” Sarah explained.

Under Operation Lone Star, migrants are being arrested en masse. So far, people who were incarcerated in two different state prisons have been relocated so those spaces can be used to detain those who have been charged with petty misdemeanors.

In the arrests themselves, we are seeing lots of procedural due process violations. There are issues with access to counsel and people being held pretrial longer than their sentence would be,” Katherine added.

In 2021, hundreds of people arrested under Operation Lone Star were ordered to be released after being detained in state prisons for weeks without formal charges or adequate access to legal help. But for many more, due process violations persist: A recently filed federal lawsuit alleges that four people were held for as long as six weeks after their trespassing cases were dismissed or their sentences already served.

How is this even allowed?

Beyond even the employment of inhumane tactics and routine violations of due process, Operation Lone Star poses another legal problem. Some in Congress have argued that the operation is obstructing federal enforcement of immigration law. So why hasn’t the federal government cracked down harder on Operation Lone Star?

In July 2022, journalists at The Texas Tribune and ProPublica reported that the Department of Justice had opened an investigation into alleged civil rights abuses under Operation Lone Star — an appropriate inquiry, Sarah added, given the degree to which the operation invites discrimination, stereotyping, and racial profiling. But to this date, no public results of that investigation have been released.

“There seems to have been a political decision not to confront Abbott, and so he has kept escalating,” Katherine said. “There seems to be some legal worry that Abbott is looking for an excuse to challenge the Supreme Court precedent that has affirmed federal authority over immigration law.”

A stain on national conscience

Beyond questions of the operation’s legality, Operation Lone Star is based on racist and xenophobic ideas about people who choose to immigrate to the United States. These ideas are evident in the dehumanizing language Abbott used to describe the operation’s goals at its launch. Since it began, the ACLU has filed a complaint chronicling disturbing accounts of Operation Lone Star law enforcement engaging in widespread racial profiling. Violent practices like stringing dangerous razor wire across buoys in the Rio Grande violate human and civil rights. Some former supporters who’ve witnessed the operation’s effects firsthand have even reversed course after seeing the real human impact of the operation.

As Sarah and Katherine explained, allowing Operation Lone Star to carry on unchecked is and will continue to be an indelible stain on the conscience of this country. It’s critical that the federal government cease any collaboration or cooperation with this cruel program, not just to reassert its constitutional authority but to protect the lives, humanity, and dignity of those who seek safe haven here.

To learn more about how an end can be brought to Operation Lone Star, visit the websites of these organizations supporting migrant communities on the ground: