Texas expands border patrol operation
Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star initiative has shortcomings but highlights the need for federal immigration reform
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is ready to send undocumented immigrants to Washington — straight to the Capitol steps. The governor has directed charter buses and planes to transport to Washington, D.C., migrants who have been released from federal custody and are willing to make the trip. “We are sending them to the United States Capitol, where the Biden administration will be able to more immediately address the needs of the people that they are allowing to come across our border,” Abbott said at an April 6 news conference.
Busing migrants to Washington is one of the governor’s new border control measures announced in response to the Biden administration’s decision to lift Title 42, the pandemic-based expulsion mandate, by May 23. Other measures include providing riot gear to Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) troopers and trained Texas National Guard soldiers, stepping up “military activity” at the border, and installing razor wire at some low-water river crossings.
The orders expand Operation Lone Star—the multibillion-dollar border security initiative Abbott launched in March 2021. Independent reports have questioned whether the operation has significantly lowered border-related crimes or unauthorized crossings given the enormous cost. They have also revealed that while the initiative was intended to target cartel operatives and smugglers, asylum-seekers have borne the brunt of arrests. But Operation Lone Star sends a clear political signal to the federal government: If Congress won’t pass immigration reform, the states will take action.
Texas kicked off the mission last year by sending 500 National Guard members to the border. By November, the governor had deployed up to 10,000 state troopers and National Guard members to guard border regions. Although the federal government has sole responsibility to enforce immigration law, Abbott worked around it by issuing a border crisis disaster declaration, increasing the penalty for trespassing on private property, and instructing state troopers to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges.
Last fall, the governor signed a $1.88 billion border security funding bill into law, supplementing $1.05 billion set aside for border security earlier in the year. “The Biden administration has failed to do its job, so Texas is stepping up to do what the federal government is supposed to do,” he said at the signing in Fort Worth.
Border agents logged 1.7 million migrant encounters at the southern border in fiscal year 2021—a record high—even as Title 42 gave U.S. agents authority to deport migrants immediately for public health reasons. As the federal government prepares to end Title 42 on May 23, unauthorized crossings occur most frequently in Texas border districts. About 7,100 migrants crossed the border every day last week.
Abbott has blamed the Biden administration’s policies for encouraging the surge in illegal immigration that has overwhelmed border communities and led to an increase in crime, smuggling, and drug trafficking. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said as many as 18,000 migrants could cross the border per day after Title 42 expires. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Tony Gonzales, Texas Republicans, wrote a letter urging the administration to wait for a decrease in border apprehensions before ending the policy. At least two Democrats representing the border cities of McAllen and Laredo signed the petition.
In an April 1 statement, Abbott touted Operation Lone Star’s success in completing the first segment of the border wall, seizing batches of the illegal drug fentanyl, apprehending more than 225,000 migrants, and making more than 13,027 criminal arrests. But some media outlets questioned Abbott’s data and whether the operation that is costing taxpayers $2.5 million a week was effective. Reporting by The Texas Tribune, ProPublica, and the Marshall Project found that arrest numbers included some that were unrelated to the border or immigration. DPS has recategorized 2,000 unrelated arrests originally counted toward the operation. In a news release, the governor credited the mission with seizing 232 million lethal doses of fentanyl. But that figure included seizures across the whole state, not just for the areas where Operation Lone Star was in effect, according to the news outlets. Abbott’s office countered that drugs generally come from Mexico, even if they aren’t seized near the border.
Forty percent of the 7,200 arrests made by state troopers over the past seven months were solely for misdemeanor charges of trespassing on private property. Many of the arrestees put in state prisons are asylum-seekers and economic migrants. Some were not charged with a crime for weeks, The Marshall Project reported. State police must refer women, children, and families to U.S. Border Patrol instead of immediately arresting them.
In a January letter to the U.S. departments of Justice and Homeland Security, 50 Texas House Democrats urged the federal government to investigate Operation Lone Star for allegedly violating the civil and due process rights of migrants. The Biden administration has not responded. The arrests have also faced legal challenges in Texas courts.
Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from the border city of Laredo, said Abbott’s push for more border personnel can help border communities that are feeling the impact of the influx and often only have a DPS officer. But while Abbott claims trespassing arrests discourage criminals and caravans, crossings remain at record highs and continue to overwhelm border communities. Jessica Bolter with the Migration Policy Institute said the operation raises the question of “deterrence versus diversion.” Stationing more state troopers at the border doesn’t mean that migrants will turn back or stop coming, but instead, they may look for other routes. Southwest border encounters with migrants increased by 278 percent from fiscal year 2020 to 2021. Monthly counts have topped those for 2021 so far this year. Department of Safety Lt. Chris Olivarez said on Twitter last month that Kinney County, a border region, “continues to see an uptick in illegal immigrants trespassing on private ranches.”
Kathleen Walker, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, Texas, and former president of the American Immigraton Association, argued the state is using an excessive amount of resources to achieve limited results. She is worried the governor is more concerned with “political posturing” than effective solutions. A state oversight committee should analyze Operation Lone Star’s “return on investment” before “another dime is spent,” Walker said.
But political posturing might be what is needed to solve the problem. Operation Lone Star can’t fix the crisis at the southern border because states don’t have the resources to address border issues effectively, said Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a nonpartisan think tank advocating for the Latino community. The American people want lasting reform, Garza said, and the Biden administration promised to work toward bipartisan solutions: “We haven’t seen it.” Initiatives like the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act that provide for more legal immigration channels and also address border security have gotten nowhere in Congress. Operation Lone Star forces the administration to react to the crisis, he added.
The Biden administration recently announced an increase in immigration judges and gave asylum officers the power to decide asylum cases. But this is no substitute for congressional reform, argued Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chairwoman of the Texas Border Coalition’s Immigration and Border Security Committee. “This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue,” she said. “It’s an American issue that needs to be dealt with.”