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What is Operation Lone Star? Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border mission, explained

National Guard 3.JPG
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
/
The Texas Tribune
National Guard troops near the Texas-Mexico border in Del Rio. Gov. Greg Abbott has sent thousands of National Guard members to the border since announcing Operation Lone Star last year.

The governor has ordered thousands of state troopers and National Guard members to the border since last year. Here’s what you need to know about the initiative.

What is Operation Lone Star?

Operation Lone Star is a border security initiative launched by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in March 2021 in response to rising border crossings, which he blames on President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.

In May 2021, Abbott issued a disaster declaration — which now covers 53 counties, most of them on or near the border — to give him the authority to deploy the Texas National Guard to the border. The state agencies responsible for running Operation Lone Star are the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department.

How much does this all cost and who’s paying for it?

Operation Lone Star is costing taxpayers $2.5 million every week, according to an analysis by The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and The Marshall Project published in March 2022.

The Texas Legislature passed House Bill 9 in September 2021, authorizing the state to dedicate almost $2 billion to border security over the next two years — bringing the total border security budget to almost $3 billion for the biennium. The bill included $750 million to build a state-funded border wall, which Abbott has asked his supporters to fund with donations. Private donors had contributed more than $55 million for the wall as of Feb. 11, 2022.

Texas Democrats have criticized Abbott and HB 9, saying they’re throwing money at short-term, law-enforcement-based solutions rather than taking a more comprehensive and humanitarian approach to border security. State Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, criticized the initiative for lacking clear metrics to measure success.

How many state troopers and National Guard soldiers have been sent to the border and what are they doing there?

When Abbott first announced Operation Lone Star, 500 Texas National Guard members were sent to the border, and HB 9 funded a deployment of an additional 1,800 soldiers in September 2021. Later that month, Abbott directed 1,000 DPS personnel and 400 more Texas National Guard members to the border in response to the sudden arrival of 16,000 migrants in Del Rio.

The operation was massively upscaled in November 2021, sending up to 10,000 National Guard members to the border.

The National Guard members are tasked with aiding arrests for border-related crimes, including drug smuggling and human trafficking. However, in a leaked morale survey from January 2022, some said they’re not doing much of anything. Earlier in 2022, about 30 soldiers were dispatched to guard private ranches that already have security as part of Operation Lone Star, which raised questions about how and why the Texas National Guard is being used at the border.

Can states enforce immigration laws?

The federal government has sole authority to enforce immigration laws. While DPS and the National Guard can’t enforce those laws, Abbott increased trespassing penalties under the disaster declaration and directed state troopers to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges when they are caught on private property.

That prompted 26 Democrats from Texas and across the country to send a letter in October 2021 asking the federal government to investigate what they called Abbott’s “catch and jail” policy and whether it violates state law and the U.S. Constitution. The Biden administration has not publicly acted on the complaints, and thousands of migrants have been held in state prisons converted into jails for immigration-related crimes.

Hundreds of people arrested and detained under Operation Lone Star were not charged with a crime for weeks, and dozens were not given a lawyer for more than a month, The Texas Tribune first reported in September 2021. Texas law dictates that criminals must be assigned an attorney within three days of asking for one, and state law requires that defendants be released from jail if prosecutors delay cases by not filing charges quickly. Because most imprisoned migrants are charged with trespassing, that deadline would be 15 or 30 days, depending on the severity of the charge.

Judges released migrants from the illegal detention in 2021, but defense lawyers claimed in court filings in March 2022 that the prolonged imprisonments are continuing without judicial intervention.

What has been the impact of Operation Lone Star so far?

As of March 4, 2022, state troopers and National Guard members serving under Operation Lone Star have arrested 208,000 migrants and filed more than 11,800 criminal charges, including roughly 9,300 felony charges, according to the governor’s website.

However, according to the investigation by The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and The Marshall Project, the state has been counting arrests and drug charges physically distant from the border, unrelated to criminal activity at the border and not investigated by DPS or the Texas Military Department.

More than nine months into Operation Lone Star, DPS stopped counting more than 2,000 charges — including some for sexual assault, stalking and other violent crimes — toward the initiative. This happened after the news organizations began questioning the ties between the arrests and border security.

In a leaked morale survey taken in January 2022, some Texas National Guard members slammed Operation Lone Star for a rushed, involuntary deployment, poor working conditions, delayed pay and a lack of state benefits, The Texas Tribune and the Military Times reported.

At least four Texas National Guard members tied to Operation Lone Star committed suicide in 2021, the Army Times reported in December of that year. A month later, 13 Texas Democrats sent a letter to Col. Daniel Heape, inspector general of the Texas Military Department, demanding a sweeping investigation into Operation Lone Star and how the mission is impacting the “well-being, morale, and overall readiness of our troops.”

How does the recent increase in migrant crossings compare to earlier levels?

During the fiscal year that ended in September 2021, the number of enforcement actions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes detentions and arrests of migrants, reached more than 1.9 million, a 202% increase from the previous fiscal year.

At the southwest border, Customs and Border Protection saw a 278% increase in migrant encounters from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2021 — and so far, that count has been higher in every month in the 2022 fiscal year compared to 2021.