September 28, 2023
International Safe Abortion Day: Progress in Mexico, setbacks in the USA
Along the Texas-Mexico border, tensions are rising among the civilians, national guard, migrants, federal government and many other key actors. This is largely due to the escalation of Governor Abbott’s Operation Lone Star.
As COVID-19 measures were lifted and Biden took office, the rates of migration to the USA from South America rapidly grew, overwhelming the Texas border. In 2021, nearly 1.6 million people were reported crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, in 2022, this rose to 2.76 million. Rhetoric against migrants has been growing, especially under Trump’s administration, accusing them of violent crimes, trafficking, stealing jobs and taking ‘government hand-outs’. As rates of migration increased, Governor Abbott continued to fan the flames against migrants, declaring that the USA was facing an ‘invasion’ and required immediate action: Operation Lone Star, which would largely militarize the southern-border. While at the beginning many Texans approved of this measure, many are losing their faith as problems continue to mount.
Operation Lone Star is proving to be a costly, ineffective and incredibly dangerous approach to curbing migration. It is just another terrible measure that has been implemented due to the lack of clear national immigration reform.
Operation Lone Star was launched by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in March 2021, as a response to the rise in border crossings and fentanyl trafficking. Abbott declared a state of emergency in most counties along the border, which he renewed once more in May across 58 counties. With Operation Lone Star, Governor Abbott has mobilized around 10,000 soldiers coming from the National Guardsmen, Texas Guardsmen and Department of Public Safety (DPS). He has also further boosted funding for local law enforcement, and sought to increase physical barriers including using concertina wire and buoys with razor sharp edges.
These troops patrol the border and its counties, deterring migrants from crossing or arresting them under trespassing or smuggling charges. As they are not federal immigration agents, they are unable to deport people. At the start of the operation, DPS was ordered to arrest only single men, although this was later expanded to include single females. Minors, families, and seniors are turned over to Border Patrol (BP). However, reports are coming in that soldiers have begun separating some men from their families and arresting them. Many migrants are confused by these troops, mistaking them for BP agents and approaching them to seek asylum, only to find themselves arrested.
Abbott claims that more than 390,500 migrants and asylum seekers have been apprehended under Operation Lone Star. Of that, more than 30,000 people have been arrested, many of whom were charged with the state crime of criminal trespass. As many can’t pay bail and local jails lack capacity, the state has repurposed 2 former prisons into make-shift jails. Reports are coming in that there are many immigrants being held there for long periods of time, unable to receive trial. Also, it is unclear how many of the arrests actually lead to criminal cases. The majority of those arrested are eventually released and brought to immigration authorities where they either receive an asylum trial or are deported due to lack of proper documentation. Rather than addressing the core issue, working with the federal government to implement sensible immigration policy, Abbott has chosen to funnel billions of dollars in a program that does very little to resolve the crisis.
Operation Lone Star has already cost Texas over $4.5 billion, with little effect on migration and is now facing charges of civil-rights abuses. It is the most aggressive attempt by any state to take control over federal border security, and it is by far the most any state has spent on border security in a budget cycle. Rather than having any real impact on migration, Operation Lone Star is putting a heavy toll on border residents.
Long-time border residents are being racially profiled and pulled over under the premise of smuggling or being unauthorized migrants. Now with the increased military and police presence, the number of citations have grown exponentially in the border counties. In Kinney County, citations have quadrupled, from 1,400 to over 6,800. Many residents are also claiming that Operation Lone Star is hurting their businesses and towns. Public parks are being overtaken by military operations, soccer fields replaced by military tents. The buoys and concertina wire are blocking the river, preventing kayaking tours that residents operate. The toll also lies on the environment as troops have razed the ground to prevent migrants from staying there.
In the past two years, Operation Lone Star has racked up a cost of $4.5 billion, and an additional $30 million in grants has been announced by Governor Abbott in July. It is costing Texan taxpayers nearly $20 million per week and funneling money out of important state programs. $975 million was taken out of COVID-19 relief aid and $360 million was reallocated from the prison funds and juvenile justice department, which is facing huge health and security issues. The money wasted in this operation could have been used to address key issues like upgrading the electrical grid (especially after the snow storm in 2021 that wiped out most of the grid) or improving infrastructure in rural communities (especially improving access to healthcare). Despite the poor results and terrible cost of Operation Lone Star, state lawmakers have demonstrated that they will continue to reallocate funds toward this program.
Unfortunately, the cost of Operation Lone Star is far from the only issue linked with this program, in fact it flouts several civil-rights laws and border treaties.
Immigration enforcement is a federal issue, not a state issue. Gregg Abbott is seriously pushing the limits by enacting his own border-security response. Furthermore, his troops are preventing migrants from being able to seek asylum, which further infringes on international law. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection states that Operation Lone Star is preventing BP agents from carrying out their legal duties to process migrants and provide aid. Unfortunately, the Biden Administration hasn’t called to end Operation Lone Star, but it is likely out of fear that if taken to the conservative Supreme Court it could lead to dangerous new precedents.
The Biden Administration has filed a lawsuit against the floating barriers that Governor Abbott implemented this summer, saying that it flouts federal law. Mexico also filed a complaint regarding these buoys, arguing that it violates the border treaties signed in 1944 and 1970.
Since Operation Lone Star began, there have been a growing number of reports concerning abuse, human rights violations, and endangerment.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project found that within the first 16 months, at least 30 people died and 71 others were injured in “high-speed vehicle pursuits” that can be attributed to the program. They have also stated that the cases of racial profiling have also increased dramatically, targeting black and latino residents.
The brunt of the abuse is directed towards migrants. Whistleblowers have been sharing terrifying insights on how the program is run. A trooper from DPS has shared in an email that they have been ordered to ‘push’ back migrants and asylum seekers into the Rio Grande, including small children, pregnant women and nursing babies, despite the risk of drowning. They were also told to withhold water even in cases of extreme heat. This summer a 4 year old girl passed out from heat exhaustion after being pushed back by National Guard soldiers.
The trooper also stated that the concertina wires and buoys have led to a myriad of serious injuries and even deaths. This summer a pregnant woman having a miscarriage was found caught in the razor sharp wire. The email also mentioned that Texas has set ‘traps’ of the razor wire-wrapped buoys that have been placed in parts of the river with high water and low visibility, exponentially increasing the risk of drownings by forcing migrants into deeper stretches of water. BP agents already reported witnessing the drowning of a mother and at least 1 of her children (the other was not found). Last year already saw a record number of deaths among migrants (890 deceased), the majority of which was due to drowning. This number is sadly expected to grow as Operation Lone Star continues.
Doctors of the World urges the Biden Administration and Governor Greg Abbott to put an end to Operation Lone Star. This program is hurting both Texan residents and migrants alike, it violates federal and international law, and has led to serious physical harm and even death. It is time for the Biden Administration to reach out to Texas and other border states to deliver comprehensive, humane, and progressive immigration reform. The current approach is unsustainable and dangerous. Change is needed now.
Check out our Border Health Program to see how we are improving health outcomes for migrants and asylum seekers in El Paso.
(C) OLIVIER PAPEGNIES