‘Operation Lone Star’ one year later: Racist political stunt deepens suffering at the border

It has been one year since the proclamation of “Operation Lone Star,” a political stunt by Texas politicians to deploy thousands of National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border to bolster their racist, right-wing agenda. The operation rings in its anniversary not just with a list of abuses committed against immigrants, but with new leaks showing the miserable conditions and low morale of the troops expected to carry out state officials’ political stunt. 

Abbott’s ‘tough border talk’ a distraction from disastrous and deadly policies 

In March 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott was taking nationwide criticism for his administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic response and the collapse of the state’s power grid, an infrastructure failure that killed 700 people in a matter of days. Instead of fixing these problems, Abbott launched Operation Lone Star on March 4 over an alleged “state of emergency” at the Texas-Mexico border.

The operation set up a parallel immigration enforcement system, arresting immigrants on low state-level charges and keeping them in state prisons for months before a court will even see them. Abbott claimed the operation would combat “human trafficking” and “drug smuggling” at the border. In July 2021, Abbott greatly expanded the program’s mandate by directing state troopers, aided by National Guard troops, to arrest anyone they suspected of having “crossed the border illegally.”

As Haitian refugees fleeing U.S.-backed violence began arriving at the border in September, the number of troops called to “action” swelled from 1,200 to more than 10,000. This is an unprecedented number of troops being activated under state active authority.

Abbott has claimed this unprecedented troop activity is necessary because President Biden wasn’t doing enough to “secure the border.” In reality, Biden’s border policy has been just as harsh, racist and deadly as Donald Trump’s. The federal government has deported over 20,000 Haitians since being sworn into office. Two-thirds of deported Haitian refugees were expelled from the country using Title 42, a legal statute originally invoked by Trump which uses the pandemic as a pretense to deport asylum seekers. Title 42 has been invoked by the Biden administration an astounding 1.1 million times.  Meanwhile, the number of immigrants in overcrowded, unsafe detention centers now exceeds 22,000, a 56% increase from the Trump administration. Republicans and Democrats alike, at both state and federal levels, are enforcing vicious, anti-immigrant border policies. 

Protest outside of the Dolph Briscoe Unit in Dilley, Texas. Liberation photo: Caleb Granger

Texas Military Department is uprooting civilian lives to enforce Abbott’s agenda

Operation Lone Star is causing frustration, depression and suicides among National Guard troops and unspeakable misery and suffering for the immigrants caught up in it. A leaked survey showed that troops called to take part in the operation have experienced incorrect or delayed pay, are not receiving benefits, and many complain they feel underutilized and work in places where they have no portable toilets to use for months.

The Texas National Guard is made up of part-time troops who work civilian jobs as well. When called for full-time duty, they have to leave behind their careers and families to deploy. They are usually alerted months ahead of time to prepare for this abrupt transition. Instead, under Operation Lone Star, they were given as little as 72-hour notices to report or else be faced with arrest warrants. They were reportedly lied to about the duration of their deployment. 

Troop morale is low and discontent is widespread, according to the leaked survey. At least 1,330 Guard troops have at some point received incorrect or delayed pay. Some of them have taken out loans to make up for the shortage. Abbott has claimed that “all paycheck issues have been addressed,” but this is widely disputed. Some have complained about the isolated, inhospitable conditions of their mission, which often do not include working toilets. 

The Texas National Guard has uprooted college students close to graduation, forced deployed troops to miss family milestones, and even plucked a healthcare worker from their job in the middle of the pandemic. Four Guard soldiers have even committed suicide during the operation. Many are correctly coming to the conclusion that they are being used as pawns in a political game that benefits no working person, on either side of the border. 

Operation Lone Star puts migrants in legal limbo 

Many of the migrants arriving at the border are doubly victimized by U.S. policies. They are fleeing U.S.-backed violence and coups in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti only to be met with violent arrest, imprisonment and sexual assault once reaching the United States. Operation Lone Star is yet another violation of their human rights. 

Operation Lone Star establishes a separate immigration system in which immigrants are arrested on minor offenses and detained for months without being able to apply for asylum. Arrests under the operation have already been ruled unconstitutional by Texas courts. Immigrants have been “lured” by law enforcement onto private property so that they could be arrested for criminal trespassing on said property, commonly known as entrapment. Over 3,000 immigrants have been arrested for “trespassing.”  Enabled by Abbott to act with impunity, law enforcement has great incentive to coerce people into breaking state law, then tie them up in the bureaucracy of state detention centers for long periods of time.

Under Operation Lone Star, immigrants who are apprehended are taken to a local jail for a night. Bail is set the next day over a Zoom call, then the arrested person is put on a bus and taken to the isolated town of Dilley, Texas. A person charged with criminal trespassing is legally supposed to be released 15 or 30 days after being arrested if no charges are filed, but detainees under Operation Lone Star are detained for months without charges. Once charges are filed, they wait months for a court date. 

Despite only having 4,500 residents, the town of Dilley houses thousands of immigrants and other prisoners of Texas. Prisoners of the Dolph Briscoe Unit, a prison complex with a capacity of at least 1,000 people, were transferred elsewhere so that the unit could be used for the influx of imprisoned immigrants. Despite south Texas’ scorching heat, the facility does not have air conditioning. 

The Dolph Briscoe Unit isn’t the only facility in Dilley where immigrants are being imprisoned. The town also hosts the single largest ICE facility in the country: the CoreCivic-run South Texas Residential Center, which can hold up to 2,400 men, women and children. 

People’s lives take a backseat to Abbott’s career

A year into Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s stated goal of clamping down on “human trafficking” and “drug smuggling” has proven to be nothing more than a farce. Even the troops called to take part in the operation have said as much. 

From its outset, it was clear that Operation Lone Star was politically motivated. As Abbott was being pummeled politically for the state’s COVID handling and power-grid failure, the governor also found himself coming under attack from his Republican primary opponents for somehow not being cruel enough! It was in this atmosphere of intense right-wing backlash that Operation Lone Star was born, as the Texas legislature attempted to pass some of the most reactionary legislation in the country.

Soldiers in the National Guard expressed anger over the fact that they are being used as pawns to bolster Abbott’s political career, with one soldier declaring, “we are disposable in the eyes of the top leaders, from the governor on down.” 

While thousands of Texas National Guard troops have been uprooted from their civilian jobs and separated from their families under false pretenses, the greatest tragedy by far has been endured by the thousands of immigrants and refugees caught up in this heinous system. In order to distract from his other catastrophic forms of mismanagement, Abbott has caused yet another human rights disaster in Texas, one in which no worker on either side of the border benefits. We need an immediate end to Operation Lone Star, the abolition of border patrol, and amnesty for all undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.

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