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New report shows Operation Lone Star has spent billions arresting people mostly for misdemeanors

Migrants are detained in handcuffs by authorities after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S., September 26, 2023.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Migrants are detained in handcuffs by authorities after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S., September 26, 2023. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas released a new report showing that Operation Lone Star (OLS), a state immigration law enforcement program initiated by Gov. Greg Abbott, has mostly arrested people for misdemeanor charges since launching in 2021.

The report also said that many of those who go before a judge after being arrested under OLS are for trespassing charges and that those arrested are disproportionately people of color.

Operation Lone Star’s purpose, according to the state, is to "detect and repel illegal crossings, arrest human smugglers and cartel gang members, and stop the flow of deadly drugs like fentanyl” into the country.

For drug, human smuggling and weapons offenses, which account for about 39.5% of arrests, 75% of those arrested were U.S. nationals. Most of the drug arrests came from Rio Grande Valley counties. Most trespassing arrests came from Maverick County, where Eagle Pass is located, and Kinney County, which is in between Eagle Pass and Del Rio.

The report came from state law enforcement and court data ranging from March 2021 to January 2024 that ACLU Texas received in a records request.

The report added that the program spends billions of dollars to “racially profile and arrest people who pose no threat to public safety, then forces them into a separate and unequal legal system run by the state.”

That legal system, the report said, only accounts for 13,306 of the 38,030 people the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) says it arrested. The report said this possibly means that DPS and the Office of the Court Administration of the Texas Judicial System (OCA) are collecting different data and that many of those people arrested are not appearing before a judge.

Under 3% of those arrested go before a judge for drug offenses and just over 2% for weapons charges. Despite arrests under OLS happening in over 10 counties, all court hearings were in Val Verde and Jim Hogg counties, the latter of which isn’t on the border. Nearly 80% of those hearings were for single charges, about 90% of which were for trespassing. In both counties, combined, police arrested 2,138 people under OLS.

Many of the people arrested under OLS were on “enhanced trespassing charges,” due to Abbott’s disaster declarations in the counties where the people were arrested. Ninety-seven percent of those arrested under OLS with these charges had no other charges.

“OLS fails to improve actual public safety, and, as demonstrated by the large percentage of court cases for trespassing, the program fails to target cartel operatives and drug smugglers or related high-level crimes,” the report explained.

Those disaster declarations were first made in 2021 alongside the launch of OLS, with Texas 34 counties included. The disaster declaration was renewed in 2024 and added 24 more counties. Eighteen of the counties have had no arrests under OLS despite being under a disaster declaration. The state has arrested 13,600 people in counties that are not along the border, or about 36% of the total arrests.

The ACLU of Texas recommended the state end OLS and use the billions of dollars the state has spent on the program to improve the crossing of goods at ports of entry and improved water infrastructure, public hospitals and schools in the state.

The organization also said the state should return access of Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, which has been taken over by the Texas National Guard for OLS, to the city.

“Texas has no business trying to run its own immigration enforcement program,” Sarah Cruz, policy and advocacy strategist for border and immigrants’ rights at the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement. “Governor Abbott and other state politicians conflating immigration with drugs and crime is as false as it is inflammatory and dangerous to our communities. Operation Lone Star is unconstitutional and ineffective, and the moral cost of the state’s unchecked cruelty is far greater than the $11 billion price tag. OLS and the state’s relentless attacks on our communities must end.”

The report follows previous reporting and data showing the inconsistencies and unpopularity of OLS among those enforcing it. However, a majority of Texans have indicated support for the program, particularly for the buoys in the Rio Grande between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, and more generally in a recent poll.

But those who live along the border and organizers have spoken against OLS since its launch, calling it political theater by Abbott and the GOP at large.

Abbott has said that OLS has deterred asylum seekers from crossing to Texas now that encounters have decreased in the state and increased in California and Arizona. However, migrants are crossing in those areas for several reasons, some of which is due to Mexico increasing its own immigration enforcement.

The ACLU of Texas said that OLS has no clear goal or objective and, if it were to continue, it needed oversight to function effectively. OLS is funded by the Texas Legislature through 2025.

Abbott's office did not respond to TPR's request for comment.

Copyright 2024 Texas Public Radio

Gaige Davila