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US: Texas Targeting Migrants

Justice Department Should Move Against Abusive, Discriminatory ‘Operation Lone Star’

Texas Governor Greg Abbott talks about Operation Lone Star during a press conference at the Texas Department of Public Safety Weslaco Regional Office on April 1, 2021, in Weslaco, Texas. © 2021 Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP

(Washington, DC) – Texas has arrested more than 1,500 migrants since March 2021 under a discriminatory and abusive operation that targets suspected migrants for arrest, prosecution, and incarceration on state misdemeanor offenses, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States Justice Department should act swiftly to stop this program.

Operation Lone Star, initiated by Governor Greg Abbott, is based on a xenophobic narrative that associates migrants with crime and insecurity. Its aim is to “confront ... the crisis at the southern border,” due to migration. Thousands of members of the Texas National Guard, an element of the US military reserve, and Texas state police have been deployed to deter and detain migrants along the US-Mexico border.

“Operation Lone Star has led to serious due process and civil rights abuses, made a mockery of the Texas judicial system, and fomented dangerous xenophobia,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US Program executive director at Human Rights Watch. “The Justice Department should urgently investigate and take all available measures to stop these abuses and ensure accountability for violations of migrants’ rights.”

The policy has led to Texas law enforcement officials arresting migrants on false allegations of low-level trespassing violations or inducing migrants to step on private property, then arresting them. Those arrested have been imprisoned, in several cases in abusive conditions, for weeks or months without charges or access to attorneys. The vast majority of charges have ended up being dropped or dismissed. The operation has increased the state’s pretrial detention population, undermining criminal legal system reforms.

The use of some 2,500 members of the Texas National Guard to conduct arrests, a highly militarized response by a force that is not trained to conduct criminal law enforcement, raises serious human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Neither National Guard members nor state police officers are authorized under federal law or properly trained to enforce federal immigration laws, and using state trespassing laws against border crossers appears to be a thinly veiled attempt by Texas to overstep this federal authority.

Many of the more than 1,500 migrants who have been arrested are asylum seekers who thought they had finally reached a place of safety. The arrests have been marked by frequent violations of due process rights. Only 3 percent of those charged have been convicted, and in all of those cases, the person had pleaded guilty.

Media reports indicate that some of the arrests under the operation were questionable, leading to charges against migrants being dropped or dismissed. For example, with Border Patrol collusion, police reportedly marched a group of 11 migrants onto private property and then arrested them for trespassing. In another case, a prosecutor said, body camera footage shows that state troopers standing in front of a gate onto private property stood aside as if to allow migrants to pass and then quickly arrested them for trespassing once they crossed the property line.

“Operation Lone Star appears designed to further criminalize Latinx, Black, and other immigrant communities by arresting and detaining them on trumped up charges that often fail to pass legal muster,” said Carolina Canizales, of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “The operation has led to unlawful activity by government and law enforcement on a systemic basis. The Department of Justice should act immediately to block the policy.”

Many of those arrested have been held for weeks or months without having any charges filed against them and without bail, court hearings, or access to counsel. Attorneys told Human Rights Watch they have needed to file habeas petitions to get Texas officials to follow the law and release them. Additionally, Texas authorities have engaged in the discriminatory practice of detaining migrants in state prisons instead of local jails where people accused of a crime are normally held prior to sentencing.

Attorneys representing detained migrants said they are aware of at least six children who are currently imprisoned under the policy. Though Texas law permits trying 17-year-olds as adults, under US law, important special protections are supposed to apply to children who are unaccompanied migrants.

Attorneys also said their clients faced inhumane detention conditions, including food contaminated with feces or bugs, meals provided so infrequently that they lost weight, and a lack of access to recreation time outdoors for several days at a time. While detained, some have been compelled to sign official documents in English, which they could not understand, some of which falsely stated that the migrants had waived their right to an attorney, one Texas advocacy group reported.

Governor Abbott and his lieutenant governor have used alarmist, xenophobic messaging to justify the operation, including rhetoric that links migrants to criminal activity and insecurity, as well as claims of “invasion.” In a June speech Abbott made clear that the policy’s goal is to “begin the … arrest process of people coming across the border” and that the state government aims to “have [migrants] prosecuted, to be put in jail, to stay in jail, to create an environment where people will choose they don’t want to come across the border into the state of Texas … it’s not the red carpet that the federal administration rolled out.”

Some of this rhetoric appears to have attracted militia groups – armed civilians who are attempting to conduct immigration enforcement with no oversight, accountability, or training. Immigrant rights organizations in Texas have expressed serious concern about the possibility of white supremacist violence. In 2019, after the El Paso Walmart shooting in which a man who said he wanted “to stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas” killed 23 people, nearly all of Mexican descent, Governor Abbott called for confronting “the rise of extremist groups and hateful ideologies.” But his administration’s rhetoric and actions are instead further fueling anti-immigrant hysteria.  

“Texas has a history of exploiting anti-immigrant sentiments to carry out policies that attack migrants,” said Claudia Muñoz, co-executive director at Grassroots Leadership based in Austin, Texas. “Operation Lone Star, a policy driven by racism, is the latest attempt to appeal to anti-immigrant extremism, placing border crossers and border communities at risk.”

Some officials in Kinney County, one of two counties carrying out Operation Lone Star arrests so far, have appeared to endorse the presence in the county of these anti-immigrant militia groups, including “Patriots for America,” according to media reports cited in a public information request by the American Civil Liberties Union-Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The leader of “Patriots for America” has claimed it is coordinating with law enforcement. The Texas Department of Public Safety subsequently warned that it would pull resources from Kinney County if the militia group was allowed to operate there, and underscored that detentions of migrants by private citizens could constitute kidnapping.

Border communities have been subjected to abusive racial profiling for decades. Operation Lone Star gives state police and state military reserve more incentive and opportunity to do so, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Department of Justice is admirably defending reproductive freedom and voting rights in Texas but is disturbingly absent when it comes to these state abuses of migrants,” Austin-Hillery said. “Texas’ abusive treatment of migrants and asylum seekers demands urgent federal intervention.”

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