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US: End Texas Assault on Migrants; Cut Funds

Justice Department Inquiry Should Focus on Dangerous Rhetoric, Actions by Governor, Sheriffs

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, left, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton confer after an Operation Lone Star roundtable discussion on March 10, 2022, in Weslaco, Texas.  © 2022 Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP

(Austin, July 11, 2022) – The United States should immediately end federal funding for the agencies and counties engaged in Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s abusive Operation Lone Star border initiative, even as the Justice Department conducts an inquiry into the operation, Human Rights Watch said today. Operation Lone Star is a discriminatory and abusive operation that targets suspected migrants for arrest, prosecution, and incarceration on state misdemeanor offenses.

“If the federal government ignores escalating extremism while continuing to fund the agencies involved, it could become complicit in ongoing abuses under Operation Lone Star,” said Alison Leal Parker, US managing director for Human Rights Watch. “The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security should investigate abuses and compel Texas to change course, including by ending Operation Lone Star.”

The governor’s office, and many of the agencies and sheriffs involved, regularly receive federal funds through a variety of programs, many of which predate Operation Lonestar.

The Justice Department inquiry, reported by the Texas Tribune on July 6, comes amid a dangerous acceleration of harmful rhetoric and actions by Texas officials. On July 7, 2022, Governor Abbott issued an executive order escalating beyond Lone Star’s arrests and detentions of asylum seekers and migrants on criminal misdemeanor charges to authorize the Texas National Guard and Department of Public Safety to unilaterally return them to the US-Mexico border, in apparent disregard for US and international human rights law.

On July 5, a small number of local officials gathered at a news conference in Kinney County alongside former Trump administration officials to encourage Governor Abbott to declare an “invasion” at the US-Mexico border. In addition, Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe told media sources that he had driven four migrants to the “port of entry in Mexico” so that “they could return home” after a traffic accident that injured a fifth person when immigration officials allegedly told him they would not accept the migrants until they had medical clearance.

The recent executive order, incidents, statements, and Operation Lone Star’s already abusive program together risk further stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, and escalating, rather than reducing, violence, Human Rights Watch said. A mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso on August 8, 2019, took place after the Texas governor made false claims of a migrant “invasion.”   

“The move to call migration an ‘invasion’ to push Texas Governor Greg Abbott to make Operation Lone Star even more militarized and abusive is unnecessary, racist, and dangerous,” said Bob Libal, consultant to Human Rights Watch based in Austin, Texas. “By using the word ‘invasion,’ with its links to military attacks, Texas officials trivialize its meaning by applying it to people migrating to the US, many of whom are seeking asylum from violence and abuse.”

Already under Operation Lone Star, migrants and asylum seekers have been subjected to  racially discriminatory state criminal procedures. They have been held in state facilities where migrants and asylum seekers have described substandard food and inadequate or nonexistent health care, including mental health care. They have also reported being detained unnecessarily for up to one month before charges are even filed, as well as for weeks and months of pretrial detention for misdemeanor charges and delayed access to counsel.

The July 7 executive order would violate migrants and asylum seekers’ rights to seek asylum and to family unity if it blocks consideration of migrants’ asylum or other immigration-related claims. The White House responded to the order with a vague statement on July 8, calling it merely a “logistical nightmare,” and failing to mention the order’s disregard for US or international human rights law.  

Texas immigrant, civil rights, and criminal justice reform organizations that have been calling for Justice Department action for more than a year welcomed the reported inquiry. The groups said the move was crucial but not enough and said that the federal government should end cooperation with Texas agencies working under the program.

Operation Lone Star is a US $4 billion state program to deploy Texas state police, sheriffs, and thousands of members of the Texas National Guard, an element of the US military reserve, to arrest and deter migrants along the US-Mexico border. On July 7, Governor Abbott announced an additional $30 million in grants from the state to boost Lone Star operations.

The federal government is separately considering proposed appropriations to federal Customs and Border Protection of $15.74 billion for its operations nationwide for the upcoming fiscal year.

The enormous investment by both the federal government and the state of Texas in a militarized, heavy-handed law enforcement approach at the border echoes a failed federal policy known as “prevention through deterrence,” which has also led to abuses and deaths and has not slowed migration. The International Organization for Migration reported that it had counted 595 migrants who had been reported dead or missing at the US-Mexico border in 2021 alone, and the total is most likely higher. On June 29, 53 migrants died of heat exhaustion in an abandoned truck found in San Antonio, an event attributable in part to policies that funnel people into more clandestine and dangerous attempts to reach the United States.   

Instead of doubling down on failed, abusive policies at the state or federal levels, the US should adopt a humanitarian and orderly response to migration that allows those seeking asylum to make their claims, and that regulates migration in a rights-respecting way, Human Rights Watch said. 

“Increasing border militarization and criminalization does not reduce migrant deaths or deter migration,” Parker said. “Operation Lone Star pushes migrants further into even more dangerous situations, including situations in which they lose their lives, and strengthens illicit actors who profit from smuggling.”

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