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US: Texas Attack on Migrants Reaches New Extremes

Creation of State-Sponsored Vigilantes a Dangerous Global Precedent

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference concerning border security along the Texas border with Mexico on February 21, 2023, in Weslaco, Texas. © 2023 Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP

(Austin) – Bills before Texas lawmakers that attack migrants, including one that would deputize state-sponsored vigilantes to “deter and repel” people at the border, are dangerous and extreme, Human Rights Watch said today.

Texas’ HB 20 would create a “Border Protection Unit” whose head would answer to Governor Greg Abbott. The bill would allow the administration to deputize any “law-abiding” citizen to serve in the unit, and thereby arrest, detain, and deter people from crossing the border between the United States and Mexico. People serving in the unit would be granted criminal and civil immunity against claims of wrongdoing. HB 20 would also claim authority for Texas to deny entry on specious public health grounds similar to the abusive US federal policy called Title 42 that was invoked during the Covid-19 pandemic. The bill would create a third-degree felony charge of criminal trespass with a minimum $10,000 fine; and would further fund the Texas border wall.

“Operation Lone Star and Texas’ new immigration proposals are extreme among states in the US and among countries in the world,” said Bob Libal, consultant to Human Rights Watch based in Texas. “Giving Texas police power to vigilantes is dangerous.”

US President Joe Biden and federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security should immediately stop working with and end funding to Texas agencies implementing Governor Abbott’s Operation Lone Star border initiative, Human Rights Watch said.

Another bill, Texas’ HB 7, would create a “border protection” court and criminal system that would institutionalize much of Governor Abbott’s separate Operation Lone Star dragnet.

“Over the past two years, Operation Lone Star has allowed state politicians to overstep their power on federal immigration policy; HB 20 and HB 7 are a naked attempt to consolidate this illegal overreach by embedding it into Texas law,” said Roberto Lopez, senior advocacy manager for the Beyond Borders Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “The new police force and court system would allow state politicians to continue arresting and sentencing some of the most vulnerable people in our society – people seeking refuge from violence, terror, and poverty – with no real oversight. This is a dangerous power grab offering no solution to the humanitarian emergency.”

The new bills build on Governor Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a discriminatory and abusive operation that targets perceived migrants and others for arrest, prosecution, and incarceration on state misdemeanor and felony offenses. Operation Lone Star has led to injuries and deaths, consistently violated the rights of migrants and US citizens, and suppressed freedoms of association and expression of groups providing basic aid in Texas, Human Rights Watch said. The operation has cost more than $4.4 billion while failing to reach its stated aim of “deny[ing] Mexican Cartels and other smugglers the ability to move drugs and people into Texas.”

“The Biden administration’s collaboration with Operation Lone Star and failure to investigate its constitutional and human rights violations has emboldened Texas lawmakers to adopt these extreme proposals that further endanger the lives of migrants and others throughout Texas and drain resources for basic needs,” said Alicia Torres, immigration campaigns coordinator at Grassroots Leadership. “Vigilante hate groups have already used these programs to formalize relationships with border sheriffs. Who will protect Texas immigrants when vigilantes are deputized, granted immunity, and allowed to patrol the whole state under these extreme proposals?”

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