(Austin, July 20, 2023)—Reports that migrants and asylum seekers, including children, have been pushed back by Texas officials, stranded in sweltering heat, and wounded by razor wire installed under Operation Lone Star should be investigated and all federal support to the operation ended, Human Rights Watch said today.
An email from a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper medic describes events between June 30 and July 1, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas. The email, first reported by the Houston Chronicle on July 17, detailed incidents on June 30, including:
- A 4-year-old girl passed out from heat exhaustion after being pushed back toward the Rio Grande by Texas National Guard soldiers. The temperature was well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 C).
- A 19-year-old pregnant woman became caught in razor wire installed by Texas authorities and had a miscarriage.
- A group of about 120 people including young children and nursing babies were stranded between the razor wire and the river. A Department of Public Safety shift command officer told troopers that rather than provide aid, they should tell people to return to Mexico.
- A 15-year-old boy suffered a broken leg when razor wire installed by Texas authorities diverted him into a dangerous part of the Rio Grande River.
“The events at the Texas-Mexico border are a profoundly shocking reminder of the deadly impacts of Operation Lone Star,” said Bob Libal, a Texas consultant with Human Rights Watch. “State troopers are deliberately pushing people toward razor wire, heat exhaustion, and dangerous river currents knowing that they will suffer, be injured, and die.”
The trooper’s email further notes the razor wire installed by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard was placed in areas where it is easier to cross the river, leading people to attempt more dangerous crossings. Five people drowned in the Rio Grande in this area during the week of the trooper’s deployment, according to the email. The Texas Department of Public Safety refused to remove razor wire when asked by a landowner after the 19-year-old was trapped in the wire and had a miscarriage.
Media reports indicate the United States Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the incidents. Given the seriousness of the harm Operation Lone Star has caused, Human Rights Watch renewed its call to end all federal funding and collaboration with the operation. The Texas legislature, which recently appropriated $5.1 billion for the next two years of Operation Lone Star, should also hold oversight hearings on the operation, Human Rights Watch said.
These incidents constitute border “pushbacks,” defined by the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants as “summarily forc[ing] back” migrants, including asylum seekers, “without an individual assessment of their human rights protection needs, to the country or territory … from where they attempted to cross or crossed an international border.” Pushbacks violate international legal prohibitions on collective expulsions and refoulement the forcible return of anyone to a place where they would face real risk of persecution, torture, or other serious harm.
The documented ill-treatment of migrants by Texas law enforcement violates international human rights law, and constitutes specific violations as is relates to children.
The pushbacks at the Texas-Mexico border are the latest in a series of escalations under Operation Lone Star. Earlier in July, Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Department of Public Safety would place “buoy barriers” in the middle of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, raising concerns from Congress members that both migrants and Border Patrol officers would be placed at risk. The Mexican Government filed a diplomatic complaint that the barriers violate a 1944 water treaty and plans to inspect whether buoys extend to the Mexico side of the river.
Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the impact of Operation Lone Star, finding the program has led to injuries and deaths, increased racial profiling of border residents, consistently violated the rights of migrants and asylum seekers as well as US citizens, and suppressed freedom of association and expression.
Human Rights Watch is not aware of any evidence Operation Lone Star has slowed migration. Instead, it has only strengthened criminal cartels that profit from the migrants’ and asylum seekers’ heightened fears of interception, harm, and pushbacks, and from reduced opportunities for people to request asylum despite their rights under US law. Criminal cartels’ profits and deaths of migrants increase when law enforcement operations lead people to travel through remote and deadly terrain to enter the United States.
To date, Operation Lone Star has cost Texas residents at least $4.4 billion.
“The Justice Department should promptly and thoroughly investigate and hold to account all federal and state law enforcement agencies involved with the horrific abuses at the Texas-Mexico border,” Libal said. “The Texas legislature should hold immediate oversight hearings, and federal funding and cooperation with the deadly operation should end without delay.”