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On Sept. 6, a federal judge in Austin ordered Texas to remove a floating “buoy barrier” wall in the Rio Grande outside Eagle Pass, which has become a symbol of Governor Greg Abbott’s (R) Operation Lone Star border program. Although the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the injunction, allowing the buoys to remain while appeals take place, the fight over this section of floating barriers illuminates the broader pattern of abuses committed by Texas along its southern border.

As an immigrant rights and criminal justice reform advocate for 20 years, I have become somewhat steeled to systematic injustices. But what I witnessed on a recent trip to Eagle Pass to document Operation Lone Star shook me like nothing in recent memory. 

On a blisteringly hot Wednesday morning, I saw asylum-seeking families — including at least four babies — stuck on the Texas side of the river under rows of concertina razor wire. One woman was vomiting due to dehydration, while a male companion offered her water from the muddy Rio Grande. Heavily armed Texas and Nebraska National Guard members looked on, but refused repeated requests to give them water for more than an hour.  

Instead, these families were told to walk three miles downriver. But the place they were directed to is private property, where migrants are often arrested for criminal trespassing, which can result in up to a year in prison. It is these prosecutions that have recently led to the separation of migrant fathers from their families. A recent lawsuit alleges that many have spent weeks or months in jail without even basic due process.

At one point, I witnessed a panicked toddler screaming mid-river. For a moment I thought I was going to see a child drown, while National Guard members carrying weapons of war looked on from behind the razor wire. A boat operated by Texas Highway Patrol idled up-river, in no position to help in the case of tragedy. Earlier, the boat had made waves in an apparent attempt to deter the migrants from crossing. 

The child’s family was fortunately able to turn back to an island before she drowned. But others have not been so fortunate. More than 100 people, including children, have drowned in the Rio Grande in Maverick County, of which Eagle Pass is the county seat, in just the last 18 months. And research shows that aggressive enforcement mechanisms like Operation Lone Star correlate with higher numbers of migrant deaths.  

Operation Lone Star — which has now cost Texas taxpayers $10 billion in spent or allocated funds — does not work to reduce illicit migration or drug smuggling, as the governor has claimed. In fact,  smugglers who help people cross report that they are actually benefiting from the program. They have been able to raise prices to navigate migrants around the saw-bladed buoys and razor wire that Abbott and the Texas Department of Public Safety have installed.

But it has caused chaos and harm for asylum-seekers as well for border communities that have experienced increases in deadly high speed vehicle pursuits, racially disparate traffic stops, and a “war-like” military and law-enforcement presence in their communities.    

The Biden administration should not sit idly by and let these human rights violations continue. Recent litigation to force the removal of the border buoys is a good step, but the federal government needs to go further. The Department of Justice should expedite its long-running investigation of the program. It should also send federal civil rights monitors to the border to document what is happening. And, the Department of Homeland Security should end its collaboration and funding with the agencies committing abuses under Operation Lone Star. 

What I saw in Eagle Pass was appalling, and doesn’t represent the Texas or the Texans that I know and love. The reality is that for a fraction of the billions of dollars Abbott has wasted on a program that has only brought chaos and death, Texas could invest in health care, education, and infrastructure programs that value the dignity and life of people seeking safety and a better life.

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