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US: Texas Border Policies Threaten Deadly Outcomes

State’s Standoff with Federal Government Raises Alarms Over Rights Violations

People hold a banner during a protest against Operation Lone Star after members of the Texas National Guard shot and wounded a 22-year-old near the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso, Texas, September 1, 2023.  © 2023 REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

(Austin, February 1, 2024) – Increasingly extreme rhetoric from political leaders and escalations of Texas’ Operation Lone Star border deterrence program are increasing the risk to the lives and safety of immigrants and border residents alike, Human Rights Watch said today.

Earlier in January, three migrants, two of them children, drowned in the Rio Grande near Shelby Park, in the city of Eagle Pass, Texas. Days earlier, Texas officials had seized the park against the city’s wishes and prohibited federal agents from accessing the park, impeding rescue operations. The drownings and park seizure follow a statement by Texas Governor Greg Abbott on January 5 during a radio interview that the “only thing we're not doing is shooting people” because “the Biden Administration would charge us with murder.”

“Pushing people back into the river where there is razor wire and into more dangerous parts of the river while denying access to rescue people is unconscionable,” said Bob Libal, a Human Rights Watch consultant in Texas. “It risks more deaths and injuries.”

On January 22, the US Supreme Court ruled Texas cannot stop federal agents from cutting or removing razor wire that Texan authorities placed along the Rio Grande. However, Texas installed more razor wire at the border and Governor Abbott invoked Article 1, section 10, clause 3 of the US Constitution, asserting Texas’ right to self-defense when it is being invaded.

Video footage taken by the Dutch TV show EénVandaag in December 2023 shows Texas Military Department members using riot shields to push migrants back along the Rio Grande riverbank. The video also shows several migrants with deep cuts from the razor wire.

The US had previously asked courts to force Texas to remove saw-bladed buoy barriers installed in the river.

While there is no evidence Operation Lone Star has slowed migration, the program 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.

Dangerous chases of vehicles thought to contain migrants under Operation Lone Star have led to crashes that killed at least 74 people and injured at least another 189 in a 29-month period, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in November 2023. The dead and injured included migrants and US citizens, including many bystanders.

Operation Lone Star has most likely strengthened illicit actors who profit from the heightened fears of migrants and the blocked or impeded opportunities for people to request asylum in the United States, which is their right under US law. Criminal cartels’ profits increase when migrants attempt to enter the US by traveling through remote and deadly terrain.

In December 2023, Governor Abbott signed three additional measures into law that are likely to harm migrants, asylum seekers, and communities in Texas.

One measure, SB 4, would allow state and local police to arrest migrants entering Texas between official border crossings and charge them with either improper entry, punishable up to a year in prison, or improper re-entry, punishable by 2 to 20 years in prison. The new law, which goes into effect in March, applies throughout Texas and is likely to increase racial profiling, clog state courts, and fill jails. It is also likely to distract police from other public safety work by requiring them to instead focus on arresting and prosecuting people seeking to rejoin family, find protection, or make a better life. Civil rights groups and the US federal government have challenged the measure on constitutional grounds.

Another measure creates a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison for people found guilty of smuggling or running a “stash house.” Human Rights Watch found that of the thousands booked for smuggling under Texas’ existing laws, the vast majority were young Texans. Nearly 80 percent of those booked for smuggling were US citizens, with a median age of 26. Almost 13 percent were 18 or 19.

Another law will more than double funding to continue border wall construction, adding $1.54 billion to an existing purse of nearly $1.5 billion to build 40 miles of barriers along Texas’ 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Texas has now spent or allocated almost $12 billion to Operation Lone Star.

“Operation Lone Star has ballooned into a nearly $12-billion multilayered state government program of unnecessarily harsh laws,” Libal said. “Make no mistake: Operation Lone Star risks lives and recklessly squanders public resources.”

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