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2 Years and $4B Later, What We Know About Operation Lone Star

Gov. Greg Abbott’s wide-ranging and controversial initiative deploys thousands of state authorities to apprehend and jail migrants along parts of the Rio Grande and is costing far more than has ever been spent on border security in a budget cycle.

(TNS) — As the Biden administration grapples with a historic surge in illegal border crossings, Texas Republicans have pumped billions of state dollars into their own border security blitz, deploying thousands of state authorities to apprehend and jail migrants along parts of the Rio Grande.

The effort is costing Texas $4.4 billion over the first two years, far more than the state has ever spent on border security in a budget cycle. And with this year's legislative session underway, state GOP lawmakers are eyeing a new record of more than $4.6 billion in border security spending to keep things running for the next two years.

The centerpiece of Texas' border security efforts — and the most expensive component — is Gov. Greg Abbott's wide-ranging and controversial initiative known as Operation Lone Star.

Here's what you need to know about it as the Legislature considers an unprecedented extension.

What is Operation Lone Star?

It's the latest in a string of attempts by Texas Republicans to more aggressively respond to illegal immigration. The operation began in the spring of 2021 when Abbott sent thousands of state Department of Public Safety troopers to the border, followed by thousands more members of the Texas National Guard.

The initiative has echoes of former Governor Rick Perry's "Operation Strong Safety" back in 2014, which was also described as a surge of Texas National Guardsmen and state troopers to the border, at a cost of more than $10 million a month. But since federal immigration agents are the only ones with the authority to deport people, many state troopers at that time found themselves with little to do beyond conducting traffic stops.

This time, Abbott is circumventing the federal immigration system altogether. Through disaster declarations, executive orders, and massive increases in state funding, he has enabled state troopers to arrest thousands of people in border counties for offenses like criminal trespassing and human smuggling. Abbott is also handing out state grants to several border counties that participate in the operation.

Since many of the people apprehended can't afford to pay bail and local jails in the border counties are too small to hold all of them, the state repurposed two former South Texas prisons into makeshift jails. Those who do manage to get released usually go straight to immigration authorities and eventually get deported if they lack proper documentation.

Abbott recently claimed that the initiative has led to "over 340,000 illegal immigrant apprehensions and more than 23,000 criminal arrests, with more than 21,000 felony charges reported." But more comprehensive data indicating where these arrests occurred, the outcomes of the resulting criminal cases, and how much they're actually related to Operation Lone Star have been difficult to come by.

According to figures from the Texas Department of Emergency Management, a significant share of the arrests so far have been for misdemeanor-level trespassing in Kinney County, where local prosecutors are the most willing to handle the criminal cases. There, authorities have entered into agreements with ranchers, railroad companies and others to look for migrants who are crossing the border while illegally on private land.

In the last year, troopers have also stepped up their arrests for the felony offense of human smuggling. They're doing so by conducting traffic stops in various border counties — with the majority appearing, again, in Kinney County — and arresting people if they're accompanied by passengers who don't have legal documentation. Hundreds of those arrested for smuggling are American citizens.

Abbott has also bused thousands of migrants to Democratic-led states, which has garnered national attention. So far Texas officials have sent more than 11,000 border crossers to cities like Chicago and New York. Abbott claims the program provides "much-needed relief to border communities." Critics say it's a political stunt that misleads the migrants and puts an unfair burden on the cities receiving them.

Why is Operation Lone Star Controversial?

Abbott and his supporters say it's filling gaps in what they consider overly lax enforcement of federal immigration laws. Border crossings have continued to increase in Texas since the operation began, though at a slower rate than in neighboring border states. But the effort has come at a large cost, forcing Texas officials to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars from the prison system and other areas to keep it going.

The border arrests have also overwhelmed everyone responsible for carrying them out. State troopers have often been taking months to file the necessary arrest paperwork, as well as hand over evidence like body-camera footage, according to court documents and testimony in legislative hearings. Prison officials are struggling to process releases and transfers on time. And local judges and prosecutors who were used to dealing with a handful of criminal cases each year are now buckling under the weight of handling thousands.

As a result, hundreds of Operation Lone Star defendants have languished behind bars for months without the chance to go before a judge, which is a violation of state law. In some cases, judges have ordered the mass releases of defendants because prosecutors were unable to process their cases quickly enough. In others, prosecutors abandoned the operation; for instance, Val Verde County, whose top elected misdemeanor prosecutor is a Democrat, has dismissed most criminal trespass cases and stopped taking new ones. Kinney County's Republican prosecutor is pressing on, even though an attorney representing him in appellate court openly called the entire operation "a waste of time and money."

The problems have prompted a flurry of legal challenges that seek to undo the initiative all together. Defense lawyers have argued that border arrests are discriminatory because they only target men for criminal trespass arrests — a deliberate choice, the state has said, because there aren't enough resources to arrest women. Lawyers have also appealed to judges in faraway counties to grant their clients relief, citing the extraordinary delays in rural border county courts. Most of the disputes are still tied up in the appellate courts.

There has also been dissatisfaction among the law enforcement deployed to the border, most notably the National Guard. In interviews and leaked surveys, many guardsmen say they do little but watch for illegal border crossers through binoculars and pass along tips to federal Border Patrol agents. State officials disagree with those accounts, claiming that the presence of guardsmen has been vital in deterring illegal crossings.

How Much Money Has Been Spent, and What Has It Been Spent On?

Since the operation launched nearly two years ago, Texas has spent $4.4 billion on border security, up from just $800 million in its previous two-year budget cycle, which ended in August 2021.

That includes $1.8 billion approved by the Legislature to build a barrier along parts of the border and to deploy guardsmen and troopers to the region.

As of July, 1.6 miles of wall had been built, with 45 total miles planned at a cost of nearly $1 billion. State officials have mapped out 805 miles "where some kind of barrier may be necessary," according to Abbott's office.

A smaller chunk of the spending — some tens of millions of dollars — has gone toward supporting the court system and detention facilities that are processing and holding migrants. Abbott's busing program, meanwhile, has cost more than $12.7 million, or about $1,700 per passenger.

But the largest expense, by far, has come from the deployment of troopers and guardsmen, forcing Republican leaders to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from a handful of other agency budgets, including the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state prison system. Those transfers have been signed off on unilaterally by Abbott and a handful of other GOP leaders, who say they have since reimbursed the agencies, partly by backfilling employee salaries with federal COVID aid.

Is the Effort Working?

Skeptics have argued that Operation Lone Star does little to deter migrants from making the journey north, with many fleeing more powerful motivators like violence and persecution in their home countries. Some also claim the effort has actually incentivized migrants to come here or, in other cases, made it easier for them to stay.

There's some evidence, though, that Operation Lone Star could be making an impact. While encounters at the Texas- Mexico border are up compared to when the initiative was launched in March 2021, other states bordering Mexico have seen much steeper increases.

By March 2022, encounters at the Texas- Mexico border had risen by about 9 percent from a year ago — from 109,456 to 119,053, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Meanwhile in Arizona, California and New Mexico, the three other states that share a border with Mexico, encounters rose 62 percent.

Texas also saw a 17 percent decline in encounters from July 2021, when state authorities began arresting migrants on state charges, to July of last year.

A recent spike brought Texas back up to 154,606 encounters in December, the most recent monthly data reported by the Biden administration. That is about 41 percent higher than the monthly total when Operation Lone Star began, compared to a 63 percent combined increase in Arizona, California and New Mexico.

(c)2023 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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