Operation Lone Star: All you need to know about latest US border flashpoint

Washington, DC – Democratic legislators in the United States have voiced outrage over the latest methods used by the US state of Texas at the border with Mexico to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from entering the country.

In videos posted on social media this week during a trip to the border, Representatives Sylvia Garcia and Joaquin Castro decried the massive strings of buoys – equipped with “chainsaw devices” between them – deployed to stop irregular crossings along the Rio Grande river.

The buoys are the latest contentious move under Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s so-called Operation Lone Star, a state-led effort to stem migration.

Abbott has long accused the administration of US President Joe Biden of fuelling arrivals at the US-Mexico border – and the Republican governor’s new deterrence measures have emerged in recent weeks as the latest flashpoint in US immigration policy.

“You really have a situation where the state government and Greg Abbott are treating human beings like animals,” Castro, a Democratic lawmaker who represents a Texas district, said from the town of Eagle Pass on Tuesday.

“It’s incredibly dangerous, it’s incredibly inhumane, and it’s the reason I’ve said it’s barbaric, because it is.”

Here’s all you need to know:

What is Operation Lone Star?

Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, citing a rise in border crossings and fentanyl trafficking after Biden took office. He declared a state of emergency in most Texas counties along the border – a declaration he most recently renewed in May for 58 counties.

Under the programme, Abbott has deployed the Texas National Guard to the border, boosted funding for local law enforcement, and sought to increase physical barriers. In May, he also announced the deployment of a special “Texas Tactical Border Force”.

Abbott has sought help from Republican leaders in other states, including Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, who said in June that a group of 12 GOP governors had pledged to send 1,305 National Guardsmen and 231 law enforcement personnel to aid in the operation.

The Texas state government has also sought donations to boost the programme.

The Texas government has said that more than 390,500 migrants and asylum seekers have been apprehended under Operation Lone Star. Of that, more than 30,000 people have been arrested, many of whom were charged with the state crime of criminal trespass.

“Operation Lone Star continues to fill the dangerous gaps created by the Biden Administration’s refusal to secure the border,” Abbott’s office has said, defending the programme in the face of criticism from rights groups, legislators and others.

The operation has cost over $4.5bn, Abbott has said. And a March 2022 report by The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and The Marshall Project found that the programme cost taxpayers $2.5m a week.

Is it legal?

Only the federal government has the power to set immigration laws pertaining to who can enter the US, although the limits of state authorities to enforce federal immigration law remain a matter of debate.

In testimony before the Texas Legislature in February, Bob Libal, a US consultant with Human Rights Watch, argued that the programme violated both the right of individuals to be “free from racial discrimination” and their right under US and international law to seek asylum.

The programme has created a “separate and unequal state criminal justice system to target migrants [including asylum seekers] and US citizens near the Texas border for arrest, criminal prosecution, and imprisonment”, Libal said.

Libal also cited a report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Texas Civil Rights Project that found that in Operation Lone Star’s first 16 months, at least 30 people had died and 71 others were injured in “high-speed vehicle pursuits” that can be attributed to the programme.

At least 10 Texas National Guard members have also died while deployed under the operation, Libal added.

Last month, a report by The Houston Chronicle sparked further outrage. The news outlet reported on an email that it said came from a trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety, who detailed being ordered to “push” back migrants and asylum seekers at risk of drowning in the Rio Grande. The email also said those trying to cross were often injured by the barriers.

In a statement, Abbott’s office said no orders or directions had been given to “compromise the lives of those attempting to cross the border illegally”, while defending the use of concertina wire, also known as razor wire, along the border.

Meanwhile, 87 Democrats in the US House of Representatives last month called on the Biden administration to “immediately intervene to stop” Abbott’s actions.

They also urged the Democratic president to, “as appropriate, pursue legal action given the serious and credible allegations of harm to migrants, interference in the federal enforcement of immigration laws, and violations of treaty commitments with Mexico”.

Why are the buoys causing alarm?

In June, Abbott’s office announced the deployment of “marine floating barriers to deter illegal crossings in hotspots”, with the first 304 metres (1,000 feet) constructed in the Texas city of Eagle Pass.

“This strategy will proactively prevent illegal crossings between ports of entry by making it more difficult to cross the Rio Grande and reach the Texas side of the southern border,” Abbott’s office said.

In July, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit demanding the removal of the floating barriers, which critics have called a cruel political stunt.

“We allege that Texas has flouted federal law by installing a barrier in the Rio Grande without obtaining the required federal authorization,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. Abbott replied: “See you in court.”

Mexico had earlier filed a complaint with the US government, accusing the structure of violating border treaties signed in 1944 and 1970. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has also called the barriers “inhumane”.

Last week, the discovery of two bodies in the Rio Grande, one of them stuck in the buoys, stoked further outrage. The Texas Department of Public Safety has said that the body found tangled in the buoys appeared to have drowned at another location and floated downstream.

Critics also have accused the Biden administration of imposing migration policies that force asylum seekers to take increasingly perilous routes into the US to avoid detection.

The Biden administration policies, instated in May, expedite expulsions for those who seek to cross the US border without making an immigration appointment, or if they have not first applied for asylum in a third country they travelled through earlier in their journey to the US.

Rights advocates have said the policy amounts to an “asylum ban”.

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