Governors Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis’s callous and politically motivated transport of immigrants to various “liberal bastions” in the U.S. received a great deal of national attention after thousands of immigrants were bused to New York City, Washington, D.C. and Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses. However, less notice has been given to Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s coordinated $4 billion effort to deter and prosecute migrants in south Texas. Since the program began in 2021, thousands of migrants have been prosecuted for enhanced crimes under a bogus disaster declaration.
In 2010, when Arizona passed SB 1070 — the “Show Me Your Papers” law which used the state criminal legal system to greatly expand the grounds for arresting and prosecuting immigrants — the Obama administration sued within three months. Through Operation Lone Star, Abbott is once again attempting to seize authority over immigration via the state criminal system. Yet to date, the Biden administration has failed to intervene.
Operation Lone Star is not only exacerbating the harms of the U.S. deportation machine, but also criminalizing and exploiting migrant lives in the process. The program sets a dangerous precedent for how authoritarian leaders can co-opt, expand and unleash existing criminal legal infrastructure onto political targets, which — if it isn’t stopped — could be replicated in other states.
In early October, I joined a delegation led by the Texas-based organization Grassroots Leadership to witness Operation Lone Star. As we made our way through Uvalde, Kinney County, Dilley, Eagle Pass and across the U.S.-Mexico border to Piedras Negras, we saw the impact of Operation Lone Star everywhere. Law enforcement was omnipresent, convened on the area from localities hours away: a Galveston County constable vehicle in the parking lot at the Kinney County Courthouse, San Angelo fire trucks at the Val Verde County Detention Center and so on. We witnessed the Texas National Guard detaining a migrant under the international bridge in Eagle Pass while they awaited the arrival of border agents. We observed a virtual hearing for two people, one a migrant from Honduras, the other a U.S. citizen and new father whose bond was set at $400,000 for “smuggling” two undocumented immigrants. Under the guise of “border security,” small communities across south Texas are becoming police states right before our eyes.
What makes Operation Lone Star both terrifying and replicable is how Abbott seized and shaped the law, legal institutions and the machinery of the prison-industrial complex to expand funding for the carceral state while unleashing its might on migrants. Every step of Operation Lone Star and its use of the criminal system is both familiar and amplified, from using cash bail to keep loved ones in jail or extract money from their families, to jailing people prior to trial to coerce them into pleading guilty. The expansiveness and availability of local and state criminal systems across the United States means any state could use their systems in a similar way.
Abbott took several concrete steps to make this vision a reality. First, he needed the legal basis to arrest and jail migrants, which he shaped through executive action. When Abbott declared a disaster last year, purportedly on the basis of an influx of undocumented immigration in 34 counties (now 54), the Texas Disaster Act kicked in that allowed certain criminal offenses to be enhanced one level up in the disaster area. Thus, a criminal trespass offense, which typically is a Class B misdemeanor carrying a potential punishment of up to 180 days in prison, is now eligible to be charged as a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in prison. The potential for severe punishment, combined with imprisonment under squalid conditions, is used as a coercive tool to get people to plead guilty just to get out of prison, sending them into a deportation pipeline.
For Operation Lone Star to work, Abbott also needed additional judicial resources to create a semblance of due process. Thus, in spring 2021, the Texas Supreme Court pulled 30 judges out of retirement or senior status and appointed them as magistrates in counties central to Abbott’s operation. This permitted those judges to conduct “magistrations” via video conference from the comfort of their homes, during which they notify people of the charges against them, set frequently exorbitant bail amounts and begin the process of appointing an attorney. In the past year, thousands of people have been funneled through these virtual courts, often the only time they see a judge in the months following their arrest.
To jail migrants while they “awaited trial” (out of the thousands of people arrested in the 16 months since the program began, I could only find documentation of one trial), Abbott used existing prison infrastructure overseen by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The department cleared two prisons by transferring most of the people held there to other units so that the prisons could be used to jail hundreds of migrants pretrial. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which in theory oversees Texas jails, rubber-stamped this unprecedented use of the state prison system to jail people before trial. When these prisons first started holding people arrested under Operation Lone Star, even their attorneys were unable to access them.
Equally concerning is the way in which Operation Lone Star is creating its own carceral economy, one that many poor, small south Texas towns are becoming dependent on. Grassroots organizers have observed that in Del Rio, local motels have started to upgrade their rooms to accommodate law enforcement officers from across the state. As we crossed the border to Piedras Negras the woman taking our fee to cross the bridge, an Eagle Pass resident, saw our shirts that read “End Operation Lone Star,” and responded, “We’re a poor town. I hope they don’t end Operation Lone Star.”
The Operation Lone Star money is coming from many directions. In addition to the commercial activity spawned by the operation in small Texas communities, Abbott has amassed $130 million to dole out as grants to participating cities and counties. Some counties are even creating their own boondoggles by extracting cash from incarcerated people and their loved ones through the cash bail system. Kinney County alone has collected about $3 million in bond money from migrants prosecuted by the county.
On the delegation through south Texas, as we stood outside jails and courthouses learning more about the harms of Operation Lone Star, we were often surrounded by monarch butterflies on their journey south during their annual migration — an ever-present reminder that the lines we call borders are made up.
Abbott masterminded Operation Lone Star, but the Biden administration is also to blame, from Border Patrol and ICE agents collaborating with Texas officials, to the president continuing Trump-era policies that have made seeking safety at our southern border even more difficult for migrants seeking asylum. Biden must intervene now to protect migrants from Abbott’s draconian agenda — before Operation Lone Star spreads to other states.