Human Rights Watch: Biden should cut funding to Texas over migrant abuses

People gather at a press conference on Operation Lone Star outside the Customs and Border Protection office in Washington, DC on November 15, 2022.

The administration of President Joe Biden should immediately cease all United States government operational and financial support to the Texas government’s Operation Lone Star, Human Rights Watch said today.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott launched Operation Lone Star and issued a disaster declaration that now covers 48 counties along or near the border, allowing him to exploit unfounded fear and prejudice among Texans.

Like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has earned popularity by kidnapping immigrants and transporting them across state lines, Abbott hopes to

The declaration directed the Department of Public Safety to “use available resources to enforce all applicable federal and state laws to prevent the criminal activity along the border, including criminal trespassing, smuggling, and human trafficking, and to assist Texas counties in their efforts to address those criminal activities.”

The following month, Abbott opened Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facilities for detaining arrested persons under Operation Lone Star and he announced on November 15, 2022, his intention to use the US and Texas constitutions to give himself authority to increase border militarization in response to recent migration.

The announcement included disparaging and alarmist language about migrants and asylum seekers, echoing the terminology of white nationalists who have carried out mass shootings in Texas and elsewhere.

The governor’s office, and many of the agencies, counties, and sheriffs involved, regularly receive federal funds through a variety of programs, many of which predate Operation Lonestar.

US Border Patrol officials on November 15, 2022, also requested that the Texas legislature change the code of criminal procedure to enforce Texas state laws beyond ports of entry, a move that could increase the federal government’s role in the abusive program.

Under Operation Lone Star, thousands of immigrants have been arrested and prosecuted under enhanced charges for misdemeanor trespassing.

“Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas should make clear that the federal government will not fund or collaborate with extremist policies that harm public safety,” said Alison Parker, US managing director for Human Rights Watch. “The Biden administration’s failure to end federal support for Operation Lone Star sends an unfortunate signal to Abbott that he can expand these abusive policies with impunity.”

Texas’ Operation Lone Star is an abusive system of border policing that has been found unconstitutional by a Texas district court. The federal government, including the Department of Homeland Security, has been on notice since at least December 2021 that Operation Lone Star targets people based on race and national origin, disregards due process, and subjects them to abuses in detention.

Under Operation Lone Star, which began in March 2021, Abbott has spent billions of Texas taxpayer dollars subjecting Black and brown migrants and US citizens to racially discriminatory arrests, prosecutions on flimsy pretexts, and detention with substandard food and inadequate or nonexistent health care, people detained under the program said in a complaint filed with the US Justice Department. Defendants have been forced to wait weeks or months in pretrial detention before they have an opportunity to see a judge.  

Under the expansion announced by Abbott, Texas will add to the more than 10,000 Texas National Guard soldiers and Texas Department of Public Safety officers already deployed to the border to arrest, jail, and refer people to federal immigration authorities for deportation. He also said he would deploy gunboats, build walls in multiple counties, and enter into agreements with “foreign powers.”

Abbott’s increased militarization also affects Texas border communities, Human Rights Watch said. At least 30 people have been killed in state police car chases associated with Operation Lone Star, and evidence indicates that the police are engaging in racial profiling of residents. Additionally, low-level traffic citations in counties participating in the program have increased significantly.

Abbott also said he would begin to bus asylum seekers to Philadelphia, adding to the more than 13,000 asylum seekers who have been bused, without full information, to New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC in recent months. That policy has left some asylum seekers stranded with no housing, in some cases in cities to which they had not intended to go, and without the resources to reach other locations for their immigration court hearings.

Human Rights Watch and other groups committed to advancing immigrant rights, civil rights, and racial justice have repeatedly called on the Biden administration to end federal funding for the agencies and counties engaged in Operation Lone Star and for the Department of Homeland Security to stop collaborating with Texas state police and National Guard soldiers.

Texas’ escalating militarized approach at the border echoes a failed three-decade-old federal policy known as “prevention through deterrence,” which has not slowed migration but has strengthened illicit actors who profit from smuggling people through increasingly dangerous terrain.

The Trump and Biden administrations have continued these deterrence policies, which have increased deaths of migrants in recent years and are exacerbated by Operation Lonestar.

According to US government data reported by CBS news, a record more than 850 people died crossing the border in fiscal year 2022.    

“Texas’ increasingly cruel approach harms public safety by putting people in harm’s way, spreads fear in Texas border communities, and helps line the pockets of organized crime and others involved in smuggling,” Parker said. “The Biden administration should immediately end the administration’s cooperation with and funding for Texas’ Operation Lonestar.”

Republicans and Democrats generally agree on reforms needed for the nation’s immigration system but differ over what constitute the most pressing priorities, except some GOP politicians have latched on the the problem to scapegoat people who enter the US without authorization, overstay their visas or come as refugees seeking asylum, the legal protection offered to persecuted foreigners.

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 was a proposed reform bill introduced by eight bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate who wrote and negotiated the bill.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would have reduced the federal debt by $700 billion and added $276 billion in revenue to Social Security over 10 years while costing only $33 billion.

If enacted, the bill would have enabled many undocumented immigrants to pursue citizenship, increased security by adding up to 40,000 border patrol agents, and advanced talent-based immigration through a points-based immigration system but after it passed the Senate 68-32, the bill was not considered by House of Representatives, which was dominated by a minority of xenophobic and racist right-wing extremists.

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