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Filed 6:00 a.m.
04.27.2022

Reality Check: 7 Times Texas Leaders Misled the Public About Operation Lone Star

As reporters investigated Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border initiative, they repeatedly found instances where Abbott and DPS officials cited accomplishments that lacked crucial context or were misleading. Here are a few examples.

A photo illustration shows Governor Greg Abbott's face torn in half, with one half of his face brighter and the other half of his face slightly darker.  There is also an image of migrants crossing the Rio Grande River, a portion of a spreadsheet showing border security costs, powdered fentanyl near hundred dollar bills, and torn sections of trees and sky.

Earlier this month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ratcheted up pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration by expanding the state’s sweeping border crackdown, announcing that he would bus people to Washington, D.C., after they were apprehended for illegally crossing the border, as well as search commercial trucks entering Texas from Mexico.

This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans, and with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for newsletters from The Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

During an April 6 press conference launching the additional efforts, Abbott did not explain that the busing is voluntary for people apprehended while trying to enter the U.S. The Texas cities and counties where people seeking to stay in the country are dropped off by the federal government must also request such a transport out of state before it occurs.

Then, about a week after his directive for vehicle safety inspections drew criticism for hampering border commerce, Abbott rescinded it, saying he’d reached agreements with four Mexican governors to strengthen security south of the border. The agreements mostly included measures already in place, but the governor claimed on social media last week that they demonstrated Texas had accomplished more to secure the border in two days than Biden had done during his time in office.

The measures are the latest examples of how Abbott and other state officials have used incomplete and sometimes misleading statements when promoting the purpose and effectiveness of the governor’s Operation Lone Star. Abbott launched the initiative in March 2021, stating that it would help stop drug and migrant smuggling. In the past year, the governor has deployed more than 10,000 National Guard members, along with state Department of Public Safety troopers, to patrol the border, build barriers and arrest some migrant men on state criminal trespassing charges for crossing into the U.S. through private land.

The result has been a multibillion-dollar operation that has counted arrests for crimes with no connection to the border and included tallies of drugs captured across the state in communities that received no additional resources from the initiative, ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and The Marshall Project found. The news organizations’ investigation showed that while Abbott initially said the operation would focus on targeting Mexican cartel members and smugglers, misdemeanor trespassing charges soon accounted for the largest share of arrests.

The governor’s office has hailed the operation as a success, repeatedly saying that it has captured criminals and deadly drugs.

As part of the investigation, reporters identified instances in which Abbott and DPS officials pointed to goals and accomplishments that lacked important context or did not match reality. Here’s some of what we found:

Trespassing Charges Against Migrants

Last May 31, Abbott signed a border disaster declaration, giving him expansive power similar to what he would have after a natural disaster. Among other things, the declaration of a disaster automatically increased penalties for trespassing to up to a year in jail. Three days later, the governor promoted the effort on Fox News during an interview with host Sean Hannity.

Statement: “I follow the law, and the law that I’m going to use will be legal ways in which Texas is going to start arresting everybody coming across the border. Not just arresting them, but because this is now going to be aggravated trespass, they’re going to be spending a half a year in jail, if not a year in jail.” — Abbott, Fox News, June 3, 2021

A video of Gov. Greg Abbott on Fox News discussing his disaster declaration that, among other things, automatically increased penalties for trespassing to up to a year in jail.

What Happened: Texas did not, in fact, arrest everyone coming across the border. Since Abbott announced the effort, more than 2,900 people have been arrested by state police for allegedly crossing into Texas via private property. Most of the arrests occurred primarily in two rural counties in the southwest part of the state, according to DPS data. Leaders of the state’s biggest border counties have declined to participate, saying in interviews that they urged comprehensive solutions, rather than the criminalization of people trying to enter the U.S. The news organizations found that misdemeanor trespassing charges made up about 40% of Operation Lone Star’s arrests from July through February. Hundreds of people have since had their trespassing charges dismissed or rejected. Prosecutors and judges deemed certain arrests questionable after some migrants said DPS troopers marched them through private property. State police and Border Patrol officials have denied the allegations. Body camera footage confirmed at least one of those accounts. Other charges were dismissed because people sought asylum. Democratic elected officials and attorneys have questioned the legality of the trespassing arrests and asked the Justice Department to investigate alleged human rights violations related to Operation Lone Star. The governor’s office has maintained the arrests are “fully constitutional.”

700 Gang Members

DPS officials and Abbott have often insisted on social media and during interviews on Fox News that the operation targets cartels and violent gangs such as MS-13.

Statement: “The Texas Department of Public Safety, during #OperationLoneStar have encountered over 700 criminal gang members.” — Texas DPS Facebook page, Sept. 7, 2021

What Happened: DPS officials have not provided any proof of the department’s citation of hundreds of gang arrests. The department denied a public records request from ProPublica, the Tribune and The Marshall Project, saying gang affiliation is not a metric that is tracked. The agency said that in some instances those people arrested have “active warrants, previous records, etc. that indicate certain gang affiliations.” The news organizations found multiple examples in arrest data and drug seizure information that raised questions about claims that the operation focused on dangerous cartels and smugglers. Among those examples were arrests with no links to the border.

Haitian Asylum-Seekers and Migrants

In September, up to 15,000 Haitians, the majority of them seeking asylum, camped under the international bridge in Del Rio, a small border city about 150 miles west of San Antonio. Their arrival followed the assassination of Haiti’s president, an earthquake that killed thousands and economic instability in Latin American countries where some Haitians had previously migrated after a previous earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. DPS troopers and Texas National Guard members lined up vehicles along the bank of the Rio Grande and formed what officials called a “steel barrier” to stop people from crossing.

Statement: “[Border Patrol agents] said the surge of migrants across the border was stopped only when the Texas Department of Public Safety and the National Guard showed up to provide a steel barrier to prevent the migrants from coming across. As soon as the National Guard and the Texas Department of Public Safety showed up, literally with hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles, that is when the illegal migration stopped. That is exactly what the Biden administration could do if they wanted to.” — Abbott, Fox News, Sept. 26, 2021

What Happened: Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement expelled or deported thousands of Haitians seeking asylum, clearing the bridge within a week. Mexican officials blocked others before they reached the border. The role of DPS and the National Guard in stopping the Haitian asylum-seekers and migrants is unknown. Neither Texas agency made arrests. It’s unclear how many people the agencies referred to federal officials for deportation during that period. Neither DPS nor CBP responded to questions about this.

Spending on Border Security

Last year, Texas lawmakers tripled the amount the state spends on border security, with the bulk of the budget going to Operation Lone Star. The governor’s office received the largest share. The state later shifted nearly $500 million away from other agencies, including the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, to help pay for the National Guard deployment after costs exceeded what the Legislature had approved.

Statement: “Texas as a state is deploying more resources to the border than the United States of America as a country. Texas taxpayers alone, in just the next two years, we are spending $3 billion to secure a border. I think that’s far more than what the federal government is spending here in Texas, or here in the United States.” — Abbott, Fox News, Jan. 28, 2022

What Happened: CBP’s annual budget for fiscal year 2022 is more than $16 billion, compared with the more than $3 billion Texas budgeted for border security over a two-year period. The federal agency declined to provide a specific breakdown for its expenditures in Texas. As of January, CBP had more than 8,000 Border Patrol agents in Texas. The figure does not include the number of customs officers stationed at international ports of entry in the state, which CBP did not provide.

Fentanyl Seized

Marijuana made up more than three-quarters of illegal drugs captured under Operation Lone Star from March 2021 to January, but Abbott has focused on fentanyl seizures while touting the initiative’s success. At a February event in Austin that featured his Democratic opponent Beto O’Rourke, staff for Abbott’s reelection campaign handed out prescription bottles with fliers stuffed inside that claimed the effectiveness of the operation in capturing fentanyl.

Statement: “Amount of fentanyl caught from Operation Lone Star: 887 lbs” — flyers stuffed into pill bottles labeled “fentanyl” and handed out by Texans for Greg Abbott at a Beto O’Rourke speaking event in Austin in February

What Happened: Abbott and his reelection campaign are citing figures that reflect fentanyl seizures across the state, including those that would have occurred without the operation. Of the 887 pounds of fentanyl that Abbott credited to Operation Lone Star in February, only about 160 pounds were seized in the 63 counties that the state included as part of the initiative. El Paso County accounted for all but 12 pounds of the fentanyl captured within the boundaries of Operation Lone Star. The county was among several that declined to sign on to the governor’s border disaster declaration and did not receive extra resources as part of the program.

Migrant Apprehensions

A year into Operation Lone Star, Abbott touted a reduction in migrant apprehensions during an interview with the conservative news site Breitbart. He said the decrease showed that the operation was working.

Statement: “Working collaboratively with local law enforcement, we have now been able to cut in half the number of apprehensions of people coming across the border illegally in the Rio Grande Valley Sector. … The bottom line is the cartels have realized it’s a money-losing proposition for them to try to cross the border in Texas.” — Abbott, Breitbart, March 17, 2022

What Happened: Abbott correctly stated that the number of people caught entering the Rio Grande Valley sector, which includes 19 counties in South Texas, fell by about 46% after the start of the operation. In March 2021, Border Patrol apprehended 62,685 migrants. A year later, the apprehension numbers in that region had dropped to 44,073. But Abbott’s statement failed to acknowledge that the number of people Border Patrol agents took into custody across the state remained at its highest levels in at least two decades, averaging about 110,381 a month since the operation launched. DPS has claimed reductions in migrant apprehensions as a sign of the operation’s success and also, at times, said such decreases were something over which the state’s efforts had little control. In November, agency officials told the news organizations that DPS defined success as fewer migrants coming across the border. They later said a decline in apprehensions is not considered a measure of success because many factors can come into play, including policy decisions in Washington or an increase in the number of migrants seeking to surrender to Border Patrol.

Busing Migrants to Washington

Early this month, the Biden administration announced that it would discontinue Title 42, a Trump-era pandemic health order through which federal authorities turned away most people at the border, even those seeking asylum. After the decision, Abbott announced a plan to bus migrants to Washington, D.C.

Statement: “BREAKING: Governor Greg Abbott JUST ANNOUNCED that Texas is going to use charter buses to DROP OFF BIDEN’S ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS in Washington, DC. We want to MAKE SURE that Biden knows JUST HOW REAL this crisis is.” — Abbott’s campaign fundraising appeal on April 6, 2022

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a plan to bus migrants to Washington D.C., and asked his supporters to donate to his campaign.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a plan to bus migrants to Washington D.C., and asked his supporters to donate to his campaign.

What Happened: The busing program is optional for migrants, and Texas cities and counties where the federal government drops off people seeking to stay in the country must also request the transport. The program pays for buses and chartered flights for people who have been released by the federal government and want to leave the state for Washington, D.C. In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus said Abbott is making CBP officials’ jobs more difficult by transporting migrants far from their immigration proceedings and not coordinating those moves with the federal government.

Our Investigation Into Operation Lone Star Also Found:

Andrew Rodriguez Calderón Twitter Email is a computational journalist at The Marshall Project. He previously worked with the Columbia Journalism School’s Cross Borders Data Investigations team, looking into illegal political finance and nonprofits across Central and South America. He uses computer programming and data visualization to report on criminal justice and immigration, and has collaborated on national award-winning stories, including Detained, Think Debtor’s Prisons Are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi and More Immigrants Are Giving Up Court Fights and Leaving the U.S..