Series: Billions on the Border
A Closer Look at Taxpayer-Funded Border Initiatives in Texas
This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans, and with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for newsletters from The Texas Tribune and The Marshall Project.
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 immigrants to Washington, D.C., after they were apprehended for illegally crossing the border, as well as search commercial trucks entering Texas from Mexico.
During an April 6 press conference launching the additional efforts, Abbott did not explain that the busing is voluntary for immigrants. Texas cities and counties where migrants 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about a week after his directive for vehicle safety inspections drew criticism for hampering border commerce, Abbott rescinded it, saying he’d reached agreements with four Mexican governors to strengthen security south of the border.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 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 Immigrants
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
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 immigrants. The news organizations found that misdemeanor trespassing charges made up about 40% of Operation Lone Star’s arrests from July through February. Hundreds of immigrants have since had their trespassing charges dismissed or rejected. Prosecutors and judges deemed certain arrests questionable after some immigrants 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.
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.
In September, up to 15,000 Haitian immigrants camped under the international bridge in Del Rio, a small border city about 150 miles west of San Antonio, to ask for asylum. 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 immigrants 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 Haitian immigrants, 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 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 or CBP responded to questions.
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.
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 as part of Operation Lone Star. The county was among several that declined to sign on to the governor’s border disaster declaration and, as of November, when most of the fentanyl was seized, had not received extra resources as part of the program.
A year into Operation Lone Star, Abbott touted a reduction in immigrant 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 immigrants 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 immigrants. 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 immigrants 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 immigrant 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 immigrants seeking to surrender to Border Patrol.
Busing Immigrants 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 immigrants at the border, even those seeking asylum. After the decision, Abbott announced a plan to bus immigrants 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
What Happened: The busing program is optional for immigrants, and Texas cities and counties where the federal government drops off migrants seeking to stay in the country must also request the transport. The program pays for buses and chartered flights for immigrants who have been released by the federal government and want to leave the state for Washington, D.C. In a statement, 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:
- The operation is nabbing not only immigrants, but also U.S. citizens and others with authorized status across a broad region of 63 counties, at times charging them for crimes with no connection to the border.
- After questions from the news organizations, DPS removed from its accounting more than 2,000 charges, including violent crimes as defined by the FBI, that the agency said did not reflect the operation’s mission. DPS officials said the agency is continuously improving how it collects and reports arrest data to “better reflect the mission” of securing the border.
- Texas spends more money on border security than any other state. Operation Lone Star is by far the most expensive of the state’s border operations, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $2.5 million a week and an additional estimated expense of $2 billion a year for the National Guard deployment.
- The amount of state funding legislators approved for border security grew from $110 million in 2008-09 to nearly $3 billion for the 2022-23 budget cycle. That doesn’t include nearly half a billion dollars the governor transferred from other agencies after last year’s legislative sessions.