Advocates for immigrants and civil rights groups are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border enforcement operation, alleging the program is discriminatory and fuels anti-immigrant hatred.
A previous version of this story said that Ivan Ruano Nava and David Vega Muñoz were kept in jail weeks after a district court judge ordered their release. The men were kept in jail for days after the judge’s order. The story also said both men were ultimately let go. Ruano Nava was released into the country but Vega Muñoz was deported. This version has been corrected.
The nearly $2 billion Operation Lone Star program was billed by state lawmakers as Texas’ answer to Biden administration border policies they deem ineffective at curbing illegal immigration. U.S. Border Patrol encountered more than 1.7 million migrants from across and beyond the hemisphere — many of whom were seeking asylum — at the U.S.-Mexico border this year. Abbott (R) has argued that the numbers compromise state security.
Texas has sent thousands of National Guard soldiers and state troopers to the border since the operation’s launch in March. It also began soliciting donations for a state-funded border wall and tried to bar ground transportation of migrants. But in July, Abbott went a step further, directing troopers to arrest migrant men and charge them with state crimes, such as criminal trespassing, with enhanced penalties.
The coalition argues that Texas is usurping the federal government’s immigration enforcement responsibility by creating its own unilateral system that weaponizes state law to “punish migrants for coming to the United States,” according to the complaint. They also allege that local officials have used xenophobic language and openly tried to collaborate with militia groups or contract with private security to help detain immigrants.
“Virtually all if not all of those arrested to date are Latinx and Black men and are migrants. And the nature of the program — state-sanctioned targeting of immigrants — has further fueled racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and action …” the complaint said.
“This rhetoric has deadly consequences,” said Laura Peña, legal director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, citing the 2019 El Paso massacre, in which a shooter targeted Latinos.
This facet of Operation Lone Star has been plagued by missteps in prosecutions that have led to case dismissals and court orders for the large-scale release of migrants from state custody after hundreds were held for weeks without charges or access to an attorney. Several border counties refused to participate, saying it would overwhelm their criminal justice systems and unnecessarily tax their prosecutorial resources.
One jurisdiction that participates in the program is Kinney County, a rural South Texas ranching community along the Rio Grande. Sheriff Brad Coe, a retired Border Patrol agent, and his six deputies work with troopers to funnel migrants through a special judicial system created specifically for them. The vast majority of the more than 2,200 trespassing arrests made under the program this year were in Kinney.
The program has been applauded by hard line conservatives in the state and supported by ranchers who have lived with migrants crossing their lands or watching smugglers evade authorities in high-speed chases on their roads.
“The community is behind this 110 percent because they are tired of their property being damaged, tired of fences being cut and tired of pursuits,” Coe said.
Troopers who spot men suspected of crossing the border illegally, on private property, take them to a special processing facility in neighboring Val Verde County. The men are transferred to state jail units converted to hold migrants awaiting prosecution.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the complaint.
Claudia Muñoz, whose Texas-based group Grassroots Leadership runs a hotline for detained migrants, said they started receiving calls from the families of the detained, confused about where their loved ones were and why they were being held.
Muñoz said they heard stories of troopers luring migrants onto private property and arresting them, migrants being asked to sign documents they couldn’t read, waiving their rights to counsel and being held in state custody weeks after posting bond.
Attorneys and advocates analyzed more than 100 cases in which they say the men arrested were racially profiled.
“A lot of them are asylum seekers who have indicated to us that they left their countries fearing persecution of some kind,” she said. “Many are from Mexico, but there are also some from Venezuela and other Central Americans.”
Kathryn Dyer, an attorney helping to represent two men arrested under a bridge, said clients Ivan Ruano Nava and David Vega Muñoz had their cases dismissed after being held for two months. But they were kept in jail days after a district court judge ordered their September release and that of more than 200 others in custody without charges.
Dyer asked the court this week to hold Sheriff Coe and other officials in contempt after her clients were transferred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody instead of being released to their attorneys. Ruano Nava was released into the country but Vega Muñoz was deported.
“There’s just a whole host of due process rights that are consistently being violated and it's our hope that the federal government will step in and pay attention to the extreme constitutional violations of this program,” Dyer said.
The groups included affidavits from detained migrants, asserting they had been beckoned by state troopers to climb over fences or walk onto private property. Their cases were subsequently dismissed for a lack of probable cause, court records show.
Federal authorities do not have a role or partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety but have deported migrants previously in state or local custody on a case-by-case basis. It’s unclear how many Lone Star detainees have been removed from the country.
Civil rights organizations also argue that Operation Lone Star and the officials promoting it, are facilitating rising anti-immigrant hatred in Texas. The complaint points to comments made by state officials and Kinney County Judge Tully Shahan, Coe and local prosecutor Brent Smith on social media and in public appearances.
Kinney County was the first in Texas to declare a local emergency, writing “thousands of illegal aliens are invading our Great State …” In previous interviews, Smith has said his county is being overrun and has called on Texans to help them solve the crisis themselves.
Within weeks, vigilante groups Patriots for America and Women Fighting for America rolled into town. They promoted their services at a county meeting and a plan to deputize the militia members was hatched.
The county eventually backed down. But Coe, for his part, said the private citizens would have helped to transport and maintain county vehicles, not detain alleged border crossers. He added the operation is working but it is an imperfect resolution to a problem no political party seems keen to address rationally.
“To me there’s no discrimination,” said Coe, who routinely interviews a life-size cardboard cutout of Vice President Harris on his Facebook page. “I think it’s going pretty good.”
Judge Shahan last week replaced three state-appointed judges with his own handpicked choices to oversee the misdemeanor cases after the former judges allowed several defendants to bond out or dismissed cases, the Texas Tribune first reported.
Smith did not respond to requests for comment. Shahan declined an interview.
With Title VI, the DOJ will review the complaint to decide if the investigation advocates seek, is merited.
“I think what terrifies me the most is that they are using this incredibly well-resourced, existing bloated system, our criminal system, and targeting it at perceived political enemies,” said Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. “They are creating a road-map for just about any state to do it.”