As Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and National Guard members working on Operation Lone Star took a break from border security duties to have a Thanksgiving meal in Edinburg on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Greg Abbott discussed future plans to expand the mission logistically and tactically, he said.
“We’re in the middle of an escalation to do even more on the border because of the imminent lifting of Title 42,” Abbott told reporters at the DPS hangar in Edinburg while troopers and officers ate a meal that included local fare from Delia’s Tamales.
Hundreds of them sat around tables set up in the hangar and were served by Operation Lone Star leaders like DPS Director Steve McCraw, Texas Military Department Adjutant General Thomas Suelzer and the governor.
Abbott’s efforts to address a rise in the number of immigrants showing up at the Texas border began in March 2021 with the implementation of Operation Lone Star.
Since then, the state surged troopers and TMD members to the border, added fencing, increased penalties for immigrants who trespass private property and began prosecuting immigrants who violated the trespassing law.
On the federal side, the U.S. continues to implement a public health policy known as Title 42 which immediately sends back those seeking entry. But last week, a federal court judge in Washington issued an order that will terminate its current use in the near future. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the policy has been used over five million times to turn people back, including many who tried crossing more than once.
A day after the judge’s ruling, Abbott said the state would enhance security at the Texas border and sent letters to county judges, the director of DPS and the adjunct general of the Texas Military Department in which he outlined the need for “partners to defend Texas against what amounts to an invasion of America’s southern border.”
But exactly what Abbott meant was unclear to state senators and even Abbott’s director of budget and policy, Sarah Hicks, as was evident during a Texas senate committee hearing on border security last Tuesday.
“Does the governor intend to engage in combat operations?” Senator Brian Birdwell, a republican, veteran and chairman of the committee, asked Hicks.
“I think that what he is talking about and what he is issuing is a reiteration of all the positions that he has taken,” Hicks responded, referring to Abbott’s Executive Order 41 issued in July. The order cited the ‘invasion’ clause.
“I don’t think it is a change in overall tactic as much as it is a reminder to all of Congress and to the members working the issue that this is serious and it demands a full and serious response,” Hicks added.
Birdwell pressed for clarification. “Given that as the potential way we’re moving toward, what is the legislature going to be asked to fund should we culminate Article 1, Section 10, Clause 3, at its fullest?”
“I don’t think this is a switch from a law enforcement response to a military response,” Hicks repeated.
But on Tuesday, Abbott said the escalation will have noticeable changes.
“One thing that is changing, and that is, next month we’re adding more border wall,” Abbott said. “The wall is actually going to be going up, and two more segments along the border.”
During Hicks’ Operation Lone Star update to the senate committee last week, she said the state already erected 3.6 miles of wall and plans to build 18.8 more miles of barriers along the border.
“What’s also changing is our tactics,” Abbott added on Tuesday. “We are now prioritizing the turning back, or the repelling, of people trying to cross the border illegally. We’re having to do this because of the unprecedented numbers of people coming across the border. They are increasing in number [and] that requires Texas to step up our game.”
Abbott said the Texas Military Department will be using tank-like vehicles known as M113s, confirming a report from the Texas Tribune last week. The governor said the armored vehicles will be used to transport personnel and could also be stationary; it will be under the discretion of the National Guard general.
The governor did not say when the operation will end, but senators worry about the expanding costs.
“How long in perpetuity can I continue to spend $4 billion now, $6 billion, $8?” Senator Birdwell asked Hicks, expressing concern for medicaid and education funding.
Meanwhile, the number of immigrants who entered the country in the last fiscal year set a record for the second year in a row for the highest number of encounters. The new fiscal year started in October. The report from U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 230,678 encounters along the southern border in October, a 1.3% increase compared to September.
“Every single day, my wife and I, we say a prayer for you and for your safety,” Abbott told attendees before leaving Tuesday. “We pray for your safety, may God be with you, that you celebrate many more thanksgivings and that you continue to keep Texas a great state.”