$11B for Operation Lone Star mostly spent on low-level arrests, ACLU says

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Since its inception in 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star (OLS) immigration enforcement program has spent $11.2 billion arresting people mostly for misdemeanors, while the prosecution rate is much higher for U.S. citizens and nationals than migrants, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and ACLU Analytics.

“Operation Lone Star: Misinformation in Texas Border Enforcement” was published Wednesday. It analyzes arrest data from the Texas Department of Public Safety and court data from the Office of Court Administration of the Texas Judicial System between 2021 and 2023, and information obtained through open records requests.

According to the state, OLS was established to “detect and repel illegal crossings, arrest human smugglers and cartel gang members, and stop the flow of deadly drugs like fentanyl into our nation.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, left, greet members of the National Guard as they arrive with fellow governors for a news conference along the Rio Grande to discuss Operation Lone Star and border concerns, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas. Abbott returned to the Eagle Pass border to highlight his escalating attempts to curb illegal crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)

Among the ACLU report’s key findings, however, is that the vast majority of people arrested under OLS were accused of low-level offenses such as trespassing as opposed to drug-related offenses, human smuggling or weapons charges. Nearly 70% of court appearances involved only misdemeanor charges, according to the report.

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens and nationals, rather than migrants, accounted for approximately 75% of all court proceedings for weapons charges, human smuggling and drug-related offenses, the report found. Although OLS was created to prevent migrants “from allegedly bringing drugs and crime into Texas from across the border,” the state’s own data shows a different result, ACLU said.

“As the report shows, the unconstitutional operation is primarily racially profiling and arresting people who pose no threat to public safety, then forcing them into a separate and unequal criminal legal system,” according to the report.

Another key finding is that OLS “demonstrates racial profiling and unconstitutional policing,” with arrest rates for trespassing significantly higher for Hispanics — 96.6%. Further, OLS arrests have taken place far from the border, with 13,600 arrests occurring in non-border counties, often hundreds of miles from the closest port-of-entry, said the report, which claimed to find inconsistencies in government data across state agencies.

“In these data sets, there were 38,030 arrests reported by DPS but only 13,306 people appeared before a magistrate as reported by the Office of Court Administration,” ACLU said.

A National Guardsman stands watch as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and fellow Governors hold a news conference along the Rio Grande to discuss Operation Lone Star and border concerns, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)

Because of enhanced trespass penalties under OLS, some 97% of trespass prosecutions included no other offense, “forcing people to go on trial on the lone charge of entering land on private property,” the report said.

“OLS fails to improve actual public safety, and, as demonstrated by the large percentage of court cases for trespassing, the program fails to target cartel operatives and drug smugglers or related high-level crimes,” ACLU said.

There were 1,918 total DPS arrests in Cameron County and 3,702 in Hidalgo County from Abbott’s first border disaster declaration, in June 2021, through January 2024, when he renewed the declaration, according to the report. Thirty-four counties were targeted for border enforcement measures in the original declaration, four of which have had no arrests under OLS, while 58 counties were targeted when Abbott renewed the declaration in January. Eighteen of those 58 counties have had no arrests under OLS.

The report recommended that OLS be discontinued and the billions in taxpayer dollars allocated for it be redirected to addressing the most pressing needs among border communities such as “expediting crossing at ports of entry for goods being shipped into the U.S., improving water management and retention infrastructure, or improving public hospitals and schools.”

Members of the National Guard stand as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and fellow governors hold a news conference along the Rio Grande to discuss Operation Lone Star and border concerns, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)

Sarah Cruz, policy and advocacy strategist for border and immigrants’ rights for ACLU Texas, said “Texas has no business trying to run its own immigration enforcement program.”

“Governor Abbott and other state politicians conflating immigration with drugs and crime is as false as it is inflammatory and dangerous to our communities,” she said. “Operation Lone Star is unconstitutional and ineffective, and the moral cost of the state’s unchecked cruelty is far greater than the $11 billion price tag. OLS and the state’s relentless attacks on our communities must end.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.