Federal Money Funds a Deadly Police State at the Texas Border

by | Aug 3, 2022 | Border, News

Civil rights groups in Texas have filed yet another complaint with the Justice Department against Operation Lone Star, an anti-migrant program kicked off by Gov. Greg Abbott more than one year ago.

The operation has seen the Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard transformed into a state-run border patrol. 

Hundreds of millions of Texas tax dollars and thousands of officers and national guard members have already been committed with no end site.

In a 50-page complaint filed in December, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project urged the Department of Justice to intervene. They argued the program trampled over the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction over immigration enforcement, and was in violation of the Civil Rights Act because officers were engaged in discriminationon on the basis of national origin and race. 

In their latest complaint, civil rights groups have focused on the racial profiling seen in traffic stops, as well as the deadly consequences from high-speed police chases in the region.

“There is significant evidence that DPS is engaged in racial profiling — discriminating against Latinx drivers and passengers — in these stops,” the complaint reads. “And, troublingly, the stops turn into deadly vehicle pursuits with alarming frequency: we have linked DPS vehicle pursuits in South Texas to 30 deaths since the start of OLS, a startlingly high number.”

Gage Brown, a resident of Brackettville in Kinney County, told the Signal she’s experienced the high-speed chase on the road where she lives. 

Brown said she’s also heard from residents in town that they are stalked repeatedly by police despite being born and raised there. 

“Police will stop them for their license plate, claiming it was like a flagged plate number but it turns out not to be,” Brown said.

“For a community like Brackett where many of the people living there are living below the poverty line and just trying to make it day to day,” Brown said, “the stress of being constantly pulled over or worried about being issued a citation by police thats gonna set you back a whole month, that really can be debilitating for people who are just trying to survive and make it everyday.”

Brown says it’s frustrating that so many resources are going to Operation Lone Star instead of serving her community. She says climate change will continue to cause people to flee from unlivable conditions. 

“We’d be much better off if we could focus on how to adapt to this reality, and mitigate the people who are hurt and the dangers, rather than just play into the politics of it, play into Abbott’s hand, and make this about demonizing people,” Brown said. 

Instances of profiling detailed in police affidavits include stopping Texans for their perceived ethnicity (an apparent justification to search for smuggling victims) and requiring identity papers from passengers. In one case, a DPS officer claimed that he could detect a “distinct odor” that “undocumented aliens emit” as a reason for a traffic stop investigation.

In July, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported that the DOJ was investigating Operation Lone Star for alleged civil rights violations, an encouraging sign that led to the latest supplemental complaint by civil rights groups. 

The civil rights groups are hoping the federal government will terminate federal funding to state agencies that engage in discrimination. 

“American taxdollars cannot legally go to fund discriminatory treatment of people in the United States,” ACLU of Texas staff attorney Kate Huddleston told the Signal.

In the past two decades, South Texas has faced at least 10 other similar operations, by the state and federal government. 

“What we’ve seen over time is increasing militarization of border communities, and really all of South Texas, including communities such as Uvalde that are relatively far from the border,” Huddleston said.

The state-run operations have come with an ever-increasing number of DPS officers, national guard, and an ever-widening mandate for enforcement, Huddleston said.

Civil rights groups describe the presence of DPS in South Texas as a police state. That police saturation has made life difficult for residents, who must now go through everyday tasks like going to work or shopping for groceries afraid that a broken headlight or some other small issue could cost them financially — or depending on their status, lead to deportation. 

“There are so many severe problems with the Operation Lone Star program, and there are folks who are suffering the repercussions of those fatal flaws from many different angles,” said Erin Thorn, a senior attorney with Texas Civil Rights Project who has lived at the border for close to a decade.

Backed with a border disaster declaration that the governor has renewed since May of last year, Operation Lone Star is equipped with new and old tools that have allowed its scope to expand beyond that of any previous border protection surge. For example, the national guard is arresting people on state misdemeanor trespassing charges, a whole new use of their authority, and DPS is transporting arrestees to processing centers in a separate criminal system. 

“Those policies that came before it sort of just served as a basis, as a springboard for the Operation Lone Star program to even be possible,” Thorn said, describing the instrumental increase.

Civil rights groups are also concerned about the potential for violence in South Texas due to the presence of these white supramcist groups

The latest complaint also asks the Department of Justice to investigate DPS’s conduct as it relates to any ties with white supramist militia groups. 

They cite the disturbing case of a North Texas militia member and U.S. Capitol insurrectionist who was helped by a DPS officer while being pursued by the FBI. The Proud Boys member was eventually arrested at a ranch belonging to Kinney County Attorney Brent Smith. 

“Not just in the state of Texas but in other border states, local law enforcement at the border has had very spacious ties to these border militia groups that come down,” Thorn said. “Their rhetoric is very violent, the way that they operate at the border is very violent, and state and local law enforcement have both courted these groups and then also tried to distance themselves from these groups.”

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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