Civil rights groups recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice urging them to investigate “Operation Lone Star,” an immigration enforcement initiative by Gov. Greg Abbott they argue is discriminating against Black and Latino Texans and is against the law.
Operation Lone Star began nine months ago when the governor surged state law enforcement resources to address what he called “open border policies” from the Biden administration.
More than 2,300 people have been arrested on misdemeanor state criminal trespass charges since the start of Operation Lone Star. The project has seen the mobilization of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas National Guard, and other state agencies, as well as participating county sheriff’s offices.
In the 50-page complaint filed by civil rights groups including the ACLU of Texas, Texas Fair Defense Project, and Texas Civil Rights Project, attorneys argue that Operation Lone Star has created an unconstitutional shadow criminal legal system that violates civil rights and due process of those arrested.
“Texas has created a separate criminal prosecution and detention system for these individuals, with separate criminal dockets, separate public defender assignments, separate jails (converted state prisons), and even a separate ‘criminal migrant processing facility’ for booking,” the complaint reads. “This separate system is riddled with civil rights violations, including failure to appoint counsel, failure to timely file charges, and even the unilateral replacement of judges. Hundreds of those arrested have waited in jail for weeks or months without a lawyer or without a court date. In the end, the overwhelming majority of cases are simply dropped — through dismissal, or declined prosecution.”
A November report by The Wall Street Journal found that only 3 percent of arrests under Operation Lone Star have actually led to a conviction.
“In sum, state and local officials have created a separate state system intended to punish migrants and effectuate a state immigration policy, under the guise of state criminal trespass law,” the complaint states. “State and local law enforcement are targeting individuals for arrest and prosecution on state criminal trespass charges due to race and perceived immigration status.”
“Virtually all if not all of those arrested to date are people of color,” the complaint continues. “Once arrested, individuals are placed in a separate criminal process and in separate detention compared to the ordinary process and detention system for those arrested on state misdemeanor criminal charges. This separate system is rife with civil rights abuses, including failures to provide basic access to process that lead to people languishing in pretrial detention for weeks on misdemeanor trespass charges.”
Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, said Operation Lone Star comes at a time with rising anti-immigrant hate, and contributes to it by fueling local officials to partner with extremist organizations.
Huddleston said the program is deliberately set up to target and discriminate Black and Brown migrants, many of whom are being arrested under circumstances without probable cause.
Abbott has unilaterally acted to set state immigration policy and created a program of state immigration enforcement with Operation Lone Star, Huddleston said.
“He does not have that power,” Huddleston said. “The constitutional and federal statutes give that power to the federal government, not to the state.”
The Supreme Court upheld that federal power in 2012 when it struck down provisions in Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070. The Justices voted 5-3 to nullify three out of four provisions in the bill because it unconstitutionally attempted to supersede or interfere with the federal government’s enforcement of immigration laws.
Arizona is the only other state besides Texas that has taken such extreme and unilateral measures to unconstitutionally make up their own immigration policy, Hudeleston said, noting that Texas is unique in how it’s gone about doing that with Operation Lone Star.
[Abbott] thinks he’s found a loophole in using state criminal law to punish people because he knows that he has no power to set and enforce his own state immigration law,” Hudeleston said. “But really what he’s doing is attempting to do just that with a separate criminal system only for migrants and targeting migrants specifically for arrest.”
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 email@example.com