AUSTIN, Texas — Critics of Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature border security program — Operation Lone Star — say that the program has wasted billions of state dollars and turned border communities into war zones.
On Monday, House budget writers heard from many of the agencies that draw down millions, if not billions, from Operation Lone Star: Department of Public Safety, the Texas Military Department and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Costs to address border security, before and after Operation Lone Star, have ballooned from $800 million every two years to $4.6 billion in the state’s current proposed budget.
Many of the people protesting Operation Lone Star at a Monday morning rally work directly with migrants. One said local law enforcement was hunting down migrants in her neighborhood like wild game. And one Austin resident who visited the border talked about the waste and excess she saw when she visited the border.
“Wednesday will mark the second year that Operation Lone Star has been in practice, and the second year we have heard how not millions — but billions — were being spent to build out the incarceration machine in Texas,” said Alicia Torres of Grassroots Leadership. “This is not the budget we want. We’re asking lawmakers to be brave and just say no to Operation Lone Star.”
Abbott sends out updates, often weekly, that mention the accomplishments of Operation Lone Star: 351,000 illegal migrant apprehensions; 25,000 criminal arrests, including 22,000 felonies; and the seizure of 365 million lethal doses of the drug fentanyl. Recent polling suggests that the majority of Texans, and most Republicans, support the border security effort.
Gage Brown, a lifelong resident of Kinney County and the owner of a local art gallery, calls the border effort inefficient and wasteful.
“Since Operation Lone Star was launched in 2021, I have watched, first-hand, our local law enforcement’s transformation into a pseudo-ICE agency,” Brown said, adding that drug use and domestic violence is on the rise in her home county. “Yet there are no efforts on behalf of our local law enforcement to investigate these issues.”
Instead, every resource of law enforcement is being used to hunt migrants like wild game, Brown said. And for what? Brown asked. The vast majority of apprehended migrants are accused of nothing more than stepping foot on private property.
“My question is, ‘By what measure can this response be claimed as effective?’” Brown asked. “We are spending billions on pressing asylum seekers with felony charges, and nothing has changed at all. Plain proof that deterrent strategies do not work and are a huge waste of already limited resources.”
Yes, the problems on the border are bad, Brown said. But the current action — dumping billions into a law enforcement effort — has brought the state no closer to an actual solution. The state would be better off using resources to streamline legal entry and pathways to citizenship for those who qualify, rather than slapping them with trespassing charges, Brown said.
Rachael Shannon of Austin, who visited the border with Operation Lone Star opponents, said she was struck by the program’s waste. Shannon said she saw lines of SUV vehicles, all brand new, that were bought for Operation Lone Star, along with idling ambulances. She called Operation Lone Star a manufactured emergency that has denied proper support to issues like education, mental health and fixing the state’s electric grid.
“Just seeing and knowing what a manufactured emergency this is, robbing our communities of real material resources for the actual crises we are experiencing,” Shannon said. “It’s racist. It’s criminalizing immigrants. It’s criminalizing our black and brown neighbors. As a resident of Texas, I don’t want my tax dollars spent on it.”
Carolina Canizales, who works at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said the real purpose of Operation Lone Star is more political than practical.
“From the very beginning of Operation Lone Star, we knew that this was not about public safety, but about targeting black and brown men who are just trying to seek safety in this country, which they have a right to do, because asylum is legal,” Canizales said. “I’m here today because I find that inherently wrong. Gov. Abbott continues to use my immigrant community as a scapegoat for his failures.”
A House budget subcommittee heard testimony on Operation Lone Star spending on Monday. The House expects to start marking up the budget this week, with the goal of bringing it to the floor in March.