Five Ways Gov. Greg Abbott's Controversial Border Clampdown Isn't Quite What He Claims

Gov. Greg Abbott has ramped up his anti-immigrant rhetoric throughout Operation Lone Star.
Gov. Greg Abbott has ramped up his anti-immigrant rhetoric throughout Operation Lone Star. Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images
Since he launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has promoted the controversial border crackdown as a state-led effort to do the federal government’s job.

With November’s midterm elections almost here, the governor is promoting the border operation more and more.

Operation Lone Star has proven popular with many Texans. According to a poll published by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler in August, some 51% of Texans back the governor’s migration-related policies on the state’s border with Mexico.

Even The News' editorial board has thrown its weight behind Operation Lone Star, claiming earlier this month that it "isn’t perfect but it’s necessary."

Yet, the nebulous border operation, which is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, isn’t exactly what it seems. Sure, Abbott’s had thousands of National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety officers sent to the state’s border with Mexico, but the results are another question.

In part, that’s due to the price tag attached to Operation Lone Star. The governor has directed more than $4 billion to fund the effort, a sum critics say could be better spent elsewhere.

In a statement to the Observer, the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Laura Peña said that “only a fraction of the resources Gov. Abbott wastes on criminalizing migrants” could instead “go a long way towards creating real solutions that protect, not demonize, the welfare of all people as they travel through Texas.”

In April, ProPublica, the Texas Tribune and The Marshall Project published a list of seven ways Abbott had "misled the public" about Operation Lone Star, including by hyping up arrests and claiming authorities were targeting gangs like MS13.

Here are five additional ways the Republican governor, who’s made migration a centerpiece of his campaign, has misled the public throughout Operation Lone Star and the broader border clampdown.

Returning migrants?

In recent months, Abbott has started to boast of “returning” migrants to the border. The governor seems to imply that Texas authorities are pushing migrants back into northern Mexico, which, in many cases, would violate international laws that prohibit pushbacks.

But Texas authorities aren’t pushing back migrants. In fact, as Abbott claims the Biden administration is engaging in a game of “catch and release” with migrants, the governor has directed DPS and National Guard to merely hand migrants over to Border Patrol at official points of entry.

On Sept. 20, Abbott posted a pair of photos showing Texas DPS officers and National Guard members detaining a group of migrants. “We put them behind bars, not catch & release,” he wrote, in part.

In July, the Observer asked Abbott’s press office for clarification on what the governor meant by saying Texas had been returning migrants to the border.
In response, press assistant Haley Crow sent only a portion of a news release that said the governor had authorized DPS and National Guard “to respond to this illegal immigration by apprehending immigrants who cross the border between ports of entry or commit other violations of federal law, and to return those illegal immigrants to the border at a port of entry.”

By Abbott’s own stated logic, in other words, he’s returning migrants to the very federal authorities he claims are releasing them.

Deterring migrants?

Abbott has boasted that Operation Lone Star marks a serious deterrent for those who hope to cross the border into southern Texas. On Sept. 21, the governor posted an update on Twitter, claiming: “As Biden fails, Texas continues to secure our border.”

In recent months, the governor has posted a slew of updates tallying how many migrants have been arrested or “returned” to the border.

On June 21, the governor wrote on Twitter that Texas remained “prepared to deter crossings at any point along our border.”

A week later, while announcing a Texas National Guard effort including patrol boats on the Rio Grande, Abbott said: “The purpose of the river boats is to ‘prevent, deter and interdict’ illegal immigration. … This includes attempts to turn back migrants preparing or attempting to cross the river.”
In July, Abbott made an even more eyebrow-raising claim during an interview on Fox News. "We've turned back tens of thousands of migrants who tried to get across the border, and we denied them even coming across the border," he said.

How’s all that deterrence coming along? Not so hot, according to the Texas Tribune. In a recent report, the publication noted that border apprehensions in August totaled 116,976, marking a roughly 6.87% increase when compared with March 2021, the month Abbott announced Operation Lone Star.

Migrant buses working?

Earlier this year, Abbott announced an expansion of Operation Lone Star that involved busing migrants to sanctuary cities around the country. To date, he’s sent migrant buses to Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago, using the opportunity to accuse Democrat mayors in those cities of hypocrisy.

Earlier this month, the governor's office said it had sent more than 10,000 people north on such buses.

Human rights organizations and advocacy groups have described the buses as a dangerous political stunt that reduces migrants to pawns in the governor’s beef with Democrats. But Abbott and many Texas Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, have defended the move.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas in August, Abbott tackled criticism head-on by issuing a promise to the mayors of Washington, D.C., and New York City. Speaking to the audience, he vowed: “I’ve got one thing to tell you and to tell them: There are more buses on the way as we gather at this conference today.”

Earlier this month, the governor upped the ante once again, sending two busloads of migrants to be dropped off outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington.

Bragging of the move, he promised to “continue sending migrants to sanctuary cities like Washington, D.C., until President Biden and Border Czar Harris step up and do their jobs to secure the border.”

But the buses might not be achieving what the governor claims. According to data recently published by Syracuse University, sending migrants to places like New York City, in fact, only increases their chances of remaining in the U.S. for a longer period.

Building a wall?

At an event in June 2021, Abbott announced that Texas would build its own wall on the state’s border with Mexico. Citing what he described as the Biden administration’s “open-border policies,” Abbott unveiled a list of migration-related measures he intended to implement.

There, he announced that the state Legislature had approved more than $1 billion of funds for border security. “Border barriers will be built immediately,” he said, adding that he’d officially announce “the plan for the state of Texas to begin building the border wall.”

In December, Abbott traveled to Starr County to announce that Texas had built around 900 feet of border wall. The news outlet Border Report noted in March that around 1.6 miles of the wall had been built in the county. That report explained that eight miles of wall in Starr County, which taxpayers and donations would bankroll, weren’t permitted to cost more than $162 million.

In June, according to an update on the Texas Facilities Commission's website, the first 1.7-mile section of the wall was "still undergoing the final installation of gates, road work and lighting." That figure hasn't changed since, according to Francoise Luca, a communications specialist at the commission.

In a recent update, the governor's office said Texas had raised more than $55 million in funding for the barrier as of Sept. 12.

Stoking anti-migrant hate?

Since Biden came to office, Texas Republicans have ramped up the same anti-migrant playbook that Donald Trump used for years. Abbott has adopted increasingly harsh rhetoric against migrants, accusing them of spreading COVID-19 and pinning the blame on them for the country's fentanyl problems.

Critics have pointed out that Abbott had lifted Texas' mask mandate and opened the state for business around the same time he lashed out at migrants over COVID-19.

In a report earlier this month, the Cato Institute noted that more than 90% of fentanyl seizures took place at official border crossing points or during vehicle stops inside the country, while U.S. citizens made up some 86% of convictions in fentanyl drug trafficking cases last year. Those facts are at odds with the suggestion that migrants are to blame for the overdose epidemic.

Meanwhile, rights groups and activists have accused Abbott of normalizing hate speech against migrants, pointing to the governor's description of the border crisis as an "invasion."

On Fox News in July, host Maria Bartiromo asked Abbott, "Is this an invasion?"

Abbott launched into a long-winded explanation of all the problems he said stemmed from the border crisis. Finally, though, the governor concluded: "So, yes, we do have an invasion driven by the cartels coming across our border that are pouring people into our country at unprecedented levels."

Abbott's critics point out that the "invasion" rhetoric echoes language tied to the great replacement conspiracy theory, the same kind that appeared in the manifesto of the white nationalist shooter who killed 23 people in an El Paso Walmart in August 2019.

Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, told the Observer that "invasion" rhetoric was "fanning the flames of anti-immigrant hate" and "contributing to a volatile atmosphere." 
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Patrick Strickland is the former news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's worked as a senior reporter at Al Jazeera English. His reporting has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.

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