Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
— Emma Lazarus, 'The New Colossus', cast onto the Statue of Liberty in 1903
Not known for leaving low-hanging fruit unharvested, President Joe Biden spoke in Fort Worth last week to advocate for legislation providing healthcare to veterans who were exposed to burn pits in war zones overseas. He failed to comment on an on-going dumpster fire of another variety, however. This month marks the one-year anniversary of Governor Gregg Abbott's Operation Lone Star (OLS), a joint mission between the Texas National Guard and the Texas Department of Public Safety to catch and jail as many "illegals" — their words, not ours — as possible.
To watch the local TV news tell it, the debate over whether OLS has been a success or a travesty oscillates between two positions: those who tout increased apprehensions, convictions, and secured border areas versus those who gripe about court clog, wasted taxpayer money, and job-related suicides among service members.
Left out of consideration almost entirely are the immigrants themselves. Even when lapses of due process manage to find some coverage, usually it's our self-image as a constitutional republic that’s at stake, not the needless cruelties routinely heaped upon people fleeing violence, persecution, economic misery and natural disasters.
"These are not just poor immigrants coming over," Brent Webster, the First Assistant Attorney General under Ken Paxton, recently told the Senate Committee on Border Security. "They're being brought over by criminal enterprises and are also in the process of committing legal violations that we have a duty to enforce."
This blurring of the line between criminals and immigrants is at the core of the Abbott approach.
“The goal of Operation Lone Star is to criminalize migrants and then transfer them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation," concluded Anita Gupta, a staff lawyer for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. "The purpose of getting them to plead guilty is to have this conviction on their record" should they apply for asylum.
By this measure, the policy has certainly worked. Thousands of migrants have been charged with criminal trespassing and hundreds continue to languish behind bars for weeks to months without proper hearings. Yet despite numerous legal challenges, OLS has so far only been adopted in three border counties out of 103.
Steven McCraw's attitude is three down, 100 more to go. He's been the Director of the Department of Public Safety since 2009.
"The most significant threat Texas faces today is an unsecured international border with Mexico, bar none," he testified last week. "There's nothing ISIS has done that the cartels haven't done, in terms of brutality and torture."
But the more defenders of OLS talk about drug cartels like terrorist networks, the more difficult it becomes to dismiss the asylum claims of those trying to escape their grasp. Still, McGraw said, "I don't know that anyone should be rewarded and even considered for asylum if they come between the ports of entry."
And there begins the life-and-death shell game many immigrants are forced to play. As Reuters points out, "those arriving on foot at official pedestrian crossings are usually turned back before they reach American soil."
Notably, almost all of the thousands of Russians and Ukranians who have sought asylum along the Mexico-U.S. border have been allowed to remain in the U.S. while pursuing their claims. And these immigrants have yet to be depicted in right-wing media as a terrorist caravan funded by George Soros or Al-Qaeda.
"We call the people who are coming here from central Europe now 'refugees,' but we call the people coming from Central America, 'illegal immigrants,'" American Immigration Lawyers Association President Allen Orr Jr. said, summing up the discrepancy.
If you’re fleeing imminent danger, you should not be penalized for your manner of entry, period. "Despite established rights under US and international law," the International Rescue Committee reported, "people’s access to asylum at the border has been severely limited, as the Biden Administration has kept in place some of the most severe policies of the previous administration."
Although Biden has doubled-down on the Trump administration's "illegal and inhumane" exploitation of the pandemic to expel tens of thousands of asylum-seekers under Title 42, the consensus among politicians in Texas appears to be that the federal government has been far too lax and lenient.
But Texas can't actually deport people. Only the feds can. Attorney General Webster though would like to see that precedent overturned. Although he readily condemned "activist" district attorneys and judges for challenging the constitutionality of Operation Lone Star, in Senate testimony last week he actively encouraged lawmakers to create test cases that would revoke the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Supremacy Clause in Arizona v United States.
Apparently activism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Longer-term reforms, like legalizing drugs to bankrupt the cartels or increasing foreign aid to eliminate poverty in our hemisphere, too often go undiscussed in the heat of punitive immigration policy. But considering that undocumented immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans, surely we can fight vicious gangs without sacrificing one of the defining traits of being a Texan: our hospitality.
Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.