Report shows Texas leaders' repeated attempts to mislead the public about Operation Lone Star

Gov. Greg Abbott says his immigration crackdown has nabbed 887 pounds of fentanyl, for example, but that number is statewide, not from the border.

click to enlarge Gov. Greg Abbott talks up Operation Lone Star as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven C. McCraw looks on. Both were in San Antonio last week for a "law enforcement roundtable" organized by the governor's office. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Gov. Greg Abbott talks up Operation Lone Star as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven C. McCraw looks on. Both were in San Antonio last week for a "law enforcement roundtable" organized by the governor's office.
A new report from three nonprofit news organizations documents how Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other state officials repeatedly used "incomplete and sometimes misleading statements" to puff up the successes of the Abbott's immigration crackdown, dubbed Operation Lone Star.

In a lengthy story posted Wednesday morning, ProPublica, the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project — which have done extensive joint reporting on Operation Lone Star — highlighted instances where state officials' efforts to trumpet the controversial program either lacked context or were false on their face.

Abbott has made the $3 billion Operation Lone Star a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, deploying more than 10,000 National Guard members, along with Texas Department of Public Safety personnel, to the border and arresting migrants for property crimes.

The Republican governor has repeatedly defended the widely criticized initiative by saying the Biden administration refuses to enforce immigration laws, a claim not backed up by data.

Among the misleading claims by Abbott and other Texas officials debunked in the new report:

"Oh, did I say 'everybody ?": “Texas is going to start arresting everybody coming across the border," Abbott told Fox News on June 3 of last year, adding that those picked up would face serious charges yielding six months to a year in jail. However, DPS numbers show that just 2,900 people have been arrested by state police for allegedly crossing into Texas through private property. In contrast to Abbott's claims of months of jail time, the news organizations found that 40% of Operation Lone Star’s arrests from July through February were misdemeanor charges. Hundreds of arrestees under the program have since had their trespass charges dismissed or rejected because they were busted unlawfully or because they are seeking legitimate asylum claims.

Flimsy claims about gang affiliations: Abbott and DPS have repeatedly asserted that Operation Lone Star is sweeping up members of dangerous gangs such as MS-13. Indeed, DPS even issued a a Sept. 7, 2021 Facebook post alleging the crackdown had "encountered over 700 criminal gang members." When pressed, DPS was unable to provide proof of how it arrived at that number. What's more, the department denied a public records request from ProPublica, the Tribune and the Marshall Project seeking to substantiate it. 

Counting fentanyl busts that have nothing to do with the border: Repeatedly, including in Abbott's campaign TV ads, the governor has touted seizures of fentanyl as evidence of Operation Lone Star's success. During a February event, Abbott's reelection campaign handed out flyers claiming the program had confiscated 887 pounds of the powerful opiate. However, the nonprofit newsrooms' reporting revealed Abbott is citing numbers related to fentanyl seizures statewide. Of the 887 pounds referred to by his reelection campaign, only 18% was seized in the 63 Texas counties included in Operation Lone Star.

Taking credit for the feds' work: During a Sept. 26 Fox News appearance, Abbott took credit for federal officials' expulsion or deportation of 15,000 Haitian immigrants camped under a bridge in Del Rio. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents said the surge of migrants "stopped only when the Texas Department of Public Safety and the National Guard showed up to provide a steel barrier to prevent the migrants from coming across," he claimed. The news organizations' data dives revealed that neither Texas agency made arrests during the incident, however. "It’s unclear how many people the agencies referred to federal officials for deportation during that period," the reporters noted. "Neither DPS nor CBP responded to questions about this."

The report by ProPublica, the Tribune and the Marshall Project also fact-checks Abbott's statements on state border-security spending, his claim that Operation Lone Star slashed border crossings and his argument that it's necessary to bus migrants to Washington, D.C. The newsrooms also found those assertions to be misrepresented over overblown.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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