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Texas public defender offices urge Biden to investigate Operation Lone Star

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, shakes a National Guard member's hand after speaking during a news conference along the Rio Grande
Julio Cortez
/
AP
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shakes a National Guard member's hand after speaking during a news conference along the Rio Grande in September.

Public defender offices from Texas have joined a national coalition of attorneys who are again urging the Biden administration to investigate Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border-security program called Operation Lone Star.

In a letter dated April 6, the Public Defenders Coalition for Immigrant Justice calls the operation “a racist immigration enforcement program masked as local criminal law enforcement” and an “affront to the criminal legal system in this country.”

Operation Lone Star began in March 2021 and enlists state National Guard troops for border security efforts. It also instructs Texas DPS officers to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges.

The letter was submitted, in part, by the public defender offices of Travis, Bexar, Harris and Dallas counties. Their inclusion in the effort was verified by the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, which is supporting the coalition in its effort.

The group is calling for the federal government to cut funding from local and state agencies who participate in Operation Lone Star.

“As public defenders who represent non-citizens in criminal and immigration proceedings, we stand firmly against Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s unlawful, xenophobic, and racist attempt to target migrants for arrest, jailing, and prosecution based on their perceived race and national origin,” the coalition said. “This policy will only increase the racial disparities and disproportionate jailing of Black and brown people in the immigration system.”

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

The latest plea comes after similar requests earlier this year by the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACL U) of Texas and other organizations to have Operation Lone Star investigated for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance, the ACLU of Texas said in a statement.

Arianna Rosales, the communications manager for the National Immigration Project, told The Texas Newsroom Friday that the Department of Justice acknowledged receipt of the latest correspondence, but a timeline on when the DOJ might decide to investigate is unclear.

Abbott has touted Operation Lone Star as the state’s response to what he calls the Biden administration’s unwillingness to secure the border. Thousands of migrants have been arrested on state charges under the program, but it has also been riddled with issues and has some state lawmakers questioning its price tag.

Several state charges against migrants have been dropped due to prosecutorial errors, the Texas Tribune reported. The Tribune also reported the state’s National Guard will need an additional $531 million to continue its mission through the end of the current fiscal year, which ends in August.

Concerns over the program grew after Abbot t announced Wednesday an expansion of the operation, including increased inspections of vehicles coming into Texas from Mexico. Abbott also said migrants will be bussed from Texas to the steps of the U.S. Capitol “where the Biden administration will more immediately be able to address the needs of people that they are allowing to come across our border.”

His office later clarified that the transport will be voluntar y and only pertain to migrants who have been processed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Abbott said the expansion is in response to the Biden administration’s plans to end Title 42, a pandemic health directive that immediately expels migrants and returns them to Mexico without allowing them a chance to apply for asylum, which is legal under current law.

Rosales said the governor’s announcement Wednesday only adds to the urgency of the coalition’s request.

The ACLU of Texas said Thursday it will be closely monitoring Operation Lone Star’s expansion, particularly the vehicle inspections, to ensure they don’t violate border residents’ rights.

“The state has no power to engage in immigration enforcement. The Constitution and federal law are very clear that immigration enforcement is up to the federal government,” ACLU staff attorney Kate Huddleston told The Texas Newsroom. “We are monitoring all aspects of the announcement from (Wednesday) closely and exploring all options as implementation unfolds.”

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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