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Texas congressional Democrats ask Biden administration to review Operation Lone Star funding

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, shakes a National Guard member's hand after speaking during a news conference along the Rio Grande, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Del Rio, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez
/
AP
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shakes hands with a National Guard member after speaking at a news conference along the Rio Grande last year.

Democratic members of Texas’ Congressional delegation have asked the Biden administration to review if Texas is misusing federal pandemic relief money to fund Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border mission.

The request to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen comes after Abbott’s late April announcement of Texas' reallocation of nearly $500 million from state agencies to Operation Lone Star, a multi-billion dollar border-security effort Abbott launched in 2021 in response to what Abbott said were President Biden’s “open-border” policies. The operation has sent hundreds of Texas Department of Public Safety and state National Guard units to the border.

“This additional funding ensures the Lone Star State is fully equipped to provide Texans the border security strategy they demand and deserve," Abbott said in a press release when the funds were diverted.

In November 2021, Abbott also signed legislation to allocate about $16 billion in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for state use. But the Democrats now question if that money is being spent on the “failed” border program.

“As you have stated in your agency’s Final Rule for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, the funding should be used to replace lost public sector revenue due to the pandemic, respond to the far-reaching public health and negative economic impacts of the pandemic, provide premium pay for essential workers, and invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure,” the lawmakers wrote to Yellen. “Instead, Governor Abbott is taking this funding away from integral public sector resources and allocating it to Operation Lone Star.”

The letter was signed by U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio; Veronica Escobar of El Paso; Sylvia Garcia of Houston; Lizzie Fletcher of Houston; Colin Allred of Dallas; Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston; Mark Veasy of Fort Worth; Al Green of Houston and Lloyd Doggett of Austin.

In an email Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary, said the office has worked with the Texas Legislature to allocate federal monies under current guidelines.

“We have worked with the legislature to allocate federal funds in a manner that adheres to federal guidance. Between legislative sessions, in the event of a disaster, there are mechanisms to re-allocate state dollars if necessary to respond to the disaster—and we have had to use $4 billion of state dollars for Operation Lone Star to do the federal government’s job,” Eze said. “Rather than attacking Texas for responding to their border disaster that they have created and escalated in the last year, President Biden and Democrats in Congress need to stop playing politics and do their jobs to secure our border.”

The recent, nearly $500 million reallocation came from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, ($53.6 million); the Texas Department of Public Safety ($159.2 million); the Texas Health and Human Services Commission ($210.6 million); the Texas Department of State Health Services ($36 million); the Texas Alcoholic and Beverage Commission TABC ($4.3 million) and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department ($31 million). In a letter to the department directors, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dade Phelan and other lawmakers said the request to transfer the funds came from the agencies themselves and the “transfer(s) will not affect any agency or program function.”

At least one of the agencies, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, is already in the Biden administration’s cross hairs after the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into five of its facilities after allegations of abuse toward children in its care from TJJD employees, Texas Public Radio reported.

The call for an investigation into Operation Lone Star’s funding follows months of criticism surrounding the mission’s price tag — which is now more than $2 billion — the deaths by suicide of four National Guard units deployed to the border, and last month’s drowning of a soldier during a rescue attempt in the Rio Grande.

The request by Castro and the other Texas Democrats for a review of the program comes after a group of public defenders asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Operation Lone Star in April.

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

The letter was submitted, in part, by the public defender offices of Travis, Bexar, Harris and Dallas counties. The Public Defenders Coalition for Immigrant Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of that request.

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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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