Operation Lone Star explained: What's happening in Eagle Pass, Texas? (2024)

Nearly three months after Eagle Pass, Texas, became the focal point of a state-federal clash over immigration and border security policy, several related issues including public access to a city park, a chain of buoys in the Rio Grande, and local law enforcement's ability to arrest and deport suspected migrants, remain subject to debate and legal battles.

Central to these issues is Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's "Operation Lone Star" (OLS), an $11 billion border initiative kicked off shortly after President Joe Biden took office and rolled back immigration policies set by former President Donald Trump.

In a May 22 report, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called for OLS to be shut down due to racial profiling and unconstitutional policing, among other findings.

Where is Eagle Pass, Texas?

Eagle Pass, a town of about 28,300 people, is located in Maverick County, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Where is Shelby Park? How does it fit in?

At the center of the dispute sits Shelby Park, a 47-acre city-owned park with a boat ramp, two soccer fields and a couple of ball diamonds.

Residents have reportedly complained that they have been unable to enjoy their local park, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has alleged that OLS has impeded Border Patrol agents' ability to enter the area and called Abbott's policies "cruel, dangerous and inhumane."

What is Operation Lone Star?

Launched in March 2021 by Abbott, OLS has poured more than $11 billion toward aggressively fortifying the state's border with Mexico and stanching the flow of border crossings. The program started shortly after Biden rolled back immigration policies like Title 42 – a pandemic-related measure allowing the U.S. to expel migrants quickly due to health concerns.

OLS is managed by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department, but it has utilized personnel from other states' agencies and National Guard troops to carry out its directives.

Tensions over the border security initiative escalated last July when Texas installed a 1,000-foot chain of buoys in the Rio Grande and miles of razor wire along the banks. The Biden administration sued the state that month for installing the buoys without the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as required by law.

The buoys are connected to form a barricade about 1,000 feet long. They are fastened to the river bottom and have nets below the water to prevent people from swimming beneath them. The buoys themselves rotate so that people can't climb over them.

The Texas Military Department reported it's installed nearly 120 miles of razor wire as part of OLS "to prevent, deter and interdict transnational criminal activity, illegal immigration, and human trafficking between the ports of entry." Texas has also placed shipping containers along the river at Eagle Pass and El Paso. Abbott described the containers as a steel wall along the southern border. The Texas Governor recently posted a video to X, formerly Twitter, that shows workers pouring concrete along a border wall.

A recent press release from Abbott's office touts the success of the program, positioning it as filling gaps in Biden's border policy. It states that OLS has led to "511,300 illegal immigrant apprehensions", "more than 42,900 criminal arrests", "more than 37,900 felony charges", the seizure of "over 481 million lethal doses of fentanyl" and the transportation of tens of thousands of migrants to other states.

Why do people cross the border at Eagle Pass?

In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, pent-up migrant crossing demand brought a rush of asylum-seekers to the U.S.-Mexico border. Few places saw a more dramatic surge than Eagle Pass which had seen relatively few crossings before the pandemic.Here's a look at the U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions in the Del Rio Sector for the last 10 years:

The Border Patrol does not report data on migrants at a city-by-city level, but does track it by sector; each sector may encompass 100 miles or more of the border itself. In the Del Rio Sector, which includes Eagle Pass, migrant encounters soared from 57,270 in fiscal year 2019 to more than 480,000 in fiscal year 2022, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol statistics. Last fiscal year, agents encountered 393,230 asylum-seekers.

The built-up demand combined with relatively low organized criminal activity on the Mexican side of the border led to more migrants rushing to cross the border near Piedras Negras, Mexico, and Eagle Pass, said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. As more migrants arrived and crossed, word of mouth spread quickly through WhatsApp and other communication systems favored by asylum-seekers.

Unlike other northern Mexican border towns, where groups like the Sinaloa and Noreste cartels kidnapped and killed migrants with impunity, Piedras Negras offered a relatively safer crossing, Isacson said. It became a destination for asylum-seekers from countries less traditionally seen as border-crossers: Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia and Haiti.

“It was seen as a somewhat safer border,” he said.

Crossing numbers, though, are constantly volatile. Encounters in the sector have now plunged, from more than 71,000 in December to 10,271 in April, according to agency statistics.

Word of OLS tactics and the proposed Senate Bill 4, the Texas bill that would allow police and sheriff deputies to arrest migrants for undocumented crossings, may have played a role in the drop, Isacson said. But the bigger reason is Mexican border agents, who are intercepting and busing migrants away from the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers, he said.

Why has OLS been controversial?

Abbott, who has criticized the Biden administration's handling of border security, has used OLS to build more statewide control over how border security is handled, which is creating tension between the state and federal government.

There are two ongoing court cases challenging Abbott's actions from the federal government. One challenges the state's right to deploy the buoy barrier, and the other challenges Senate Bill 4 – which empowers state and local law enforcement officers to arrest and even deport people without federal oversight.

Along with the federal lawsuits, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Texas counties and officials on behalf of migrants who were held in prison after their trespassing charges were dropped or sentences served.

Aside from legal challenges, there have been an unusually high number of migrants hospitalized, including young children, in Eagle Pass after coming into contact with the razor wire. In January, a woman and two children drowned in the Rio Grande.

Aside from migrants, deployments can be deadly for the troops sent there. During a 13-month period ending in October 2022, 10 National Guard soldiers died during their OLS deployments, and at least four of the deaths were determined to be suicides. The Texas Military Department now includesa page on its websiterelated to suicide prevention.

Read more: Texas gov transforms immigration from a border issue to a backyard one. Dems aren't happy.

Read more: The real migrant bus king of North America isn't the Texas governor. It's Mexico's president.

Contributing: Lauren Villagran and John Moritz

Operation Lone Star explained: What's happening in Eagle Pass, Texas? (2024)
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