Texas Soldiers Say Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star Is ‘A Show’

“If anything, I think it makes for better pictures for campaign ads,” said one former Texas Army National Guard medic.
Texas has put up 30 miles of concertina wire in the Eagle Pass area, draped atop a “steel wall” of shipping containers and strung across private ranches along the Rio Grande.
Texas has put up 30 miles of concertina wire in the Eagle Pass area, draped atop a “steel wall” of shipping containers and strung across private ranches along the Rio Grande.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo:Getty Images

The concertina wire strung along several miles of Texas’ border with Mexico cuts through human flesh “like a knife.”

That’s according to one Texas Army National Guard soldier, who until recently served along the border under Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star.”

Migrants seeking asylum in the United States “are moving fast” when they encounter the “c-wire” after crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, said Alex, who is being identified by a pseudonym because they’re worried about retaliation from superiors.

“Especially when people are just wading through the water, and their skin is wet, it just slices right though,” Alex said.

Alex is one of a handful of soldiers who spoke to HuffPost regarding their concerns about Operation Lone Star, which since 2021 has sent state law enforcement and Texas National Guard soldiers to patrol the border. The guardsmen acknowledged they were a minority among their colleagues and that many seem to support Abbott’s mission.

But the soldiers who spoke to HuffPost said they are worried that Operation Lone Star dehumanizes migrants, diverts resources from needed areas into “political theater,” and improperly gives soldiers and state troopers sway over the application of federal immigration law — a job legally reserved for federal law enforcement.

Most of these soldiers have served in or around Eagle Pass, a popular crossing point that, in recent months, has been at the center of national headlines. Texas has put up 30 miles of concertina wire in the area, draped atop a “steel wall” of shipping containers and strung across private ranches all along the Rio Grande— sometimes against landowners’ wishes. The Supreme Court issued an interim ruling last month saying that the U.S. Border Patrol could cut down the state’s wire, which the federal officials say is necessary to do so they can aid migrants and properly police the border.

Days before the Supreme Court decision, Texas had acted on its own, seizing total control of a 47-acre patch of land within Eagle Pass called Shelby Park. The park sits along the Rio Grande, under the shadow of a major bridge that connects the U.S. with Mexico, and it was previously a favorite crossing point for migrants eager to surrender to federal Border Patrol agents. Now, it’s a heavily militarized Operation Lone Star outpost to which federal agents have been denied access.

Soldiers now stuff Eagle Pass’s hotel rooms and bars by night. By day, they unspool millions of dollars of concertina wire to fill in the voids along the Rio Grande where the feds have cut it down — and, soldiers say, try to look intimidating.

John, a guardsman who worked in Eagle Pass who is also being identified by a pseudonym, said soldiers are tasked with trying to prevent people from crossing the Rio Grande. How? “Just stand there,” he said with a sigh. “That’s all we could do. They wanted us to be out there with your rifle and your full kit — your vest, your helmet — and look intimidating.”

“I definitely don’t believe in the mission,” John said. “I don’t think that it really was about stopping migration. I think it was just putting on a show.”

“I definitely don't believe in the mission. I don’t think that it really was about stopping migration. I think it was just putting on a show.”

- Texas Army National Guard soldier, speaking to HuffPost

‘It Is Doing Absolutely Nothing’

The show — all $9.5 billion of it, according to budget allocations set through 2025 — is playing to packed audiences during a crucial presidential election year.

Former President Donald Trump, the clear front-runner for this year’s GOP nomination, visited Operation Lone Star soldiers in November and earned Abbott’s endorsement.

Then, last month, Trump urged “all willing States to deploy their guards to Texas to prevent the entry of Illegals, and to remove them back across the Border.” Twenty-five governors affirmed their solidarity with Texas. Abbott hosted 13 of them in Shelby Park a few days later, posing with the crew in front of an armored vehicle. The governor referred to asylum seekers as an “invasion” — rhetoric that had previously been used by the perpetrator of the deadliest anti-Latino mass shooting in modern American history — and said Texas would defend itself.

Immigration advocates and some local officials say the high-profile efforts in Eagle Pass only serve to shift those asylum seekers around rather than preventing them from entering. Shelby Park is a “movie set,” and “the gates to the United States are open” just half a mile away, a spokesperson for the Eagle Pass Police Department told Texas Monthly earlier this month.

In that context, some Operation Lone Star soldiers say they feel like set decoration, complete with military humvees, rifles and camouflage uniforms.

“If anything, I think it makes for better pictures for campaign ads,” said Hunter Schuler, a former Texas Army National Guard medic who served in Shelby Park on Operation Lone Star and, at one point, led a historic union drive for soldiers. Schuler’s service ended last year, and he’s now pursuing a Ph.D. at Southern Methodist University.

“They have these elaborate demonstrations with riot gear and riot shields, and helicopters, and fast boats on the river,” he added. ”It seems like it’s meant to be a show of force, but it is doing absolutely nothing to stem the tide of migrants.”

John noted that military police in the National Guard typically only carry pistols. But on Operation Lone Star, leadership has them carry rifles.

“I think what has changed [since the start of Operation Lone Star] is that it’s been more focused on confrontation, photo-ops, and public displays of cruelty,” said Jonathan Blazer, director of border strategies for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Eagle Pass, he said, is made to look “ready for television coverage.”

The Texas Military Department, the state’s Department of Public Safety and the governor’s office all did not respond to detailed questions from HuffPost for this story.

A National Guardsman stands watch as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and fellow governors hold a news conference along the Rio Grande to discuss Operation Lone Star and border concerns, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas.
A National Guardsman stands watch as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and fellow governors hold a news conference along the Rio Grande to discuss Operation Lone Star and border concerns, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas.
Eric Gay via Associated Press

Trespassing Technicality

Even the legal framework behind Abbott’s border mission can feel theatrical. Operation Lone Star, according to the governor, is meant to “detect and repel illegal crossings” in addition to arresting people engaging in drug or human trafficking. But even Abbott has acknowledged that rather than keeping asylum seekers out of the country, the mission has simply diverted them elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Now, unlike before, migrants are choosing to go to states other than Texas,” he said last week during a press conference in Shelby Park.

Once on U.S. soil, even behind concertina wire, migrants have a legal right to claim asylum in the United States, regardless of whether an individual crosses at a “port of entry” or on the sandy banks of the Rio Grande. Typically, they simply seek out and surrender to a Border Patrol officer, enter U.S. custody, and participate in a preliminary “credible fear” interview. If immigration officers find a significant possibility they can establish an asylum claim, they are released into the country and assigned court dates to make their case.

Like Trump, President Joe Biden has made it harder for asylum seekers to pursue their legal rights. He has created a “higher threshold of proof” for some asylum seekers who simply cross the border without attempting to enter at a port of entry, which can take months, or apply for asylum in another country. The rule is called “Circumvention of Lawful Pathways,” or, to some, the “asylum ban,” and it remains in place while the government appeals a court order that found it unlawful. The bipartisan border bill currently stalled in Congress would make things even more restrictive.

Only federal law enforcement — not state forces or state National Guard soldiers — can enforce immigration law, so Texas often relies instead upon simple misdemeanor charges like trespassing to detain migrants.

Migrants who cross onto private land are criminally charged and must be processed through the Texas state court system before eventually being able to proceed with an asylum claim. Curiously, this applies to Eagle Pass, too: The city’s mayor last year signed an affidavit declaring the public park private property, allowing state troopers to make trespassing arrests for migrants who crossed there. The city council later rescinded the affidavit, but Texas once again started making trespassing arrests in the park after seizing control of it, telling a judge in Maverick County that it was in the “care, custody, and control” of a Department of Public Safety officer, according to a court document HuffPost reviewed.

Abbott recently signed a bill to make crossing the border between ports of entry a state crime; civil and human rights groups call it “plainly unconstitutional,” and like many of Abbott’s immigration moves, the federal government has sued to stop it.

The trespassing arrests don’t remove migrants from the asylum process, said Kristin Etter, who has represented thousands of migrants facing such charges in state court.

“If anything, in an ironic twist, it actually increases people’s ability to request asylum because they’re given an attorney,” Etter said. In the United States, criminal defendants are guaranteed legal representation, while asylum seekers are not.

Another issue with Operation Lone Star is that National Guard soldiers aren’t given immigration law training. Under Operation Lone Star, they operate under the state’s Department of Public Safety, which is the civilian authority that includes state troopers, assisting to detain migrants who’ve allegedly violated state law.

But many migrants seeing Texas National Guard soldiers — in uniform, carrying rifles – don’t distinguish them from the standard Border Patrol officers to whom they would typically surrender to pursue an asylum claim.

“If you’re a migrant and you’re coming to our country, and you see a person — or two, three, four, five people – in uniform with an M4 standing in front of you, there’s an implied authority that you have,” Alex said. “They don’t realize we’re just citizen-soldiers on a state contract. So anything out of your mouth is authoritative.”

One of Etter’s clients recorded a video, which HuffPost has seen, of a National Guard soldier telling a group of migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande to go to a point on the border where he said they would be arrested for trespassing. The group of asylum seekers cheered, eager to enter government custody.

Alex recalled a fellow soldier falsely telling migrants that they would lose their right to asylum if they crossed where they had planned to.

John recalled migrants encountering the c-wire and asking where they should cross. Soldiers were told to tell migrants to go back across the river and to cross via a port of entry, even though they were already standing on American soil and could exercise their right to asylum by simply sitting down and waiting for Border Patrol, he said. (Abbott has said as much himself: National Guard and state police at the border, he said last June, “know they have one instruction: do not allow anybody to enter into the state of Texas. Period.” Just last month, he also said the state was doing everything short of murder to keep migrants out.)

A National Guard officer looks around at migrant families as more migrants arrive after crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S. on May 5, 2022, in Roma, Texas.
A National Guard officer looks around at migrant families as more migrants arrive after crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S. on May 5, 2022, in Roma, Texas.
Brandon Bell via Getty Images

Dangers In The Rio Grande

The concertina wire, which persists in many areas despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, is so ubiquitous on the border it’s now literally the logo for Operation Lone Star’s YouTube page. And it can cause significant physical harm, particularly after a tiring swim across the Rio Grande.

Accounts of the effects of Texas’ c-wire are numerous: Alex recalled one man with a laceration so severe there was “fat hanging out.” Last July, a state trooper working under Operation Lone Star wrote to a superior about a pregnant woman having a miscarriage after being found tangled up in the wire; he also recounted seeing a 4-year-old girl who’d attempted to go through the wire, only to be pushed back by Texas National Guard soldiers before passing out from heat exhaustion.

The state said soon after the trooper’s email leaked that it was investigating the report and Abbott’s office said no orders had been given “that would compromise the lives of those attempting to cross the border illegally.” Still, in January, a separate video from Eagle Pass showed Texas National Guard soldiers appearing to push migrants back across the razor wire, onto the banks of the Rio Grande.

Texas officials did not respond to HuffPost’s question about the video.

Also last year, USA Today reported on internal Department of Public Safety memos that detailed a mother and child transported to the hospital after being caught in the wire, in addition to reports of migrants needing staples to bind long gashes from the wire. The same paper published photos of a 5-year-old boy whose slashed leg had required four staples to hold shut. After the family had made it onto U.S. soil, they were ultimately processed by border agents and released with a court date.

“I don’t understand,” the boy’s mother told the paper, before referring to the concertina wire. “If they were just going to arrest us and let us go, why do they have to put all that up?”

Some soldiers have asked themselves that same question.

“At that point, they’re already on our side, they’ve crossed the river,” John told HuffPost, referring to migrants stuck between c-wire on Texas soil and the Rio Grande. “They’re not on this side of the razor wire, but ... they’re in the U.S. What really does it matter if we take them here or at the bridge?”

“I think it was a show. I think it was a little bit of theater because if they really wanted us to effectively deter immigration, there’s a better way — like what we were doing [elsewhere along the border],” said John, who said his unit had been reassigned to Eagle Pass from another point at the border where they were tracking down drug and human smugglers. “Because once you left the Eagle Pass–Piedras Negras area, there wasn’t anybody [patrolling the border]. We were all basically in the town. So if you just kept going to where there’s nothing, then you could have easily crossed.”

Yet more wire seems to be headed toward the area: Abbott announced just a few days ago that more soldiers and concertina wire were on the way to Shelby Park. State Rep. Eddie Morales (D), who represents Eagle Pass in the state legislature, and whose district includes a longer stretch of border than anyone else’s, called the announcement “a band-aid on a problem that requires a lot more attention.”

The wire isn’t the only danger to migrants — several have drowned in the Rio Grande, which is known for its deceptively strong currents, especially after heavy rainfall. It’s also home to long lengths of buoy barrier deployed by the governor, currently the subject of a federal appeals court fight. Exact drowning numbers aren’t known, but in September 2022, well before Operation Lone Star focused on the area, Eagle Pass’s fire chief told NPR his area was seeing “basically a drowning a day.”

Human rights advocates say Operation Lone Star has heightened the risk in Eagle Pass.

“That’s what we’re seeing — a spike in the number of people who are drowning in the Rio Grande,” Bob Libal, a consultant for Human Rights Watch, told HuffPost. “I can attest ... that it often occurs well within proximity to Texas officials who are either preventing federal authorities from accessing the border or who are not doing everything they can to look after migrant safety.”

In December, a video released by the civil rights organization Latino Justice PRLDEF showed a woman with a baby in her arms crying for help on the banks of the Rio Grande, as Texas National Guard soldiers watched from nearby boats, doing nothing. The pair eventually went back onto Mexican soil, and the Texas Military Department said in a statement that the duo had shown “no signs of medical distress, injury or incapacitation.” Then, last month, the bodies of three migrants were recovered in the Rio Grande near Shelby Park, and two others were rescued alive on the Mexican side of the river. During the search, Texas forces denied Border Patrol agents entry to the park; Texas later responded in a federal court filing that the migrants had drowned by the time federal agents alerted them, and that the feds had never referred to any ongoing “emergency” when they requested access to the park.

Multiple soldiers told HuffPost they’d been given orders to intervene in medical emergencies that threaten “life, limb or eyesight.” But that guidance comes with limits: After a National Guard member, Bishop Evans, died in 2022 while trying to save two drowning migrants, soldiers were discouraged from getting in the water.

A few weeks after Evans’ death, a Fox News reporter recorded the drowning death of a migrant — reportedly Calixto Rojas, a former radio host from Nicaragua, as National Guard soldiers and Mexican forces watched on. Since then, some soldiers have been given life rings that they can throw to migrants in distress in the water, but the concertina wire lining the banks of the Rio Grande seemingly rendered the rings ineffective.

“I don’t know how we would use that half the time because the c-wire was in the way,” John said of the floatation devices issued to soldiers. “There wasn’t really a good way to get down to the bank [without] getting cut up. And the rope would get caught up in the wire. I don’t know how they wanted us to use that.”

The Evolution Of Operation Lone Star

Despite their concerns about how Operation Lone Star has been executed, the soldiers involved in the program told HuffPost they believe the number of migrants and asylum seekers at the border in recent months does warrant a broader government response. Border Patrol alone, they said, did not have the manpower to keep track of everyone who wanted to enter the country, particularly with the backup at official ports of entry and the subsequent spillover elsewhere.

They also said there have been some positive changes. Work along the border used to largely come from soldiers who had been deployed there involuntarily — which came with serious logistical, pay and mental health issues. The deployment is now a largely voluntary one, staffed with young Texans who appreciate Operation Lone Star’s big paychecks.

Schuler, who said the risk of another involuntary activation played a role in his decision not to renew his contract, recalled seeing a young soldier crying when she was first being processed for her involuntary deployment to the border. When that time was up, he said, she volunteered to stay, having grown accustomed to the money.

Others even seem attracted to the border work specifically. When Schuler and several others were themselves set to end their time with the Guard, he recalled, the lieutenant colonel asked the group, “How many would extend if you could go down to the border mission?” Several hands went up, Schuler said.

And yet since Texas started freezing the feds out of Shelby Park, the federal-state relationship seems to have turned icy, soldiers say. There’s less chatter back and forth, and fewer calls for day-to-day assistance. At least once, Texas troopers threatened to criminally charge Border Patrol for cutting concertina wire, or as Abbott puts it, “Texas property.”

Then there’s the moral impact of the escalation in places like Eagle Pass, where soldiers posture for asylum seekers as if they’re expecting violent interactions.

“They’re not drug mules,” John said, recounting his final days at the border. He said he’d requested a move elsewhere in exchange for extending his service and was denied.

“They’re families. Children, women, pregnant women. It just sucked. I didn’t want to be in Eagle Pass. That’s why I left.”

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