When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced in March last year that he would be sending hundreds of Texas National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, he spurred a wave of posturing from Republican governors over “securing” the border. Following Texas’ lead, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent Florida state law enforcement officers and National Guard troops to Texas. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem sent her state’s troops as well — funded by a Tennessee auto scrap billionaire.
Over time, though, the media attention faded. The politics grew less potent. But Texas’ troops are still there. And things are getting bleak. Here are five points on the current situation with Abbott’s “Operation Lonestar.”
Abbott Kicked Off The Operation As A Political Attack
Abbott wasn’t shy about the politics of his decision to militarize Texas’ border. The “crisis” at the border, he said upon announcing the program, “continues to escalate because of Biden Administration policies that refuse to secure the border and invite illegal immigration.”
But that’s opened the governor up to accusations that he’s torn up the lives of thousands of guardsmen and women in an attempt to bolster his conservative credentials — particularly with a potentially tough primary election against former Rep. Allen West, who’s also the former Texas GOP chair, coming up in just a few weeks.
On Tuesday, Abbott said his critics were the ones “playing politics.”
An Army Times Investigation Revealed Multiple Suicides
Though immigrant and civil rights groups have been raising their voices for months over the legal abuses they say form the foundation of Operation Lonestar, the tide changed dramatically last month with an investigation from the Army Times.
The investigation revealed that four soldiers tied to Operation Lonestar had taken their lives in the prior two months, including one soldier whose hardship release request was denied within days of him taking his own life.
On top of the spate of suicides — there’s been another death and suicide attempt in the weeks since — the Army Times investigation, from reporter Davis Winkie, shined a light on what Winkie called a “morale crisis” among soldiers deployed with the operation.
The Deployment Has Been A Mess For The Guard, With Delayed Paychecks And Horrible Conditions
Operation Lonestar began as a volunteer operation, but in September and October, the governor involuntarily activated around 4,000 troops, the Army Times reported, and brought the total number of Texas Military Department personnel at the border to 6,500.
The massive, mandatory movement of troops has led to problems, including extremely short notice before indefinite deployments, “numerous” pay issues like late and missing paychecks. A recent morale survey acknowledged the “austere environment” where troops are being forced to live — read: super-cramped bunks and reports of inadequate supplies.
Around the same time as the involuntary deployments, the Texas Guard slashed its tuition assistance program by roughly half — rubbing salt on the wound as the state spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the border deployment.
Troops Appear To Be Increasingly Fed Up With The Operation
As Operation Lonestar’s troubles come increasingly into public light, its participants are finding their voices as well, and it’s not pretty.
On Reddit, the Operation Lonestar page has become a message board for anonymous venting about conditions, pay, and the perception that soldiers are being torn from their families and jobs to be used as “political pawns.” The authenticity of the messages is difficult to confirm — Reddit doesn’t require proof of identity — but if even a fraction of the messages are true, they paint a grim picture. “Our entire unit has caught covid,” one post Thursday read. The top post of the week on the subreddit was a screenshot of a higher-up’s plea to soldiers, asking them not to talk to a reporter from the Army Times. “Nah you had your chance to fix things,” the poster captioned the photo.
And media outlets have been flush with anonymous reports from soldiers frustrated with their assignments.
“[Texas Military Department] is approaching a breaking point due, in large part, to a failure of leadership,” a staff officer told the Army Times. “Many of us believe that [Operation Lone Star] will be that final straw.”
Abbott Is Beginning To Face Real Political Heat
The increased public scrutiny on Operation Lonestar has added pressure on Abbott.
All of Texas’ Democratic congressional delegation on Thursday called for an inspector general’s investigation of the mission. And U.S. Northern Command, which runs a separate federal mission at the border, is pursuing its own investigation. West, Abbott’s primary challenger, is pushing the issue hard.
Then, on Thursday, a state judge in Austin dealt a blow to the operation’s legal premise, saying that the misdemeanor trespassing arrest of an Ecuadorian asylum seeker, Jesús Guzmán Curipoma, was unconstitutional. Guzman Curipoma’s attorneys had argued that the state operation violated the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause — the federal government enforces immigration laws — and said afterward that the ruling “sets a clear pathway for everybody arrested under Operation Lone Star to challenge their arrests.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) said Friday that he would appeal the situation, faulting the “lib judge” for letting a “ Soros Travis County DA” represent the state.