Small Wars Journal

“Steel Wall” to Steel Bars: Historical Context for “Operation Lone Star”

Tue, 02/08/2022 - 11:04pm

“Steel Wall” to Steel Bars: Historical Context for “Operation Lone Star”

George T. Díaz

In September 2021, a line of black and white Texas Department of Public Safety SUVs, reinforced with desert khaki ‘humvees’ from the Texas National Guard, amassed along the Rio Grande near Del Rio. This formidable display of force faced south, forming a “steel wall,” that Texas Governor Greg Abbott credited with stopping the, “countless [migrants] coming across the border.”[1]  The media ready image of a line of state police and military vehicles along the border composed but a small part of Texas’s “Operation Lone Star” which seeks to “combat the smuggling of people and drugs into Texas.”[2] This mission—implemented in March 2021 and still underway with no end date—utilizes some 700 state troopers and along an isolated stretch of the Rio Grande. It is the latest example of the Texas government’s border policing efforts encroaching into federal border policing.[3]

TX NG

Texas Army National Guard Soldier at Rio Grande During Operation Strong Safety. Source: US Army. 11 September 2014.

Although the “Supremacy Clause” of the US Constitution establishes that federal law precedes state law, individuals apprehended in the borderlands also find themselves within the jurisdiction of regional state authorities.[4] This essay examines the Texas state government’s border policing efforts and considers the way state forces have attempted to police the US-Mexico border and place those it apprehends in state prisons.  Furthermore, it argues that surges in state border policing stem from: 1) the perception of federal inaction and 2) the perceived benefits that state representatives gain among their constituents for such efforts. In particular, this essay contextualizes “Operation Lone Star” and the detention of migrants in Texas state prisons within the longer history of Texas border policing which parallel and sometimes exceed federal policing efforts. 

La Matanza

The Texas state government’s use of its forces along the border is in no way new. As early as the 1820s, Anglo immigrants in Mexican Texas dispatched armed and mounted ‘Rangers’ against Indians.  After winning independence in 1836, the Republic of Texas organized an army to fight against Native Americans and Mexicans in a ‘contested borderlands.’ Although the Republic of Texas lasted less than ten years, Anglo memory of that era, and the bloody Civil War and Reconstruction era that followed it, instilled a “robust culture of violence” which endured into the 20th century.[5]

During the 1910s, state and federal forces patrolled the borderlands wary that the violence of the Mexican Revolution would spill over onto US soil. In the summer of 1915, in response to a series of mounted raids in South Texas that targeted Anglo ranches and left a handful of Anglos dead, Texas Governor James Ferguson increased the size of the Texas Rangers from a mere twenty-six to approximately 1,350, many of whom worked without pay as “Special Rangers.”[6] The rapid influx of untrained and inexperienced officers unfamiliar with the border and ignorant of the Spanish language exacerbated the violence as Texas Rangers targeted ethnic Mexican men, both US citizens and Mexican nationals, and killed them with little or no investigation of their guilt or innocence.[7]

Spanish speakers remembered the state-sponsored attacks as La Matanza, [the slaughter] with Texas Rangers and vigilantes killing suspect ethnic Mexicans in the brush country and leaving them to rot, or posing for ghoulish photos with their victims as trophies.[8] State-sponsored terror proved so pervasive that in September 1915, the San Antonio Daily Express reported, the “finding of dead bodies of Mexicans…has reached the point where it creates little or no interest.”[9] The cross border raids which prompted the matanza effectively ended in July of 1916. Although the attacks led to the deaths of twenty-one people, this violence paled before the wrath and power of the state.[10]

State and federal authorities’ records gathered at the time of the killings document the names of 106 killed in law enforcement attacks.[11] With so many killed in isolated areas, the true number of victims is unknown, but scholarly estimates vary from 300 to 5,000 dead.[12] The news that a group of Texas Rangers and Anglo vigilantes entered the Big Bend hamlet of Porvenir and executed fifteen ethnic Mexican men between the ages of sixteen and seventy-two on suspicion of theft in January 1918, prompted a state investigation into the police force’s extra-legal violence and a reduction of the Ranger service to sixty-eight officers; and for the remainder of the 20th century, Texas largely left border policing to federal authorities.[13]

Operation Lone Star

Texas state border policing escalated following the inauguration of President Joe Biden.  On 6 March 2021, the Texas Governor’s office announced the launch of “Operation Lone Star” with Governor Abbott specifying the “Biden Administration policies that refuse to secure the border and invite illegal immigration” as cause.[14] In particular, the Texas Governor objected to the federal government ending Trump-era border restrictions, for “catch and release,” a reference to allowing unauthorized migrants to seek asylum without detention.[15] In a punitive measure to disrupt that, Abbott ordered state forces to “catch & to jail” migrant men on state charges of trespassing.[16] Abbott’s tough stance escalated in June of that year, when the governor announced his plans to revive former president Trump’s efforts for a wall along the border by building a state-backed project funded in part through private donations online.[17] Furthermore, in September 2021, Texas ordered additional National Guard to reinforce the 1,000 already deployed along the Rio Grande. By the end of 2021, the state had some 10,000 soldiers involved in a mission typical tasked to federal forces.[18]

Abbott

Texas Governor Abbott Speaks on Border Security. Source: US Department of Homeland Security, 1 February 2017.

Though critics dismissed Abbott’s actions as “political theater” and an attempt to ward off Republican challengers before his party’s 2022 primary, the Texas state government’s swaggering into federal border policing came with real consequences.[19]   Despite the show of force, Texas proved ill-prepared to manage the migrants they arrested. Although Texas police forces turned over detained women and children to federal authorities, migrant men arrested for trespassing quickly overwhelmed the state’s ability to hold them.[20] The Texas state government’s decision to enter into migrant detention, typically a federal task, led the state to place migrants within the state prison system. In June of 2021, the state moved convicted felons out of the Briscoe Unit in Dilley, Texas and re-designated the prison to detain migrants held for misdemeanor trespassing.[21]

Segregated Prisons in Texas

The state’s placement of migrant detainees in state facilities undid decades of efforts by the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) to integrate units and effectively made a segregated prison in 21st century Texas.[22] Throughout the Jim Crow era, Texas prisons segregated by race with prisoners designated as either “White,” “Negro” or “Mexican.”[23]  Although most Mexican designated prisoners were indeed ethnic Mexicans, Texas State Prisons used the designation as a catchall for all Latin American prisoners, incarcerating Chilean, Puerto Rican, Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals together.[24] 

In the early 20th century, Texas prisoners classified as Mexican served time at Blue Ridge State Farm outside of Houston. Life for prisoners at Blue Ridge consisted mainly of laboring in fields for the state. Designed as a farm, no wall surrounded Blue Ridge.  Rather than brick buildings with cells, prisoners lived in wooden barracks resembling elongated sheds which guards locked at night. In 1923, its first year as a ‘Mexican camp,’ 249 prisoners slept on wooden or iron bunks stacked three high.[25]  The state purchased the land for Blue Ridge and eight other prison farms with cash crop agriculture in mind.[26] Blue Ridge itself resided on ground plantation slaves once worked.  Displeased seeing tax money go to house inmates, Texas legislators put them to work intended to generate revenue for the prison system. 

Down at Blue Ridge unfree men picked cotton under the watchful eyes of their overseers.  Prisoners, garbed in the very material they gathered, typically worked from “sol a sol” or “can see to can’t” in year round operations that ceased only when flooding or some other calamity made field work impossible.[27] The system of race based segregation in Texas continued late into the 20th century.[28] Not until 1975, did the Texas Legislature prohibit racial segregation in state prisons, and TDC faced noncompliance inquiries from the Department of Justice into the 1990s.[29]

State of Disaster

On 31 May 2021, Governor Abbott issued a disaster declaration citing the “Biden Administration’s inaction” in stopping “illegal border crossings.”[30] Whereas the border policing surge of the 1910s came as a response to attacks against Anglo lives and infrastructure including railroads, Abbott cited property damage by migrants making their way across ranches, and the nebulous threat of “violence from the cartels” as his reasoning.[31] The proclamation further directed the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to utilize all available resources to police the border.[32] Despite this, thousands of Haitian refugees made their way to Mexico and then overland towards Texas. Video of mounted US Border Patrol agents swinging reins and forcing refugees back across the Rio Grande in September 2021 prompted shock and international condemnation, but did not end Governor Abbott’s claims of the “federal government’s inaction.”[33] On 14 October 2021, the Texas Governor announced an additional $36.4 million grant in “direct support” of Operation Lone Star.[34]

Funding and tough rhetoric from the state masked due process failures and other problems administering the arrest and detention of migrants. The case of Ivan Ruano Nava and David Vega Muñoz exemplify the state’s fiasco. In July of 2021, both men surrendered to a state trooper in Kinney County and asked for asylum. The state arrested them for trespassing, but held them beyond the forty-five days allotted for jailing without charge and a judge ordered their release. When advocates for Nava and Muñoz arrived outside the Briscoe Unit to receive them, however, they had to threaten legal action to locate the migrants which the state had surreptitiously rushed to Customs and Border Protection. Although advocates scrambled to locate the prison bus that carried their clients, they arrived too late to prevent their transfer.[35]

Prison

Dolph Briscoe Prison in Dilly, Texas. Source: Billy Hathorn, 19 June 2011. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nor was Nava and Muñoz’s case unique. In a debacle so terrible a state district judge deemed it illegal, over 200 men arrested in Kinney County languished without charges for over a month.[36] Unable to unlawfully jail them any longer, Texas handed those it had arrested to federal authorities. In October 2021, Val Verde County Attorney David Martinez dropped trespassing charges against eleven migrants after they asserted state law enforcement zipped-tied and marched them twenty minutes and directed them to climb over a fence onto a private ranch.[37] Although Texas DPS authorities denied the charges, body camera footage in another case showed officers standing aside to allow migrants to walk through an open gate onto private property and then arrested them for trespassing.[38] As of October 2021, DPS claimed the arrest of over 1,300 migrants, the majority of whom are Latino, on trespassing charges.[39]

Despite calls from members of Congress to the Department of Homeland Security and the US Attorney General to investigate Texas’s challenge to the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, due process, and “effort to establish a separate state immigration policy,” Operation Lone Star endured as did the ordeal of those it utilizes and ensnares.[40] National Guard soldiers hastily and indefinitely deployed, faced problems including loss of income and opportunities.[41] For some this disruption proved too much. Between the end of October and mid-December four soldiers participating in the operation took their own lives in “string of suicides” which left families questioning the mission’s need.[42] After languishing in prison for as long as three months, over ninety migrants had their court hearings cancelled in late November after the Kinney County Judge and Court Coordinator both tested positive for COVID-19.[43] Thus, Texas kept men incarcerated on a misdemeanor charge with no court date.[44] As of January 2022, over 2,500 migrant men have been arrested under Operation Lone Star with some 900 held in Texas state prisons.[45]

Conclusion

Unlike the mounted attacks that prompted state mobilization in the early 20th century, Operation Lone Star commenced due to a disagreement between the Texas governor and the federal government over the arrival of migrants and refugees seeking asylum.  Texas’s border policing surge of the 1910s ended when the cross-border raids ceased and the atrocities committed by state forces came to light. The present surge of Texas forces on the border does not match the violence the state utilized against Brown bodies during the matanza, but parallels in scale and its level of encroachment into federal border policing efforts.  Without intervention by federal authorities, Operation Lone Star’s open-ended mission is likely to continue for as long as Governor Abbott is in office and finds the operation expedient.[46] Meanwhile migrant efforts continue despite the perils of their journeys and the webs of state and federal border policing they face. 

Endnotes

[1] Uriel J. García and Jolie McCullough, “Texas troopers create “steel wall” of patrol vehicles in Del Rio as feds continue to repatriate Haitians.” The Texas Tribune. 22 September 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/22/texas-border-haitian-migrants-del-rio/.

[2] “Governor Abbott, DPS Launch “Operation Lone Star” To Address Crisis At Southern Border,” Office of the Texas Governor. Press Release. 6 March 2021, https://gov.texas.gov/news/post/governor-abbott-dps-launch-operation-lone-star-to-address-crisis-at-southern-border.  

[3] Op. cit. García and McCullough at Note 1.

[4] The Constitution of the United States. Article VI, Section 2,  https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlevi. See also, "Immigration Enforcement & the Anti- Commandeering Doctrine: Recent Litigation on State Information-Sharing Restrictions." Legal Sidebar. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. 10 March 2020, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/homesec/LSB10386.pdf.

[5] William D. Carrigan, The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004, p. 8.

[6] Monica Muñoz Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018, pp. 87-88.  

[7] For more information see, Op. cit. Monica Martinez at Note 6, and Miguel Antonio Levario, Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012.  

[8] Richard Ribb, “La  o: Revolution, Revenge, and the Rangers, 1910-1920” in Arnoldo De León, Ed., War Along the Border: The Mexican Revolution and Tejano Communities. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012, p. 77 and Benjamin Heber Johnson, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 113.

[9] San Antonio Daily Express, 11 September 1915, quoted at Op. cit. Richard Ribb at Note 8, p. 77. 

[10] Don M. Coerver, “Plan of San Diego.” Handbook of Texas Online. 1 June 1995 (updated 7 January 2021), https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/plan-of-san-diego.

[11] Trinidad Gonzales, “The Mexican Revolution, Revolución de Texas, and Matanza de 1915,” Arnoldo De León, Ed., War Along the Border: The Mexican Revolution and Tejano Communities. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012, p. 121.

[12] Ibid.  

[13] Op. cit., Munoz Martinez at Note 7, p. 215.

[14] “Governor Abbott, DPS Launch “Operation Lone Star.” Office of the Texas Governor, Press Release. 6 March 2021, https://gov.texas.gov/news/post/governor-abbott-dps-launch-operation-lone-star-to-address-crisis-at-southern-border.

[15] Jolie McCullough, “Gov. Greg Abbott's border security initiative rolls out with confusion, missteps and a whole lot of state troopers in Val Verde County,” The Texas Tribune. 30 July 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/07/30/texas-greg-abbott-border-security/.

[16] Ibid. 

[17] Edgar Sandoval, “Texas Says It Will Build the Wall, and Ask Online Donors to Pay for It,” New York Times.16 June 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/16/us/border-wall-texas.html.    

[18] Davis Winkie and James Barragán, “Deplorable conditions, unclear mission: Texas National Guard troops call Abbott’s rushed border operation a disaster.” The Texas Tribune. 1 February 2022, https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/01/texas-national-guard-border-operation-lone-star-abbott/.

[19] Op. cit., Sandoval at Note 17.   

[20] Op. cit., Uriel J. García and Jolie McCullough at Note 1.

[21] Jolie McCullough and Lomi Kriel, “Converted Texas prison gets first immigrant detainees as Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security efforts ramp up.” The Texas Tribune and Propublica. 21 July 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/07/21/texas-prison-immigrant-jail-briscoe/.

[22] Chad R. Trulson and James W. Marquart, First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. 

[23] George T. Díaz, “Cultural Resilience as Resistance: The World of Mexican Prisoners in Texas” in Robert T. Chase, Ed., Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019, p. 150.  

[24] Ibid, p. 149 and Linda B. Hall and Don M. Coerver, Revolution on the Border: The United States and Mexico, 1910-1920. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988, pp. 139140. 

[25] Criminal Record Clerk’s Report, “Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Texas State Prison System for the Fiscal Year Ending December Thirty-First 1923.” Special Collections, (Huntsville, TX: Texas Prison Museum), p. 71. 

[26] Op. cit., Trulson and Marquart at Note 22, pp. 8081.  

[27] “Quedo en Libertad un Mexicano Condenado a 99 Años de Prision,” La Prensa. 10 July 1925 and Ethan Blue, Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons.  New York: New York University Press, 2021, pp. 77, 86. 

[28] Robert T. Chase, We are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 

[29] Op. cit., Trulson and Marquart at Note 22, pp. xviiixxi. 

[30] Proclamation by the Governor of the State of Texas, Greg Abbott, 31 May 2021, p. 1,  https://gov.texas.gov/uploads/files/press/DISASTER_border_security_IMAGE_05-31-2021.pdf?fbclid=IwAR16a2t-HbcW_79CM4VVVD0FVskCnBzBGNr32gXeM5zO8e_J5z8J-AUpE6E.  

[31] Ibid. p. 1 and Op. cit. Johnson, at Note 8, pp. 7677.

[32] Op. cit., Abbott, at Note 30, p. 3.   

[33] Eileen Sullivan and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Images of Border Patrol’s Treatment of Haitian Migrants Prompts Outrage,” New York Times. 21 September 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/21/us/politics/haitians-border-patrol-photos.html and “Governor Abbott Announces Over $36.4 Million in Funding.” Office of the Texas Governor, Press Release.14 October 2021, https://gov.texas.gov/news/post/governor-abbott-announces-over-36.4-million-in-funding-for-operation-lone-star-initiatives-in-texas.  

[34] Op. cit., Abbott at Note 33.    

[35] Suzanne Gamboa, “Texas prison officials stall release of migrants despite judge’s order,” NBC News. 1 October 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/texas-prison-officials-stall-release-migrants-judges-order-rcna2518.

[36] Jolie McCullough, “In latest blunder, charges dropped against migrants arrested in Texas governor’s border crackdown because of faulty paperwork.” The Texas Tribune. 4 November 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/11/04/texas-border-migrants-charges-dropped/.

[37] Jolie McCullough, “Texas prosecutor drops charges after migrants claim they were marched to private property, then arrested for trespassing.” The Texas Tribune. 5 October 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/05/texas-migrants-arrest-charges-dropped/.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Jolie McCullough, “Texas court orders the release of over 200 migrants imprisoned in Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security clampdown.” The Texas Tribune. 28 September 2021,  chttps://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/05/texas-migrants-arrest-charges-dropped/

[40] Joaquin Castro to Alejandro Mayorkas and Merrick B. Garland. 29 October 2021, https://castro.house.gov/imo/media/doc/10.29.21%20Castro%20Letter%20Operation%20Lone%20Star.pdf.

[41] Op. cit., Winkie and Barragán at Note 18.

[42] Davis Winkie, “Wave of suicides hits Texas National Guard’s border mission.” Army Times. 23 December 2021, https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2021/12/23/wave-of-suicides-hits-texas-national-guards-border-mission/.

[43] Jolie McCullough, “Coronavirus shuts down legal proceedings in latest misstep for Texas border crackdown.” The Texas Tribune. 30 November 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/11/30/texas-migrants-arrests-coronavirus/.

[44] Ibid. 

[45] J. David Goodman, “Cases Dismissed, Judges Replaced: Texas Struggles to Prosecute Migrants.” New York Times. 27 January 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/27/us/texas-migrants-operation-lone-star.html.

[46] Carolina Cuellar, “Operation Lone Star continues indefinitely while the Texas Military Department expands border wall.” Texas Public Radio.  2 December 2021, https://www.tpr.org/2021-12-02/operation-lone-star-continues-indefinitely-while-the-texas-military-department-expands-border-wall.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. George T. Díaz is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where he teaches US History, Borderlands, and Mexican American History. His award-winning book, Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling across the Rio Grande (University of Texas Press, 2015), is a social history of smuggling in the borderlands. Díaz is co-editor of the collection Border Policing: A History of Enforcement and Evasion in North America (University of Texas Press, 2020). His current book project, Mañana Land: Life and Death in a Mexican Prison in Texas, considers incarceration and capital punishment transnationally by recovering the voices of those ensnared by the carceral state. Dr. Díaz’s research is informed by investigations in Mexican and US archives, as well as a lifetime of living on the border.  

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