For years, liberals have been criticizing Texas’s border-militarization program, Operation Lone Star, as useless, cruel, and a waste of billions of dollars a year. They’re not alone, it turns out. In mid-July, the Houston Chronicle published a devastating account of the operation, which deploys thousands of state troopers and members of the Texas National Guard to border areas. The report detailed instances in which those on assignment were “ordered to push small children and nursing babies back into the Rio Grande” and to deny others water during one of the hottest summers in recorded history. The allegations come from one of the troopers, who saw things he thought unconscionable and then put them in writing, recommending that the state change course. 

The Rio Grande is a death trap on the best of days: though it is not deep or fast-moving in most places, it is the last obstacle for many would-be refugees who have traveled thousands of miles. They are desperate. Many don’t swim well. Some can’t swim at all. Migrants drown in the river almost every day. Texas has now introduced walls of giant buoys in the water and coils of razor wire on parts of the Texas side in the fantastical belief that those barriers will stop migrants from crossing. Even so, many have no choice but to make the attempt—either by traveling elsewhere along the river, where the conditions are often more dangerous, or by pushing through the hazards anyway. If Texas is trying to save lives through deterrence, it isn’t working. And it comes at great cost, as the Chronicle reported:

A pregnant woman having a miscarriage was found late last month caught in the wire, doubled over in pain. A four-year-old girl passed out from heat exhaustion after she tried to go through it and was pushed back by Texas National Guard soldiers. A teenager broke his leg trying to navigate the water around the wire and had to be carried by his father.

On another occasion, the trooper wrote to superiors, officers encountered a group of migrants on the Texas side of the river that included children and nursing babies. The commanding officer instructed troopers to push them back into the Rio Grande, and when the troopers refused, they were told to leave the area.

These are stories that hark back to some of the darkest days in Texas history, a century ago, when renegade bands of Texas Rangers patrolled the border and killed innocent civilians. The state is constructing an obstacle course filled with water traps and razor-sharp steel and asking migrants and asylum seekers how much blood they’re willing to shed to have a chance at living in America. This has cost Texas billions of dollars, with little effect on immigration. We do it anyway.

The politics of the border are difficult for both parties. Many Republican voters are hard-liners on the issue: the vast majority want to reduce legal immigration and deport more undocumented immigrants, and some want the border shut completely. But Republican elected officials, from Governor Greg Abbott to former president Donald Trump, are unable to deliver. The Democratic coalition has two main factions: voters who want a softer touch on the border but who aren’t motivated by it in the same way Republicans are, and swing voters, including many Tejanos, who want tighter border security but without mistreatment of migrants. The Biden administration has tried to split the difference. It has kept elements of Trump’s border policies in place while creating new channels for migrants to apply for asylum, which has helped mitigate the problem of illegal crossings. But that approach is fragile and faces legal challenges.

In polls, a majority of Texans say they want a more militarized border, and every year immigration is a top issue in the Republican primary. Almost 60 percent of Texans recently surveyed said they wanted the state to send more troops to the border. But there is no practical way to end migration. It is not within the power of the State of Texas to make migrants stop fleeing Venezuela and Honduras. Indeed, the “area of the border most heavily targeted by Operation Lone Star has seen the most rapid increases in illegal border crossings in the state since the operation began,” the Wall Street Journal reported in July

What’s more, many migrants are coming with the express goal of turning themselves in to ask for asylum—a status that they are entitled to request, under U.S. and international law, and one that the U.S. typically will not give them. They have already risked everything by coming here: some have mortgaged their farms and homes to fund their journeys. Only force can stop many from coming the final fifty feet—and a few prominent Republicans have floated using it: Trump once suggested shooting migrants below the waist to slow them down. Though one National Guardsman shot across the river in August, that’s not common, at least for now.

Migrants walk behind concertina wire in the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 15, 2023. The buoy installation is part of an operation Texas is pursuing to secure its borders, but activists and some legislators say Governor Greg Abbott is exceeding his authority.
Migrants walk behind concertina wire in the water along the Rio Grande.Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty

About 1 percent of “migrant encounters” on the border are being handled by the state’s forces instead of by the U.S. Border Patrol, according to the Journal. So the state’s personnel are not, as a practical matter, doing much to slow the flow of migrants. Thousands of the arrests the troopers have made are of U.S. citizens who happened to be moving through their patrol areas. Some charges against migrants have been thrown out in courts for their discriminatory nature. And the deployments have come at considerable personal cost: members of the Texas National Guard have complained of terrible conditions and a lack of support from the state. As the Army Times reported, four members of the guard died by suspected suicide in the months after the operation expanded in late 2021, having put their lives on hold to serve the governor’s political needs.

For most Texans the issue of the border is abstract, and the lives of the migrants crossing it even more so. Plano is about as far from Brownsville as it is from Illinois. Voters just want the problem to go away. Statewide leaders, then, have an impossible task. They need to secure a border that can’t be secured in the way their voters demand. They go about it as most politicians do: throw a lot of money and photogenic personnel at the problem. That’s been the solution since the days of Governor Rick Perry, but as the years go by, more and more money is necessary to make a splash.

Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star is an effort to make that splash, at extraordinary expense. By 2025 it will have cost $9.5 billion. That’s nearly three times the amount of money that was proposed by the Texas Senate for teacher pay raises, before the proposal died in a special session. And the border program’s budget keeps going up. The Texas Department of Public Safety understands its role here. Over the past few years, it has produced a seemingly never-ending series of videos and social media posts displaying the trucks, helicopters, boats, and cutting-edge technology it has deployed to the border. Its spokespeople make frequent appearances on local and national TV.

DPS deploys the vehicles, and elected officials use the footage as advertising to show that they’re doing something. In May, Abbott summoned reporters to an Austin airport for a press conference, where they found National Guard troops milling around alongside two transport planes. When the conference started, the troopers began loading onto the planes behind the governor, providing a martial backdrop to his otherwise boilerplate remarks on the border. Abbott then cut the session short so that he could do a Fox News segment backdropped by the troops.

All that manpower is on the border to make a point: we are busy. There likely will never be an accounting, in the Legislature, of whether all this money was well spent. The program’s efficacy is seemingly a secondary consideration to state leaders. Operation Lone Star is a parlor trick. It is not intended to work as much as to be visible. Which is to say that the problems of the little people caught up in it are very abstract indeed.

There was nothing abstract about it to the trooper who blew the whistle. He saw dehydrated children and a pregnant woman crawling through concertina wire and thought it wasn’t right. To speak up was a brave thing to do, but it should not have been an exceptional thing to do. A normal person encountering that scene would, one hopes, do the same. Which raises the question of what, precisely, has happened to the faceless bureaucracy above that trooper.

The faceless bureaucracy says that everything is fine. In the days after the Chronicle story, DPS made every effort to show its troopers helping migrants, while officials denied there had ever been orders to withhold help. The agency’s spokesman said there was no policy forbidding troopers to give migrants water. Allies of the governor did the same.

But two issues complicate the state’s denials. First, the state’s deployment to the border involves two agencies—DPS and the Texas Military Department—and has involved 10,000 personnel in a complex operational hierarchy. State troopers and the state guard are not trained for the job like the Border Patrol. Some officers likely try to put into practice what they think the bosses want, and sometimes that turns ugly. The responsibility lies with the elected officials who sent them into the field.

Second, just days before the Chronicle article published, DPS officials were representing the agency’s mission in much different terms. On
July 13 a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, a right-wing think tank founded in the eighties and influenced by the now deceased white nationalist John Tanton, shared a video taken from a drone. He said that migrants were being prevented from reaching the “border patrol saviors”—federal agents who might let them into the United States. A DPS spokesman retweeted him, adding that the agency was “repelling & redirecting those who unlawfully cross the dangerous Rio Grande back to Mexico.”

It would not be hard to build a more humane border and immigration policy out of ideas that were popular in Texas and had support among many Republicans ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago. Consider how quickly things have changed and you start to feel vertigo. Until recently, token efforts were made to “secure the border,” undocumented residents were treated with considerably more kindness and respect, and there was a widespread understanding that the Texas economy—all those restaurants and construction sites—ran on cheap, unregulated migrant labor. 

In 2001 the Texas Legislature passed a bill that would have granted driver’s licenses to undocumented Texans. Governor Rick Perry vetoed it, but he championed in-state tuition at state colleges for undocumented children who grew up here—a policy that helped sink his 2012 presidential campaign and is reviled by the Texas right today. As recently as 2014, the state GOP argued internally, while drafting its platform, about the “Texas Solution”—a call for an expanded guest-worker program, which would alleviate labor shortages here while allowing folks who have passed background checks to enter the U.S. 

Expanding immigration and refugee resettlement has never been widely popular—see the backlash to Vietnamese settlement in Texas after the Vietnam War. But until recently, political leaders, even those on the right, were more willing to speak up for migrants. Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, fled an oppressive dictatorship and made a new life as an immigrant in the United States, which once rolled out the red carpet for Cuban exiles. Today, too many in charge are happy to see those fleeing the dictatorship in Venezuela collapse from heatstroke within view of Del Rio.

While DPS and state officials responded to the Chronicle story by denying they could ever be so cruel, a vocal minority of state politicians instead said: Good. Shortly after the story appeared, Matt Schaefer, a state representative from Tyler and the leader of the House Freedom Caucus, perfunctorily denied charges levied at Abbott’s border tactics as “lies and half-truths.” But he also said that if the reporting was accurate, DPS was doing commendable work. “If in fact [Abbott] is taking a bolder approach to border security by directing DPS troopers to repel illegal crossers, he has my full support,” Schaefer tweeted. Every Republican, he said, should be supporting the governor against floppy liberals trying to “shame” him.

The implication: that more cruelty might finally, against all evidence, “secure” the border. The immigration debate has become so degraded over the past twenty years that it’s hard not to look at the next twenty, as temperatures rise and crops fail and water becomes scarcer in the countries migrants are already fleeing, with a sense of mounting dread. If we won’t now think through the costs and moral consequences of what we’re doing, when will we?  

This article appeared in the October 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Cruelty Is the Point.” It originally published online on July 27, 2023, and has since been updated. Subscribe today.