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Groups urge DOJ to investigate civil rights violations in Texas border crackdown

Groups say Gov. Greg Abbott's Operation Lone Star is on slippery ground and is fanning the kind of anti-Latino, anti-immigrant hate that led to the 2019 El Paso massacre.
Image: Texas Governor Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott arrives for a Covid news conference at the Capitol in Austin on March 29. Tom Fox / Pool via Getty Images file

Ten civil rights groups accused Texas Gov. Greg Abbott of fanning the flames of hate with his border enforcement operation, which they said is riddled with civil rights violations and fueled by rhetoric similar to that used before the 2019 shooting massacre in El Paso.

The groups' Title VI civil rights complaint urges the Department of Justice to investigate Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, launched in March, and shut off federal funding to participating state agencies.

"This sham system, it's fueled by white supremacist rhetoric," said Laura Peña, a legal director at the Texas Civil Rights Project, adding that it is "rhetoric that we are hearing over and over again, the drumbeat that there is an invasion."

"The El Paso shooter used the same exact same language of an invasion of his manifesto before killing 23 people in a Walmart," she said.

Calls to the governor's press office went to voice mail and there was not immediate response to messages left requesting comment.

In October, Rep. Joaquin Castro and several other Democratic lawmakers asked DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security to investigate Operation Lone Star.

At the time, a spokeswoman for Abbott's office said Texans deserve to have the rule of law enforced on the border and that's what Abbott was doing.

On Aug. 3, 2019, a gunman traveled 700 miles from outside Dallas to the border city of El Paso where he opened fire in a Walmart, killing 22 people and injuring 23. A 23rd person died later of his wounds.

A document posted online before the shooting, and which police believe was posted by the shooter, discusses a "Hispanic invasion." At the time of the massacre, there was outcry over anti-immigrant rhetoric used by former President Donald Trump and Texas officials.

Abbott has assumed federal responsibility of enforcing immigration laws. State law enforcement officials are arresting migrants, jailing them in converted state prison units with little to no access to attorneys, charging many with trespassing, but holding some without charges even after the deadline to file charges expires.

Abbott, who is running for re-election in 2022, has focused attention, and billions of dollars, on illegal immigration on the border, challenging the policies of President Joe Biden.

The governor has deployed the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Guard and Texas Rangers to the border, and solicited and received help from other states. At one point he set up shipping containers on the border to block migrants.

The groups said in their letter to DOJ that the operation is rife with racial profiling and biased policing and that officers in some cases lure migrants to certain locations so they can charge them with trespassing. The trespass arrests regularly lack probable cause, the groups said.

In the case of a Venezuelan man, he was arrested on trespassing charges and jailed for 63 days after law enforcement motioned him through an open gate. The charge was eventually dismissed, said Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Texas has arrested some 2,200 people on misdemeanor state criminal trespass charges, the groups state. Virtually all were Latino or Black men and migrants, the groups said in their complaint.

To carry out the operation, Abbott has created a separate criminal prosecution and detention system, with separate dockets, public defender assignments, jails and booking facility, they said.

Abbott and other state officials have said the operation has led to the arrest of thousands of migrants, the interruption of criminal activity and the seizure of illegal drugs. In a Dec. 9 briefing, the state said it had seized 160 pounds of fetanyl.

At one point, the top executive official in Kinney County, where many of the arrests have occurred, replaced several judges hearing cases.

An ACLU analysis of probable cause affidavits in 168 cases turned up mentions of ethnicity and perceived immigration status.

"What we have found demonstrates that racial profiling and profiling on basis of perceived national origin permeate the system," Huddleston said.

Texas is the first to use state law in this way and if DOJ does not intervene and stop the operation, "not only will it flourish in Texas and spread to other counties in Texas, but it will also spread to other states ... and exacerbate the virulent anti-American environment and cause what you've heard are very real harms," Huddleston said.

Their complaint was filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program receiving public assistance.

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