The Human Cost of Operation Lone Star

Is the Biden administration, despite its legal posturing, content to abdicate some of its responsibilities on the ground and let Operation Lone Star take over?


One month ago, an incident between a group of migrants and Texas National Guard personnel made national news when several hundred migrants rushed through fences that the National Guard had erected near Gate 36 at the Juárez-El Paso border. The confrontation, and others like it, was provoked by the practices of personnel under Operation Lone Star. Under the orders of Governor Gregg Abbott, Texas National Guard has strung miles of razor wire at the border while it stands guard at the Rio Grande to turn away migrants and prevent them from surrendering themselves to Border Patrol. Through these actions, the Texas National Guard prevents Border Patrol agents from doing their jobs and in turn increases the likelihood of further confrontations.

The international border is the middle of the Rio Grande. The fencing and concertina wire are above the bank of the river, which means that when migrants and asylum seekers reach this wire, they are already in the United States. Migrants and asylum seekers who cross the river at this point are deliberately trying to surrender themselves to Border Patrol agents to begin the asylum process. This act of surrender at the border is legal, even between ports of entry. If these people were attempting to enter undetected, they would cross the border at other, more remote places.

The Texas National Guard stops people from surrendering with both ever-thickening coils of wire and with their own presence. Migrants who are looking for Border Patrol agents are ordered by Guards to go back across the river to Mexico or to find a port of entry. Guards physically block the migrants’ path, thus forcing many of them to camp between the river and the concertina wire for days. More and more people have accumulated in this very small strip of land instead of being taken in for processing. Because Border Patrol agents cannot process these migrants, they cannot begin the process of selecting those eligible for entry or deporting those who do not qualify, leaving the growing camp of migrants in legal limbo.

The day after this confrontation, Texas National Guard personnel worked to install another layer of fence covered in coils of concertina wire, this time in the lower bed of the Rio Grande. As they worked, a contingent of National Guard personnel and Texas Department of Public Safety officers stood in front of a group of migrant families with full riot gear – shields, helmets, batons, and projectile guns. An announcement played over a loudspeaker on loop threatened migrants with arrest if they try “to cross,” even though they were already on U.S. land.

While this may seem a reasonable way of preventing migrants from making it any further into the U.S., the crux of the problem is this: If the National Guard doesn’t let these migrants surrender themselves to Border Patrol agents, what will they do instead? These families are not going to turn around and go home. They are not going to walk or ride on the tops of freight cars all the way back to the southern border of Mexico. They are not going to catch buses through one or three or seven more countries, and they are not going to go back into the jungle of the Darién Gap. The most probable outcome is that they will look for another place to cross the border. This means, usually, a place that is more remote, where they will not surrender themselves.

Pushing migrants to these fringes has several detrimental outcomes: First, they are less likely to be processed and vetted. Anyone who believes that the U.S. should know who is crossing the border into the country should welcome the practice of migrants surrendering for processing rather than attempting to enter undetected. Second, they are more likely to have to pay smuggling fees to organized crime groups to use these migration routes. This practice not only enriches the smugglers, but also puts migrants in more danger for assault, theft, trafficking, or simply being abandoned in the desert. Third, they are more likely to die or be seriously injured from exposure, dehydration, and falls. In fiscal year 2023, there were a record number of migrant deaths at the border. This number is only likely to rise if people are pushed away from the more populated centers, like Juárez and El Paso, where they can cross the border and surrender themselves directly to Border Patrol agents.

So where is the federal government? During an afternoon spent watching National Guard install their new fences as perhaps 100 migrants on U.S. land waited for a chance to be taken in for processing, I did not see a single Border Patrol agent. It is true that Texas and the federal government are tied up in court over items like the buoy barriers near the city of Eagle Pass and the implementation of Texas’ new law, “SB 4,” that would allow some state control over deportations. At the same time, I have observed over and over again migrants encounter National Guard personnel at the border with no Border Patrol agents in the area. Is the Biden administration, despite its legal posturing, content to abdicate some of its responsibilities on the ground and let Operation Lone Star take over?

Beyond the probable unconstitutionality of Operation Lone Star or the growing human cost, this problem matters because, for people in El Paso and Juárez and all along the border, this is our home. This home is now split by layers of razor-sharp concertina wire so thick it’s become difficult to see through. The river bed is littered with scraps of this wire, coils that can slice through skin. Abbott has even placed the concertina wire on the Rio Grande between Texas and New Mexico, a fellow American state. When, if ever, will any of these fences and wires ever be removed? Will the landscape ever be free of both the threat to human safety and inter-American connection that the wire presents?

Until now, Operation Lone Star has spent about half of the more than nine billion dollars that have been allocated to it, but evidence of its efficacy is scant. The number of border crossings has not decreased, with the Texas National Guard’s actions appearing more likely to delay or displace crossings rather than stop them. As a country and a state, we gain nothing by forcing migrants to camp in a river bed for days before surrendering or by forcing them to fall into the arms of smugglers to find a way across. Our laws require that federal, not state, agencies detain and vet migrants and asylum seekers, a process that can protect people from unnecessary exposure to environmental elements and to criminal actors.

On a recent evening, as the National Guard heaved the last fence panel of the day into place, a migrant arrived at the river with his shoes in his hands, ready to wade across. For a moment, he was almost stopped in his tracks as he looked at the new barriers in the river bed, the soldiers in riot gear, and the families camping on the opposite bank under makeshift shelters. None of this deterrence worked for long, though.

“Well, we still have faith that we’ll make it,” he told me, and he squared his shoulders and kept walking.

Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso and a photojournalist in the El Paso-Juárez region. She has a PhD in Latin American Studies from Tulane University.

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