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“An Occupying Force”: Florida Troopers Descend on Texas Border Communities
“There’s already a massive police presence in border communities under Operation Lone Star,” says Lopez. “People do see it as an occupying force.”
Today’s post is part of a nationwide collaboration among newsrooms called Democracy Day, which will take place on September 15. The intent is to draw attention to the crisis facing American democracy, and provide readers with the context and information they need, and to bring all types of media together to sound the alarm collectively. We’re a little early, so as not to interrupt our normal publishing schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We hope you’ll check out other submissions, which will be published on September 15. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.
“An Occupying Force”: Florida Troopers Descend on Texas Border Communities
In August, Carolea Hassard, a rancher in rural Kinney County, on the Texas-Mexico border, saw something unusual at a local gas station: a Florida State Highway Patrol officer filling up his squad car.
“I’m thinking, What is a Florida trooper doing here?” she said. “Then I saw them out on the road too. And I’m wondering, What good are a bunch of Florida cops in Texas?”
The same questions are being asked by border residents from rural Kinney County to Brownsville, Texas. “It’s been stunning to see Florida state troopers in places like Mission, McAllen, and in Brownsville,” said Roberto Lopez, who grew up in South Texas and works for the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project. “There’s already a massive police presence in border communities under Operation Lone Star,” he said. “People do see it as an occupying force.”
This summer, at least 13 Republican-led states, in addition to Florida, have deployed law enforcement and National Guard to Texas. It’s the second time in three years. In June 2021, Texas governor Greg Abbott and former Arizona governor Doug Ducey requested police and soldiers under an Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and more than a dozen Republican-led states, including South Dakota and Tennessee, sent equipment and personnel.
In May, Abbott said these deployments were necessary to deter “the flood of illegal border activity invited by the Biden administration.” Contrary to Abbott’s claims, however, Biden has kept active-duty military and National Guard at the border, and he is on track to give more funding to the Department of Homeland Security than any other president before him. Regardless of who is in the White House, the militarization has expanded, while migration has increased globally—not just at the U.S.-Mexico border—due to climate change, war, poverty, and other factors.
Abbott refers to asylum seekers as “invaders” and touts state sovereignty over immigration enforcement actions, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government is in charge of immigration enforcement.
Despite the federal ruling, Abbott has pushed state law enforcement and National Guard into the controversial role of immigration enforcers. Since March 2021, when the initiative started, at least 10,000 soldiers and state police were sent to the Texas border. Their mission is to arrest asylum seekers and migrants on state criminal trespassing charges, then jail them in state-run prisons. Operation Lone Star also has its own state-funded judicial system, which prosecutes migrants for criminal trespass misdemeanors. In addition, Texas is building its own border wall on land deeded by private landowners. Abbott has also installed a floating buoy barrier with circular saws on the Rio Grande. And he’s busing migrants to Democrat-led states.
After two years and $4.4 billion, Operation Lone Star, which is facing several civil rights lawsuits, hasn’t deterred people from arriving at the border, according to the conservative Wall Street Journal. “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 WSJ reported in July. “Thousands of arrests by state troopers under the program have been unrelated to border security, and instead netted U.S. citizens hundreds of miles from the border.”
While the massive state-funded initiative has not stopped migration, it has targeted U.S. border residents for harassment and surveillance.
“Whether I’m out taking pictures of birds or trying to document border wall construction, it feels like you are always being watched,” said Lopez.
Drivers have their ID ready and their insurance in order, he said, because they can be pulled over at any time, especially if they have a darker complexion. “I know a person who has been pulled over eight times,” he said.
Recently, he said, his mother, who has a darker complexion, was interrogated for several minutes at an interior Border Patrol checkpoint, while his father, who is lighter skinned, wasn’t asked any questions. They were on their way to a medical appointment.
The Heart of the Republican Primary Voter
Much was made during the last deployment in 2021—four months before the midterm elections—when South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem revealed that her state’s deployment to the border, which would cost more than $1 million, was being paid for by a GOP mega donor from Tennessee.
In 2023, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who is lagging a distant second behind Trump in the Republican presidential polls, has deployed the most troopers of any state, sending more than 1,100 cops and soldiers to Texas. He also sent a deployment in 2021, and has since then activated his own state guard, which has been mired in controversy as DeSantis has become increasingly authoritarian and antidemocratic.
Barrett Marson, a Republican political consultant, said that for any Republican with political aspirations, sending law enforcement and soldiers to the border is a winning strategy. “Governor Noem, she’s often mentioned as vice president material, or maybe 2028 potential,” he said. “Certainly, politics is part of her calculation.”
Border security is a top issue for Republicans, he said. “It’s at the heart of the Republican primary voter. And it’s also good for the general election.”
Voters are continually inundated with stories about people lining up at the border in Mexico, he said. “They’re hearing that millions of American taxpayer dollars are needed to deal with the influx,” he said. “And they want it fixed.”
By focusing on the border, DeSantis is trying to boost his campaign ratings. “He’s got a lot of other issues he’s dealing with, but this is a big political winner,” said Marson.
The deployments may help failing Republican campaigns, but at what cost to the safety and civil rights of border residents?
Lopez said the combination of ignorance and firepower is dangerous for both migrants and border communities. Already, two Texas National Guard soldiers have shot migrants—one who was standing in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the other in Mission, Texas.
“When you think about Florida State Police or National Guard, they come to our communities and may not know much about the region but have been spoon-fed the rhetoric of an invasion,” Lopez said. “We’ve seen Border Patrol agents in the past kill locals, as well as white nationalists shooting up places like El Paso. It is extremely concerning. Because they’re walking around with so much power and authority. It can lead to some dangerous interactions.”
Much of Operation Lone Star is carried out in rural locations like Kinney County, Lopez said, where there’s little oversight. And it’s unclear under what policies out-of-state law enforcement are operating under when they’re policing border communities. “When it comes to supporting state law enforcement, we often hear legislators say they’ll be providing logistical support, or administrative support, and won’t directly be apprehending and arresting people,” he said. “But we could see a situation where a Florida law enforcement agent goes well above and beyond what is probably their authority when apprehending an immigrant, and there’s no one there to document it.”
The Border Chronicle contacted the Texas Military Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety and requested information about use-of-force policies and others that out-of-state police operate under while working in Texas, but neither agency responded.
“I don’t know what they’re up to,” said Hassard, of the Florida Highway Patrol in her community. “But it worries me. What kind of impact are all these police going to have on residents, especially if you’re Latino or Black? This is a small community and people can be fearful. I’m a big proponent of speaking out so that others feel comfortable speaking out. It’s the only way we’re going to fight the intimidation.”
This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.
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