Texas has a particularly grim history of raising armed citizen militias and widespread lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, HRW says
On June 29 last year, the news that at least 53 people were found dead in a trailer in San Antonio of Texas, and a dozen others who were onboard had to be hospitalized, shocked the world. Among the victims were 22 from Mexico, seven from Guatemala, and two from Honduras. On the other hand, it gave the Texas authorities an excuse to take a tougher stance, in the name of securing its border, against outsiders seeking a better life in the USA — known as a nation of immigrants.
Local and international human rights activists have long been urging the US government and states to make profound changes in their cruel and racist migration policies that provoke the border forces to use excessive force against asylum seekers from Mexico, Haiti and other countries. The inhuman acts include arbitrary detention, mass expulsions and race and migration-related torture and other ill-treatment.
Amnesty International called for putting human rights at the centre of US policies and upholding its international obligations to protect them instead of pushing migrants and asylum seekers into desperate situations where they risk suffocation, drowning or dying of thirst.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said: “The tragedy in San Antonio is a devastating example of the failure of states across the Americas to protect migrants and asylum seekers… Cruel and inhumane migration policies endanger lives, forcing people into taking ever-more risky routes when all they want is to find a safe place where they can rebuild their lives.”
Operation Lone Star
Within 10 days into the San Antonio incident, on July 7 last year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order escalating arrests and detentions of asylum seekers and migrants under the abusive Operation Lone Star border initiative, as he authorized the Texas National Guard and Department of Public Safety to unilaterally return them to the US-Mexico border, in apparent disregard for US and international human rights law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.
Operation Lone Star is a $4 billion state program that targets suspected migrants for arrest, prosecution, and incarceration on state misdemeanour offences. On July 7, Governor Abbott also announced an additional $30 million in grants from the state to boost Lone Star operations.
The White House responded to the order with a vague statement on July 8, calling it merely a “logistical nightmare,” and failing to mention the order’s disregard for US or international human rights law.
The executive order, incidents, statements, and Operation Lone Star’s already abusive program together risk further stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, and escalating, rather than reducing, violence, the HRW said. A mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso on August 8, 2019, took place after the Texas governor made false claims of a migrant “invasion.”
“The move to call migration an ‘invasion’ to push Texas Governor Greg Abbott to make Operation Lone Star even more militarized and abusive is unnecessary, racist, and dangerous,” said Bob Libal, consultant to HRW based in Austin, Texas.
Already under Operation Lone Star, migrants and asylum seekers have been subjected to racially discriminatory state criminal procedures. They have been held in state facilities where they are given substandard food and inadequate or nonexistent health care, including mental health care, rights groups say. The detainees have also reported being detained unnecessarily for up to one month before charges are even filed, as well as for weeks and months of pretrial detention for misdemeanour charges and delayed access to counsel.
‘They did not treat us like people’
One year after “painful and overtly racist images” emerged from Del Rio, Texas, in which US Border Patrol officials mounted on horseback used excessive force against Black Haitian asylum seekers invoking associations with slavery, Amnesty International published a report in September last year, on the first anniversary of the events.
The report details arbitrary detention, expulsions, torture and other ill-treatment carried out by US authorities towards Haitians seeking international protection.
In the aftermath, the Biden administration committed to an investigation, which, when published by CBP in July 2022, concluded that none of the Haitians was intentionally struck by Border Patrol agents with their reins, or otherwise, but failed to interview any of the Haitians present, significantly undermining its credibility.
“I’m heartbroken by the treatment of Haitian migrants at our border – and I acknowledge it is only the latest of many historic indignities that Haitians have faced. We will continue to offer assistance and investigate wrongdoing. I remain committed, as ever, to Haiti’s future,” President Joe Biden tweeted on September 24, 2021.
The Amnesty report read: “These shameful events in Del Rio took place as global conversations around systemic racial discrimination, and especially anti-Black racism, continued in the wake of the unlawful killing and torture of George Floyd by police officials in May 2020.
“Since then, between September 2021 and May 2022, the USA expelled more than 25,000 Haitians, making significant use of Title 42, an order implemented under the Trump administration and thinly disguised as a public health measure, which has always worked as an immigration and asylum deterrence policy, in express violation of national and international law.”
Amnesty said under the Biden administration, deportation flights to Haiti rose sharply. According to Witness at the Border – a group that tracks deportation flights – between September 2021 and May 2022 alone, at least 227 flights from the USA landed in Haiti, compared to a total of 37 flights in all of 2020, and 37 in the first eight months of 2021.
The research report found that Haitians experience particular harms rooted in a combination of anti-Black discrimination and nationality-based discrimination.
House Bill 20
Ignoring all calls, the Texas lawmakers have now embarked on a new law to create a “Border Protection Unit” and allow the governor’s administration to fill its ranks by deputizing any “law-abiding” citizen or forming a militia force with private citizens and awarding them impunity.
The opposition parties have labelled it as a “death squad,” while the HRW says the House Bill 20 is a “blueprint for abuses against vulnerable people, with armed thugs terrorizing them at will and allowed to get away with it.”
These state-sponsored vigilantes would be empowered to arrest, detain, and deter people at the border with Mexico. Rough translation: unarmed, poor brown folks, the HRW said.
“…Texas has a particularly grim history of raising armed citizen militias against certain groups of people and widespread lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. And here’s the kicker: people serving in this new unit would be granted criminal and civil immunity against claims of wrongdoing. They could do just about anything they wanted without fear of punishment,” the HRW said, adding that vigilante hate groups have already been formalizing relationships with border sheriffs in recent years.
“Immunity from prosecution would take things to a new extreme. Texas lawmakers need to back up and realize: even when people have nothing else, they still have rights.”
Legalizing terror in Texas?
Dade Phelan, the Republican speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, at an event on March 2 said Texas was a land of opportunities but regretted that they had yet to take a firm stance to protect the border. Then he announced that they would file a bill in the House that make national headlines and change the conversation on border security.
On March 10, Texas Republican Representative Matt Schaefer introduced House Bill 20 to the House and it was referred to the Texas House State Affairs Committee on March 13. It would extend the legal framework around border enforcement beyond federal officials alone.
Schaefer said that Texans were in “imminent danger” due to the skyrocketing number of fentanyl trafficking and poisoning deaths in the state.
On March 11, Schaefer wrote in a tweet: “The Texas Border Protection Unit will be an organization of professional men and women hired/trained under the authority of the Dept of Public Safety to protect Texans. Many will be licensed peace officers, others trained and specifically authorized by the Governor to make lawful arrests. Exactly as the Nat’l Guard & DPS operate now under Operation Lone Star.”
Till April 13, the Texas House State Affairs Committee has held public hearings and recorded testimonies. If passed, the border protection unit will be in place until December 30, 2030, when it will expire unless continued by the Legislature.
Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Joshua Treviño in his testimony before the committee said his non-profit organization supports the passage of the bill and the creation of a dedicated Border Protection Unit that focuses on securing the long frontier with Mexico. Although the primary responsibility for the protection of borders rests with the federal government, it does not strip the states of the power to defend themselves, he said.
Citing Article I, Section 10 regarding invasion power, which House Bill 20 references and operationalizes, he said: “That operationalization is profoundly necessary now, as the federal government fails to fully execute its own duty to secure the border — and as the Mexican state continues to disintegrate into a patchwork of cartel control interspersed with colluding governance at every level.”
Rebranding Operation Lone Star?
The Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) called the bill an “extreme vigilante death squads policy.”
MALC Chair and State Representative Victoria Neave wrote in a statement that the proposed legislation is a “dangerous, radical, unconstitutional proposal which empowers border vigilantes to hunt migrants and racially profile Latinos [that] is going to result in the death of innocent people.”
Eric Gamino, an assistant professor of criminology and justice studies at California State University, was a police officer for eight years and now researches the way border policing intersects border life.
Gamino sees two important components to the Border Protection Unit Act: the immediate changes that would come to Texas if the bill is passed, and the long game Republicans are playing in angling for a Supreme Court fight.
“It’s a rebranding campaign,” Gamino told The Intercept. “The governor has recognized that Operation Lone Star is ineffective, that it’s a failed operation. They want to send these individuals back home, but they need to replace the bodies – meaning these individuals who are hyper-militarizing the borderlands – they need to replace them with people that have arrest authorities,” Gamino explained.