One had a promising, potentially life-changing job interview coming up at a call center. The other had a wheelchair-using loved one at home who required daily care. Both were soldiers in the Texas Army National Guard, requesting leave from Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a controversial election-year deployment of 10,000 soldiers to the southern border. Both of their hardship requests were denied, and both men died by suicide while deployed on the border mission late last year.
When asked last month about the deaths of soldiers like Pfc. Joshua Cortez and Sgt. John Crutcher — two of the four deaths by suicide linked to Operation Lone Star in recent months — Abbott said his critics were “just playing politics” and that the focus should be on military suicides under President Joe Biden.
For Jason Featherston, who joined the Guard straight out of high school and spent the next two decades rising to the upper ranks of the Texas Military Department, the governor’s comments were not only insulting, they were wrong. The focus, Featherston argues, is exactly where it needs to be. As the highest-ranking enlisted officer in the Texas National Guard, Featherston had a front row seat to the creation and implementation of Operation Lone Star before retiring in November. He has since become an outspoken critic of Abbott’s operation, which he describes as a “rush to failure” that is taking an unconscionable toll on soldiers and their families.
“I expect my 9- and 10-year-old kids to deflect blame to the other. I don’t expect a governor, who is the commander in chief of the Texas military, to deflect blame to a president,” Featherston told The Intercept. “I voted for Abbott in the last election, but he will never get another vote of mine.”
Concerns surrounding the deployment of National Guard soldiers have grown exponentially since early December, as a string of investigative news reports from Army Times, the Texas Tribune, USA Today, and others have documented arrests of soldiers assigned to the border mission, patterns of DUIs, alcohol and drug use, missing pay, and soldiers losing money that they could be making in their civilian lives.
Just this week, a joint Army Times-Texas Tribune investigation detailed the chaotic and disastrously hasty way that Operation Lone Star was cobbled together. Abbott’s rush to put troops on the ground threw volunteer soldiers accustomed to missions with clear end dates and plenty of lead time for preparation into an obligatory mission with no end in sight and little to no time to put their lives in order prior to deployment. The report found that 1 in 5 troops in the 6,500-strong “operational force” of Operation Lone Star “reported problems with their pay, including being paid late, too little or not at all for months” and “living in cramped trailers with dozens of troops.” The Texas Military Department disputed the reporting, which was based on internal documents and interviews with nearly 40 current and former guard soldiers.
“If you’re going to send soldiers to the border, you need to pay them,” Featherston said. “You need to give them the right equipment. If they have hardships, those things need to be considered, because life gets a vote in anything that we do. There were hardship packets that were denied that should have been approved, and unfortunately, if it wasn’t for Operation Lone Star, there’d be another four families that would have loved ones still here with us.”
Launched in March and expanded from 500 to 10,000 troops in under a year, Operation Lone Star is among the largest deployments of soldiers in the 186-year history of the Texas Military Department. The mission is funded by state taxpayers as part of a $3 billion border security package that the Texas Legislature approved last summer.
“If you’re going to send soldiers to the border, you need to pay them. You need to give them the right equipment. If they have hardships, those things need to be considered.”
At first, Featherston thought that the governor’s plans seemed consistent with past border missions he had participated in. That started to change in September, when the nation’s attention turned to thousands of Haitian asylum-seekers gathered under a bridge in Del Rio, in West Texas, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson began calling Abbott out for failing to lock down the border. “This country is being invaded,” Carlson said at the time.
According to state records, Abbott requested 2,500 troops — in addition to the 1,500 troops he had already called up for Operation Lone Star — following Carlson’s public criticism. Soon after, the governor announced that 6,500 soldiers and troopers were participating in the border mission. By November, that number had mushroomed to 10,000. “Putting 500 people or 1,000 down there, it’s not a big thing. We’ve been doing that for years,” Featherston said, referring to previous iterations of Texas border operations. “Putting 10,000 people on the border is not even sustainable.” He added: “That’s when the talk really kind of started of, ‘Hey, yeah, this is just a political stunt.’”
The sentiment was widespread, Featherston said, and ran from units on the ground to the upper ranks of the Texas Military Department. Since the expansion took off, Featherston’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Every day, he said, he receives calls from soldiers on the border mission who are navigating one unnecessary difficulty or another.
More than 150 hardship requests from Texas National Guard soldiers on the border mission reviewed by The Intercept revealed the wide range of ways that Operation Lone Star has disrupted soldiers’ lives, from a recently single mother trying to raise two kids in the middle of pandemic, to a lab technician trying to keep her rural Texas hospital’s Covid-19 testing running, to a small town police chief imploring the Texas Military Department not to take one of his few remaining officers away. All of those requests and scores of others like them were denied to fulfill Abbott’s demand for boots on the ground.
In a statement to USA Today late last month, Col. Rita Holton, a spokesperson for the Texas Military Department, said Guard officials have granted around 75 percent of the more than 900 hardship requests received by the department and that 75 percent of pay discrepancies for troops in Operation Lone Star had been resolved. Holton added that field commanders were working to resolve issues associated with soldiers’ living conditions.
“Soldiers deserve better than what they’re getting,” Featherston said. “Guardsmen are the people you run into at the grocery store in your local community. They have families. They have lives. They do everything that every other normal person does, except for they leave home to go help someone or have to deploy overseas.”
Members of the Texas National Guard stand during a news conference with Gov. Greg Abbott, right, in Mission, Texas, on Oct. 6, 2021.
Abbott’s protestations aside, there is no question that the governor’s border operation is steeped in politics.
For much of the last year, conservative and rural counties in West Texas, particularly Val Verde and Kinney, have seen a considerable rise in undocumented border crossings on the vast private ranches that blanket the region. At a rally in Kinney County in May, speakers aired a range of concerns about the issue, from ranchers worried about undocumented men wandering onto their properties while their wives and children were home alone, to baseless rumors of Hondurans engaged in organ trafficking, to Goliad County Sheriff Roy Boyd warning that a “Marxist invasion” was underway.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s general counsel, Austin Kinghorn, was on hand for the event and assured the audience that the state was mobilizing a response. “You are not alone. General Paxton is going to fight like hell for you,” he said. “This is our top priority.”
The following week, Abbott issued a formal declaration of disaster on the border and ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to begin arresting migrants on state offenses — overwhelmingly trespassing charges made possible by private landowners who agreed to allow DPS to conduct operations on their property — and transferring them to state jails.
In July, Abbott ordered the Texas National Guard to begin providing support to the Operation Lone Star state troopers. In an email to The Intercept last week, DPS said that since the operation began, state troopers have made more than 10,400 criminal arrests, including 2,572 arrests for criminal trespassing. “There have also been 8,287 felony charges filed,” the agency said. Additionally, DPS reported that state troopers had “made more than 87,800 migrant apprehensions and referrals.” DPS did not respond when asked how it distinguishes Lone Star arrests from other arrests. The Texas National Guard said in email that Guard soldiers had “apprehended or referred more than 100,000 illegal migrants to partner law enforcement agencies” but similarly did not respond to questions about when those apprehensions and referrals took place and whether they were part of Operation Lone Star alone or included other border missions.
Under Operation Lone Star, the majority of the state’s cases have been dismissed. The flood of low-level prosecutions has thoroughly overwhelmed the rural and resource-strapped counties where most of the operation’s arrests are taking place. Hundreds of undocumented immigrants have languished in Texas state jail cells for days, weeks, and even months on end, in some cases without access to a lawyer and in others after their bail has been paid. Attorneys who have represented immigrants arrested under the program have documented state law enforcement luring individuals onto private property and then arresting them for trespassing.
Last month a state judge in Travis County, home to the Texas capital, Austin, ruled in favor of an Ecuadorian man who argued that his treatment in Operation Lone Star constituted a violation of his rights under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which holds that the federal government, not the states, is responsible for enforcing the nation’s immigration laws. Less than 24 hours later, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid filed a writ before the same court on behalf of more than 400 clients making a similar claim. These challenges follow similar concerns raised by civil rights organizations and Democratic lawmakers, who called for a federal investigation into Abbott’s operation late last year.
By putting Operation Lone Star at the center of his argument for reelection, Abbott’s border messaging reflects a broader effort led by Stephen Miller, a former senior adviser to President Donald Trump, to deploy a narrative of chaos going into the midterm elections. “I’m very open about the fact that I believe the Republican Party needs to really dig in starting now, and work and put in the work to elevate this issue to the center of our national dialogue,” Miller told CNN last month. Miller, who as a congressional aide circulated white nationalist literature for immigration talking points, used the same strategy in Trump’s run for the White House in 2015 and 2016, linking the would-be president up with the National Border Patrol Council, the Border Patrol’s union. In 2016, the NBPC, a member of the much-larger AFL-CIO federation of unions, made its first-ever presidential endorsement, backing Trump after he and Miller separately went on the union’s Breitbart-sponsored podcast, and after Trump made a visit to agents in South Texas and met with union officials.
Abbott has clearly embraced the Trump model heading into 2022. In a video released announcing his run for reelection in November, the first two items Abbott listed on his agenda were border security and showing support for police. To kick off his campaign, the governor traveled to the Rio Grande Valley, where he held a press conference at the Border Patrol union’s headquarters.
At the event, Abbott touted the “unprecedented” $3 billion that he has funneled into “border security,” the 15 laws he passed to crack down on human trafficking, and the progress Texas is making on building a wall along the U.S-Mexico divide. Thanks to Biden’s “open border” policies, he said, agents were doing their jobs with “one hand tied behind their back.” The governor added that if any agents happened to lose their jobs for failing to comply with a vaccine mandate, he would hire them to continue their work for the state of Texas.
The message was tailor-made for the Border Patrol union’s right-wing politics. Brandon Judd, the president of the NBPC, announced at the event last month that Abbott, like Trump, had the council’s official backing. “He’s doing what the federal government refuses to do, and for that we’re extremely grateful,” Judd said. Without the governor’s efforts, he added, “thousands of more people undoubtedly would be dead today.” Though Judd, a frequent Fox News contributor, offered no evidence to support the extraordinary claim, Abbott expressed his appreciation all the same.
“To have the support of the men and women who are at the tip of the spear of securing our border means everything to me and my campaign,” the governor said. Within hours, Abbott shared a pre-produced video of Judd explaining the endorsement.
National Guard members patrol near an unfinished section of border wall in La Joya, Texas, on Nov. 18, 2021.
The Republicans’ border strategy goes beyond Texas. In Arizona, state Attorney General Mark Brnovich is also in election mode, and he too takes a Miller-esque view of the border. Running for U.S. Senate against Democrat Mark Kelly, Brnovich has argued in court that Biden’s immigration policies are in fact “population augmentation programs.” Like Abbott in Texas, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has also embraced high-profile deployments of the state Department of Public Safety and National Guard to the border. Ducey’s Republican colleagues have urged the governor to go even further and use an unconventional interpretation of the war powers of the U.S. Constitution to declare that Arizona is under “invasion,” thus allowing for a wide-ranging state-led military response.
In Texas, Abbott’s Operation Lone Star is the latest in a long line of Republican governors attempting to use a combination of the National Guard and state law enforcement as de facto immigration agents, said Timothy Dunn, a professor of sociology at Salisbury University who has researched and written extensively on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico divide.
“This is part of the really rather lengthy history of Texas moving into border enforcement in a big way,” Dunn told The Intercept. “Over the years it’s kept getting bigger and bigger.”
Among the qualities that set Lone Star apart from its predecessors is the fact that because it is a state-funded operation, National Guard soldiers theoretically could make an arrest of a migrant as part of the mission. Exactly how many of those arrests — as opposed to apprehensions or referrals, in which a soldier hands a migrant off to another agency — are actually happening is unclear; the Texas National Guard did not respond when asked that question. Army Times and the Texas Tribune reported this week that at least one specialized unit of two dozen soldiers who work as police officers in their civilian lives are making arrests in Kinney County. “I’ve yet to meet a soldier that’s actually making an arrest,” Featherston said. Instead, he said, the vast majority of troops spend hours on end every day staring out into the expanse of the Texas borderlands.
Exercised or not, the authority is “historically unusual,” Dunn said. “That takes militarization to a whole new level.”
Dunn cautions against letting the hardships endured by National Guard soldiers deployed to Operation Lone Star, important as they are, overshadow the dubious parallel legal system that the entire mission rests upon. “Don’t forget about all the immigrants, too, who are being held without charge or who are having their constitutional rights just absolutely taken away,” he said. “The Constitution applies to everybody in the U.S. It doesn’t just apply to citizens.”
The combination of a mass constitutional threat and the billions of dollars being spent to support it are, for Dunn, the most galling facets of Abbott’s operation. “Just think what we could do with those resources other than spending on this performative bullshit that really has very little impact,” he said. A more humane, dignified, and functional system could be built, Dunn argued. “It wouldn’t take a huge amount of money, and certainly something like $3 billion would go a hell of a long way in the state of Texas towards doing that — and yet that’s not going to win you enough votes.”
“It’s just a tremendous waste of resources, and it’s not really going to have much of an effect except to boost somebody’s political campaign,” Dunn said. “At least they hope it will.”