After four years absorbing the daily barrage of inhumane—and in some cases outright unlawful—policies that shook loose the already tenuous scaffolding holding up the nation’s asylum system, many Americans have now tapped out of the immigration news they followed closely under the Trump administration. Claudia Muñoz doesn’t have that privilege. As an immigrant in Texas and as the co-executive director of the Austin-based organization Grassroots Leadership that works to abolish for-profit private prisons, jails, and detention centers, Muñoz must closely track every development. Former President Donald Trump rammed through his anti-immigrant policies. The Biden administration, on the other hand, has taken a tepid approach to immigration, leaving the fate of millions in the hands of the courts.
The past several weeks have been devastating to immigrant communities. A ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas declared Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) illegal on the grounds that it violates a bureaucratic law called the Administrative Procedure Act that governs the process by which federal agencies develop and issue regulations. Because of the ruling, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is no longer approving new DACA or employment authorization requests. A federal ruling issued Aug. 19 blocked the Biden administration’s policy to limit who Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prioritizes for deportation. On Aug. 24, the Supreme Court reversed President Joe Biden’s attempt to rescind the Remain in Mexico policy that forced thousands of asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico as they awaited their hearings. But there are also draconian policies Biden has chosen to uphold, like Title 42. Under the pretense of protecting public health, the Trump administration invoked Title 42 early in the pandemic to authorize Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to expel migrants without documentation near the border or at ports of entry. The policy was a clear attempt to weaponize COVID-19 against asylum-seekers, but the Biden administration has made no effort to rescind it.
This ongoing dysfunction in the system and the Biden administration’s hands-off approach to immigration set the stage for something monstrous to happen in Texas, the enormity of which doesn’t appear to be registering outside of the state. In March, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Trump devotee who was recently endorsed by the former president, launched Operation Lone Star, a border initiative that targets migrants for state criminal charges for allegedly attempting to enter the U.S. without authorization. The governor has funneled unprecedented resources to the border region, including a quarter of the state’s police force and members of the National Guard. Abbott has also brought in state troopers from as far away as Iowa and Florida, inundating the region with law enforcement officials conducting immigration enforcement. A state prison was also mostly cleared of incarcerated people to make room for immigrants, and state officials are organizing local ranchers, instructing them to press charges against migrants for being on their land.
After returning from a recent trip to Val Verde County, the current epicenter of Operation Lone Star, Muñoz spoke to Prism about how Abbott is “holding the line for Trump-era immigration policies.” Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Tina Vasquez: You’ve been an organizer in Texas for a very long time and have spent much of your adult life combating draconian immigration policies, but you recently went to the Texas-Mexico border and you told me you were really upset by what you saw. What do you want people to know about what is happening in Texas, and why does it feel different?
Claudia Muñoz: As part of my work with Grassroots Leadership, I went down to the border to monitor Operation Lone Star, which we kept hearing about from partners and allies in the region. Basically, Greg Abbott has taken on the task of holding the line for Trump-era immigration practices. The Biden administration is upholding some of Trump’s immigration policies, but Trump’s most extreme work at the border is being upheld by Greg Abbott. I’ve seen a lot in my time doing this work, but I have never seen something on this scale. I don’t want to call what Abbott is doing “organizing,” but it kind of is. He has orchestrated this entire enforcement operation in Texas and it’s been really effective. I keep telling people that if we don’t get a grip on this soon, it’s going to be really, really bad.
Vasquez: What does Operation Lone Star look like in practice?
Muñoz: It’s basically an effort to use local and state law enforcement and the state’s criminal justice system to enforce immigration law. Greg Abbott is abusing his power. He used his ability to declare disaster declarations to characterize what is happening at the border a disaster, which allowed him to deploy all kinds of resources to the border, including very large numbers of law enforcement and state troopers. As part of Operation Lone Star, Abbott created a charge for an enhanced misdemeanor, so when migrants are found on private property, all of these law enforcement officials in the border region can now charge them under local criminal law for trespassing. Abbott cleared out a state prison to jail all of these immigrants who are apprehended under this charge.
Vasquez: In so many ways, a lot of this is unprecedented, but clearing out the jail was especially wild, right?
Muñoz: I’ve never seen something like it. The jail is called the Briscoe Unit. It’s run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and it was serving as a state prison, but they cleared it out for immigrants and started funneling them there in mid-July. Briscoe has the capacity to hold 1,200 people, but the last I heard it’s using about 915 of those units for immigrants. The remaining bed capacity is for people who are incarcerated. I want people to know that these state-run prisons have horrible conditions. This isn’t just bad now that they are holding migrants; no one should be in these facilities. Migrants are supposed to be held in a pre-trial facility and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said that Briscoe was conditioned for it because they added air conditioning in some areas, which it did not have before. But the [remaining] incarcerated folks kept in the same facility are without air conditioning. Plus, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the state entity that runs state prisons, so they should not be tasked with running a pre-trial facility because they don’t know how to. They are running Briscoe as a state prison, which means lack of access to services that would be available pre-trial.
Vasquez: Geographically, help people understand where in Texas Operation Lone Star has taken a stronghold.
Muñoz: The border area in Texas is really expansive. This is supposed to be happening all along the border, but a state representative told us that the only prosecutors willing to actually charge people with these misdemeanors right now are mostly in Val Verde County. The city of Del Rio is like the most well known city in Val Verde county, across the border from Ciudad Acuña in Mexico. When we hear about stuff popping up at the border, people tend to think of the Rio Grande Valley area or McAllen, Texas, but all of that is a few hours away from where this is happening. The people who are being charged under Operation Lone Star are getting transferred from Val Verde County to the Briscoe Unit, which is in Dilley, Texas, two hours north.
Because Operation Lone Star is so scattered and has all of these moving pieces, it’s hard to know what the points of intervention can be. People in the Rio Grande Valley, organizers, and attorneys are trying to figure out what to do. But what we know is that the judicial part of this is really important. What is happening in the courts, what has happened at the Briscoe Unit, those are huge factors.
Vasquez: Grassroots leadership has been raising awareness about Operation Lone Star on social media. On Twitter, your organization recently shared a video of officials conducting a mass court hearing for migrants in a parking lot. This reminds me of Operation Streamline. In 2005, well before Trump’s zero tolerance policy at the border, the government created “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement zones along the border and migrants found crossing in these areas are prosecuted through the federal criminal justice system. I can still remember the infamous photo that showed the kind of mass court hearings they held. Similarly with Operation Lone Star, it sounds like due process goes out the window, just like it did with Operation Streamline. Do any of the immigrants getting caught up in this have legal representation?
Muñoz: Operation Lone Star is a concept like Operation Streamline, but localized, more effective, and with more resources. I do think that Abbott wants to force a fight in some ways. By arresting these people he’s testing Biden to see if he will deport them, but the White House isn’t doing anything. Val Verde County’s goal is to be able to process 200 people per day and they are bringing in all kinds of government resources to be able to do that. The Texas Department of Emergency Management is running a tent jail in Val Verde County and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office is helping to run the processing facility.
None of the migrants caught in all of this are entitled to public defense. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has been given a grant to be the attorneys for these folks, but they are experiencing issues actually getting appointed to serve as their legal counsel. They can’t access their clients. They can’t physically get inside Briscoe because it’s being run like the state prison it is, and not like a pre-trial facility that’s supposed to be for people with enhanced misdemeanors.
Vasquez: You alerted me to the fact that Val Verde County actually broadcasts the hearings related to these cases. They’re very hard to watch. It’s people being ushered in and out in minutes, and I don’t know if it’s clear to them what is happening.
Muñoz: Oh, the migrants are really confused. I recently got a call from someone at the Briscoe Unit and he said he hasn’t seen an attorney, he said he didn’t understand why he was in jail. He was just really confused. He said, “I thought I was going to have to deal with immigration. I’m in the dark. I don’t understand what’s happening.” Right now, we’re trying to work with legal defenders on the criminal justice side, but there is only so much we can do. The White House and DHS are just letting Abbott run wild with Operation Lone Star. They are being totally hands-off. To our understanding, they are not even tracking who gets charged under Operation Lone Star and whether they eventually get transferred to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] custody. So far, we haven’t heard of anybody going through the criminal justice system and then getting transferred to ICE. The White House could fight this. They are choosing not to. Texas is acting really unhinged right now, and we have to push the federal government to take action.
Vasquez: The Texas Tribune and other outlets are doing really important coverage of what’s going on with Operation Lone Star. In one recent article, it was reported that Abbott has deployed a quarter of the state police force to the border region. Can you talk to me about what the region looked like when you visited?
Muñoz: About 30 minutes before you hit Val Verde County, there’s a Border Patrol checkpoint and at that point, you start to see Texas State Troopers everywhere you look. Living in Texas, I’m used to seeing Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol in some areas. I’m used to things feeling kind of militarized, but I’ve never seen anything like this. As you get closer and closer to Val Verde County, you pass hotels on the interstate where the parking lots are totally full of state troopers. Some of them were from Montgomery County and Galveston, which is really far away near Houston. But they’re not just from Texas. I saw state troopers from Florida. It was this “holy shit” moment because the land looked like it was occupied by law enforcement. If people don’t believe me, I’d encourage them to see for themselves. It’s like a scary sci-fi movie out here.
Vasquez: Why does this level of law enforcement involvement alarm you?
Muñoz: I’ve just never seen so many resources and so much power concentrated around an issue so effectively by xenophobic people. Even with Trump’s family separation policy—I was in the thick of it and it was shocking, but we knew there was no way he could do it permanently and we knew that people would fight it. No one is fighting this. We have learned that the Texas Department of Public Safety has hotels reserved for law enforcement for the next two-and-a-half years. We’ve heard through the grapevine they’re trying to empty more prisons to hold migrants charged under Operation Lone Star. The level of resources that have already been dedicated to this—and the level of political maneuvering that Greg Abbott has done to make this possible—I’ve just never seen a threat to immigrants like this before.
Vasquez: What is the role that Grassroots Leadership is playing right now? What do the next few weeks look like?
Muñoz: We’re trying to figure that out. One thing for sure is that we have to approach this from a crimmigration angle. [Crimmigration is the intersection of criminal and immigration law.] We’re not just focused on the migrants here. We are focused on Texas’ horrible criminal justice system that can be weaponized against anyone at any time.
Right now we’re just trying to get people out of this. We have a hotline and we’re getting calls from people who are stuck in this. I think the Mexican consulate is giving people our phone number, but when we ask the consulate for help because a lot of Mexican nationals are being processed under Operation Lone Star, they’re basically just like, “We’re trying to figure out what to do.” Recently we got phone calls from family members in Florida and California who have loved ones inside the Briscoe Unit. Of course I want these people out of there, but in a larger sense, it’s not just about that. Greg Abbott is amassing a lot of unchecked power and we have to do something about it.