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Texas border crackdown denounced by Democratic lawmakers

A state judge Thursday found Texas is unconstitutionally intruding into immigration enforcement, and Democratic lawmakers demanded a probe of the state's treatment of National Guard troops deployed to the border.

(CN) — Thirteen Texas Democratic members of Congress Thursday called for an investigation of Governor Greg Abbott’s deployment of National Guard troops to the border to help detain undocumented immigrants amid reports four troops have committed suicide and others are complaining about delayed pay.

With $800 million allocated by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March, sending thousands of Texas state troopers and National Guard soldiers to the border because he claimed President Joe Biden’s immigration policies were encouraging noncitizens, with the help of human smugglers, to enter the country without papers in record numbers.

Calling the mission a “political stunt,” a group of Texas lawmakers led by El Paso congresswoman Veronica Escobar sent a letter to Texas Military Department Inspector General Daniel Heape on Thursday, urging him to investigate the living and working conditions of the 10,000 National Guard troops involved in Operation Lone Star.

“Not only are these 10,000 lives being disrupted for a mission that is a political stunt, but they are not even being appropriately compensated by TMD,” the lawmakers wrote. “Reports show that some National Guardsmen have experienced discrepancies with their pay, like receiving 75% of what they are due.”

“There are also reports of a ‘lack of cold weather equipment, body armor, first aid kits,’ and even inadequate sleeping facilities for those assigned to OLS,” they added, citing a Jan. 4 article by the Army Times.

Five Texas National Guard troops deployed to the border have died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds since late October, the latest on New Year’s Day when an inebriated soldier accidentally shot himself, according to the Army Times.

Most of the troops man observation posts along the Rio Grande, which divides Texas and Mexico, looking for groups of immigrants and then call Border Patrol agents or state troopers to apprehend them, though some are participating in the arrests of immigrants trespassing on private property.

State law enforcement are only allowed to enter land with the permission of the property owners, but the lawmakers say in their letter the director of the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre preserve on the Rio Grande, has photos of armed National Guard troops on its land in disregard of its “No Trespassing” signs.

Abbott, a Republican who is running for reelection to his third term, is defending the troop buildup.

“Since taking the oath of office almost a year ago, President Biden and Congressional Democrats – including those from Texas – have turned a blind eye to the United States’ borders that they all swore to protect and defend,” Abbott’s spokesperson Nan Tolson said Thursday in emailed statement. “The reckless open border policies have created an absolute crisis along our southern border, with a 61-year record-high number of illegal immigrants surging into our state and millions of lethal doses of drugs like fentanyl streaming into our country.”

Abbott has plenty of funding to continue the operation: He signed a bill in September allocating nearly $2 billion for border security for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

But critics, including former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat running for Texas governor, say the National Guard troops’ low morale is due in part to the state’s recent reduction of their tuition-assistance benefits by more than half, to $1.4 million, to comply with a state-mandated budget cut.

“The unexpected benefit cut derailed soldiers’ educational plans, and since it came after the school year had already started, it left many Guard members stranded without the reimbursements they’d been counting on for classes they’d already paid for,” O’Rourke wrote in a Dec. 27 op-ed.

Escobar and her fellow Texas Democrats say in their letter another reason for the low morale is National Guard troops have been deployed again and again by Abbott over the last two years to staff Covid-19 vaccination sites, and help residents of Texas and Louisiana recover from major hurricanes and Texans during widespread power outages brought on by freezing temperatures from Winter Storm Uri in February of last year.

“Our National Guardsmen are resilient and among our country’s finest, but back-to-back deployments take a toll on a servicemember who has already spent weeks away from home,” they wrote. “Being activated again for OLS, sometimes with less than a four-day notice, is leading troops to scramble to get their civilian affairs in order, if they are able to, without any idea when they might be able to return to their civilian lives.”

Texas state troopers have arrested more than 1,000 immigrants at the border with the intent they will face misdemeanor trespassing charges.

But many have been released by judges who dismissed their cases after prosecutors failed to meet the deadline to file charges against them, or on no-cost bonds after they languished in jail for months without hearings, though they are typically transferred to the custody of federal immigration authorities, according to the Texas Tribune.

Abbott’s border crackdown suffered a blow Thursday when a state judge ruled it violates the U.S. Constitution, apparently agreeing with counsel of an Ecuadorian asylum seeker arrested on trespassing charges who argued it violates the supremacy clause, which bars states from interfering with the federal government’s enforcement of immigration laws.

The nonprofit Texas RioGrande Legal Aid represents around 800 immigrants arrested in the operation. Kristin Etter, an attorney who is the group’s special project director, said the ruling "sets a clear pathway for everybody arrested under Operation Lone Star to challenge their arrests,” the Austin American-Statesman reported.

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