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Kevin ClarkeJuly 20, 2023
Migrants walk along concertina wire as they try to cross the Rio Grande at the Texas-U.S. border in Eagle Pass, Texas, Thursday, July 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)Migrants walk along concertina wire as they try to cross the Rio Grande at the Texas-U.S. border in Eagle Pass, Texas, Thursday, July 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Operation Lone Star was launched by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas in March 2021, a unilateral response to conditions at the border with Mexico that the Catholic governor charged had reached crisis proportions. The operation, at a cost so far of an estimated $4.5 billion, included the enlistment of Texas National Guard air, ground and marine capacity to patrol “high threat areas to deny Mexican Cartels and other smugglers the ability to move drugs and people into Texas.”

Lone Star has turned to increasingly controversial methods to attempt to prevent migrating people from crossing the border, including the deployment of more than 60 miles of concertina wire. That border control tactic provoked an official complaint from the government of Mexico and was judged by policy experts a violation of international law.

“The fortification of the border in this way—with river barriers, concertina wire and deployed personnel—is profoundly concerning,” said C. Mario Russell, the executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York. “These look like wartime defenses, ones that now are being used to threaten and harm young families, mothers, children and men who are seeking safe haven and help.

Trooper Wingate described the group as “exhausted, hungry and tired” but was given orders to “push the people back into the water to go to Mexico and get into our vehicle and leave.”

“Going at it alone, as Texas is doing, with this kind of local initiative,” he said in an email to America, “produces nothing but chaos and suffering, as did the detention of families, the separation of children and the bussing of migrants.”

Operation Lone Star came under new scrutiny this month after the installation of water barriers in the Rio Grande that critics say will lead to the deaths of more migrating people. Even more troubling were revelations about the operation that came to light in an email exchange between a Texas state trooper and his supervisor, reported by The Houston Chronicle. In the exchange, the trooper, paramedic Nicholas Wingate, reported receiving orders in encounters with migrating people that he called “inhumane.”

Mr. Wingate described coming upon a group of 120 migrants, including young children and nursing mothers, on June 25 in rural Maverick County on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. He said the group was “exhausted, hungry and tired” but was given orders to “push the people back into the water to go to Mexico and get into our vehicle and leave.”

According to Mr. Wingate, he and another trooper “decided that this was not the correct thing to do [with] the very real potential of exhausted people drowning.” The group, he said, was later assisted and processed by the Border Patrol.

“These look like wartime defenses, ones that now are being used to threaten and harm young families, mothers, children and men who are seeking safe haven and help.”

In another instance, he reported that a 4-year-old girl attempting to cross through razor wire was “pressed back” by Texas National Guard soldiers in accordance with orders from supervisors and that the child later fainted because of exhaustion and heat. The temperature was over 100 degrees at the time. The child had to be “extricated” from the concertina wire, he wrote, adding, “We provided treatment to the unresponsive patient and transferred care to EMS.”

In another encounter he described how a 19-year-old woman was found bleeding and trapped in the “casualty wire,” “doubled over” in pain. After cutting her out of the razor wire, the troopers discovered she was experiencing a miscarriage.

Other people found caught in the wire, he said, had cuts or broken bones as a result of how the barrier had been positioned. The email chain with the trooper included a log showing 38 encounters between June 25 and July 1 with migrants in need of medical assistance, ranging from weakness to lacerations, broken limbs and drownings in which life-saving measures were required. A dozen of the injured migrants were under a year old.

Mr. Wingate described himself as a supporter of efforts to protect public safety and better secure the border, but, he wrote, “We need to operate it correctly in the eyes of God.”

A 19-year-old woman was found bleeding and trapped in the razor wire. After cutting her out, the troopers discovered she was experiencing a miscarriage.

In a statement issued today, the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops responded to the incidents described by Mr. Wingate. “These reports stir our hearts again for the plight of our sisters and brothers who are seeking a better life,” the bishops said.

“These mothers, fathers, children, and others are doing what anyone would do to find a better life. They have moved to secure honest work and a safe community.

“The fact that they were born in a place which could not provide these basic human rights does not give anyone the right to treat them inhumanely,” the bishops said.

“These reports represent the very worst of the U.S. immigration system, which dehumanizes the vulnerable and desperate people caught within it, who seek safety within our borders,” Anna Gallagher, the executive director of Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., said in a statement released on July 20.

“People of faith and conscience cannot look away from the fact that these actions are done by government employees in our name,” Ms. Gallagher said. “Either we believe that all people bear untouchable dignity, or we don’t. Permitting this despicable behavior denies that truth and rejects the deepest principles of our Catholic faith and our nation’s values.”

According to the governor’s office, concertina wire “snags clothing,” but the office did not address the accounts of migrants being cut and bloodied by the razor-wire barriers.

The Texas bishops requested prayers “for our brothers and sisters experiencing the harsh realities of this journey, and for all who encounter them.”

Travis Considine, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Safety, told The Associated Press that the accounts provided by the trooper were under internal investigation. He said the department has no directive or policy that instructs troopers to withhold water from migrants or push them back into the river.

As concern and outrage over the trooper’s accounts of migrant suffering at the border mounted on July 18, Mr. Abbott’s office issued a statement that said no orders have been given as part of Operation Lone Star “that would compromise the lives of those attempting to cross the border illegally.” The statement did not address Mr. Wingate’s specific accounts and defended the border mission overall.

According to the governor’s office, concertina wire “snags clothing,” but the office did not address the accounts of migrants being cut and bloodied by the razor-wire barriers.

“The absence of these tools and strategies—including concertina wire that snags clothing—encourages migrants to make potentially life-threatening and illegal crossings,” the statement read. “Through Operation Lone Star, Texas continues stepping up to respond to the unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our southern border.”

“These reports represent the very worst of the U.S. immigration system, which dehumanizes the vulnerable and desperate people caught within it, who seek safety within our borders.”

In response to Mr. Wingate’s accounts, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw sent an email saying “the priority of life requires that we rescue migrants from harm and we will continue to do so.”

A separate email exchange obtained by The Associated Press dated July 14 shows Mr. McCraw receiving pictures, originally sent by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, of injuries caused by the sharp wire placed by Texas officials. The pictures showed some injuries that required stitches as well as bloodied hands and legs.

That is an outcome U.S. Catholics should regret, according to Mr. Russell. “Welcoming those in need with dignity and compassion is a core value that must inform our actions and responses,” he said, “even if it is simply to give each an opportunity to be heard by immigration and make their case for protection.

“The system can and must be improved. That is where to start, not with barriers and barbed wire.”

In their statement, Texas bishops charged that for decades U.S. migration policy has “failed to address sufficiently the root causes of migration” and “to uphold our country’s principle to welcome all who seek a life free of tyranny.”

The bishops concluded: “We have a responsibility, as faithful citizens, to work with our government officials to ensure the dignity of all, an ideal enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”

With reporting from The Associated Press; Updated with remarks from C. Mario Russell, the executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York.

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