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Earlier this year, about 30 Texas National Guard members were ordered to stand watch outside some of the wealthiest private ranches in South Texas, more than an hour’s drive away from the Mexico border, as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s highly touted mission to curb illegal immigration.
Placed at spots along U.S. Route 77 running north to Corpus Christi — including the sprawling and renowned King Ranch and the GOP-connected Armstrong Ranch — the troops were ostensibly meant to deter migrants and smugglers who might cross through private ranches to avoid detection at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint near the city of Sarita.
But service members with firsthand knowledge of the mission told The Texas Tribune that troops rarely saw migrants from their posts nearly 80 miles away from the border and were unable to give chase because they were not authorized to enter the private ranches if they saw migrants cutting through.
In practice, service members said, they stood around for hours, staring at each other and the highway, outside the private ranches — some of which had their own private security.
“We really don’t understand why we are there,” a service member told the Tribune. “We’re essentially mall security for ranches that already have paid security details to protect them.”
The Texas Tribune is not identifying the service members because they were not authorized to speak to the media and feared retaliation.
Those troops said their time was wasted standing guard outside ranches with wealthy or politically connected owners when they could have been more useful at other posts closer to the border where they could be more effective to the mission, which is known as Operation Lone Star.
Representatives for the King and Armstrong ranches said they did not request the presence of the National Guard outside their ranches and that the troops were on the public right of way and not on their private property.
The service members are no longer stationed outside of the private ranches, service members said. They were removed in February, shortly after The Texas Tribune began asking questions about the deployment. Col. Rita Holton, a spokesperson for the Texas Military Department, said the agency could not comment on the deployment because of operational security concerns.
The dispatching of troops to wealthy private ranches raises more questions about the use of National Guard troops, who have widely decried the mission as aimless, political and oversized, as the cost of the effort has already ballooned to $2 billion a year. State leaders transferred nearly half a billion dollars to the Texas Military Department last month from three other state agencies to cover the mounting costs of keeping thousands of Texas National Guard troops on the southern border.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who represents a border district and sits on a committee overseeing border security efforts, said the reports of National Guard service members stationed at private ranches in the state’s interior were “disturbing.”
“I have no objections to them being on the border,” he said. “But I certainly have concerns with military presence at private ranches. It would be a waste of time and of resources. There’s better use of the National Guard on the border, not in the interior.”
Even if the service members saw migrants crossing through ranches, they are unable to do anything because they do not have authority to go on the land and arrest them, said Hinojosa, who compared their deployment to scarecrows.
Abbott’s office declined to comment and referred questions to the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department.
‘Not much to do’
Abbott kicked off Operation Lone Star last March and ramped up its scale in September, leading to involuntary deployments with only a few days notice for part-time troops who have civilian jobs, lives and families. He eventually deployed 10,000 troops to the mission, many of whom have said they were not given a clear task or adequate training, equipment or lodging. A leaked survey of members of one of the six Operation Lone Star units found widespread skepticism and frustration with the mission.
On Monday, Abbott replaced the Texas Military Department’s top leader after months of criticism.
In January, the Texas Military Department sent troops to stand guard outside the famed King Ranch, the largest ranch in the United States, which covers more ground than the state of Rhode Island.
It also sent troops to the Armstrong Ranch, the property of a longtime Republican family that has hosted GOP leaders like Karl Rove, former Gov. Rick Perry and former Vice President Dick Cheney. In an infamous 2006 incident, Cheney accidentally shot his friend in the face during a hunting expedition at the Armstrong Ranch. The injuries were nonfatal.
Troops were also sent to stand guard outside the ranch where Kenedy County Judge Charles Burns lives. Burns is a Democrat.
“These ranchers have enough money to do private security or have private security guard these gates,” said the second service member who spoke to the Tribune. “The optics are just kind of crazy.”
Jay Kleberg, a member of the family that owns the King Ranch who is running for land commissioner as a Democrat, said in a written statement that Operation Lone Star is a “colossal waste of taxpayer dollars” and a “serious threat to the health and safety of our Texas National Guard.”
He said he did not have information on where the service members were stationed, but it was “beyond time to end Operation Lone Star.”
“If it were up to me, these Texans would be home with their families and back at their jobs, not wasting their time on our border,” Kleberg said.
The deployment along U.S. 77 consisted of multiple stations, each staffed with two service members and a Humvee. At any given time, 10 National Guard service members were posted along the highway leading to the Sarita checkpoint. With three shifts throughout the day, 30 service members were required daily to set up the points along private properties near the highway.
“Honestly, there’s not much to do, if anything at all,” said the second service member. “It’s pretty boring just standing there for eight hours.”
At the end of their shifts, service members then had to drive back to their living quarters in Harlingen, about 60 miles away.
State officials said the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department deployed personnel to the area at the request of the Kenedy County sheriff’s office, a local property rights association, and local landowners who were seeing migrants and smugglers cross their properties to circumvent the Sarita checkpoint.
“The migrants and traffickers were driving through ranch gates on several properties to the north and south of the Sarita checkpoint to avoid apprehension, and this was leading to costly damages and dangerous vehicle pursuits along the heavily traveled Highway 77,” Ericka Miller, a spokesperson for DPS, said in an email in response to questions. “In early January 2022, DPS and TMD began posting personnel at several rotating locations in the area in order to address these concerns.”
While the state troopers and National Guard troops were there, Miller said, vehicle pursuits and reports of damaged properties dropped. But Miller could not provide any official statistics on the number of apprehensions or arrests from DPS before or after service members were deployed.
The Texas Tribune filed a public records request for those statistics, but DPS said it had no responsive documents. The Tribune also filed a request with the Texas Military Department.
State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who leads one of the House committees that oversees the deployment, said data is needed to measure the mission’s success.
“They have to have the data,” White said. “Why do we have them here versus here? And with that data we can extrapolate success or needs improvement.”
White, who supports the deployment, said leaders needed to listen to the troops on the ground about their concerns and explain to them the impact their deployment is having. He said the border mission is needed to combat human and drug trafficking through the Texas border.
Burns, the Kenedy County judge, said he had not requested the deployment of troops to stand guard outside his ranch but that he supported their presence there.
“If that’s where they felt they need to be, I’m in agreement,” Burns said. “Put them where they can do the best job.”
Last year, Kenedy County received more than $700,000 from the state at Burns’ request as part of Operation Lone Star’s grant program for counties affected by the increase in migration through Texas.
The second service member said troops rarely saw migrants or smugglers. In 45 days, the troops had not seen “anywhere near the amount of activity as other strategic locations” along the border and were limited in their ability to apprehend migrants or smugglers.
The service member said troops were not allowed to enter the private ranches where they were standing guard. If they saw migrants or smugglers cutting through, the service member said, troops had to alert Border Patrol, which would then be tasked with chasing and apprehending the trespassers.
“It’s strictly observe and report. If a [migrant] was coming toward us, we’d get on our radio and call Border Patrol,” the service member said. “We can’t act on any suspicious activity or any activity at all.”
The first service member said they had seen “very little [migrant] presence” since the troops were deployed to the ranches, and the Border Patrol “has been the one to inform us of the presence and handled all apprehensions.”
State Rep. Alex Dominguez, D-Brownsville, a vocal critic of Operation Lone Star, questioned the efficacy of the deployment of Guard members to the ranches.
“It is unfathomable to me why these service members would be stationed there other than for the optics of seeing a military vehicle manned by service members,” he said in a statement. “If any immigrant would be moving northbound through the general area of the Armstrong or King ranches, they likely would avoid major arteries and travel through the brush. To my knowledge, the service members do not access the brush area.”
‘We needed it’
Among local officials, the deployment of troops along U.S. 77 was greeted with support.
“Since they’ve been there, the number of bailouts and the number of intrusions into private property and going through gates and fences has decreased,” Burns said. “I think their presence has been very beneficial to the county.”
Similarly, Kenedy County Sheriff Ramon Salinas said the presence of National Guard troops has helped deter migrants and smugglers and relieved the burden on his small agency.
“We needed it,” he said. “They’ve come through for us, and I appreciate everything the governor has done.”
Neither Salinas nor Burns could provide official evidence or data to show how the presence of the troops had deterred migrants and smugglers in the area, but Salinas said that anecdotally, ranch owners were happy that their fences were no longer being knocked down by smugglers who would cut through their properties to evade law enforcement.
“It’s really made a big difference,” he said. “Traffic has gone down.”
But even with the troops stationed along the highway, Salinas said, ranches were still seeing groups of migrants walking through their properties to avoid the Sarita checkpoint.
“As soon as they get close to the checkpoint, they bail out and go through the ranches,” he said.
That led one of the service members to question just how much impact their presence had on the deterrence of migrants in the area.
“If you can get in between us and still have the same effect, [then] they’re [just] walking further,” the second service member said. “They’re just adapting to us being there, but there’s no real data supporting us stopping this from happening.”
Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst of U.S. immigration policy at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, said the continued presence of migrants and smugglers speaks to the limitations of an “enforcement-only approach.”
“Simply increasing enforcement doesn’t solve the challenges of unauthorized migration, particularly because there’s never going to be complete 100% enforcement across the border,” Bolter said. “Migrants and smugglers are always going to find new ways to cross through these areas as long as push-and-pull factors driving migration continue to exist.”
While state officials may be serving local constituents by trying to prevent damage to their properties and trespassing, Bolter said posting personnel outside private properties so far inland is unlikely to reduce overall unauthorized immigration at the border.
In order to effectively curb migration, Bolter said, officials would have to address the reasons migrants leave their home countries, try to work with other countries that other migrants pass through and create an effective asylum system at the border.
“These are all things that the state government doesn’t have the ability to do, which is why its response is always going to be somewhat limited,” she said. “Even if it starts working as a deterrent in one area of the border, it’s likely migrants will just shift to crossing in another area.”
Texas Tribune reporters Uriel García and Eddie Gaspar contributed to this report.