AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott has spent months promoting his efforts to secure the state’s southern border as he seeks reelection.
After nearly a year, the plan is starting to backfire.
The Republican’s political challengers are now blasting the mission, known as Operation Lone Star, saying Texas National Guard troops were hastily deployed without proper equipment, regular pay or a clear purpose.
This week, Allen West, a Republican running for governor, demanded the resignation of the guard’s top brass. Democrat Beto O’Rourke pressed Abbott to send soldiers home if he can’t justify their deployment. Both raised alarm over a string of recent suicides by soldiers, first reported by the Army Times.
“This falls squarely on the shoulders of the person that ordered the commencement of Operation Lone Star and that’s you, Gov. Abbott,” said West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, at a press conference Tuesday.
O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman now running for governor, accused Abbott of sending Guard members to the U.S.-Mexico border to boost his poll numbers.
“They deserve better,” he tweeted Friday.
The mounting criticism comes as state funding for the mission is expected to run out within weeks. The deadline could ratchet up pressure on lawmakers who control the state’s purse strings and may have to decide whether to inject more money or ease up.
The GOP-controlled Legislature has already poured about $412 million into the border mission. Yet the Texas Military Department has suggested it could cost far more: as much as $2 billion this fiscal year, according to an October estimate obtained by The Dallas Morning News.
Abbott has yet to publicly acknowledge the criticism levied by opponents. His office did not respond to a list of questions, but the Texas Military Department said on Friday it is surveying soldier morale and that all service members are receiving paychecks.
All week, Abbott highlighted the border mission on social media, posting photos of troops and humvees stationed along the state’s border with Mexico. The Republican has repeatedly blamed President Joe Biden’s reversal of some Trump-era border policies for a surge of migrants trying to enter the country this year.
“Texas is responding to Biden’s disastrous open border policies with the strongest border security effort by any state ever,” he tweeted on Thursday.
The state’s operation began last March with a few hundred troops directed to erect border fencing and help state troopers arrest and jail migrants on misdemeanor charges like trespassing. Since then, Abbott dramatically ramped up the Guard’s presence on the border by mobilizing thousands more.
But with no end in sight, morale is low on a mission that forced soldiers to leave their jobs and families with little advance notice, according to retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, who was the Texas Army National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor until he retired in November and joined West’s press conference.
Soldiers have not been paid fully or on time, a problem the Guard acknowledged late last month as affecting about 150 service members, according to Houston television station KHOU. Some troops are living dozens to a trailer, which increases the potential for COVID-19 spread, Featherston said.
“I had better conditions in Iraq than some of these soldiers have on the Texas border,” he said at the press conference.
Several soldiers on the mission, who asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed the conditions and described a lack of purpose. The job, they said, is observing the border for hours on end and calling federal authorities if any migrants show up.
Four soldiers tied to Operation Lone Star have died by suicide since October and a fifth recently survived an attempt, according to the Army Times.
Critics say the ability to retain and recruit soldiers is at risk, especially after the Texas Military Department’s tuition assistance funds were slashed by half in the state’s current two-year budget, a change first reported by the Army Times.
In a statement on Friday, the Texas Military Department said it is addressing concerns.
Leadership is reviewing results from a recent survey on soldier morale, the statement said, and as of Friday, all service members are receiving paychecks. It’s not clear how many soldiers went without pay or for how long.
“There is no doubt, a mission of this magnitude have administrative challenges, and onboarding thousands of Guardsmen into a state payroll system is always a hurdle for any National Guard state active duty mission,” the statement said. “However, we are always looking at continuous process improvements.”
With regard to tuition assistance, the department said it is working to reinstate full benefits.
The department said “one suicide within our ranks is one too many,” but did not indicate any additional steps being taken to address mental health. The department said it “takes pride in the robust set of services available to help service members cope with personal challenges free-of-charge.”
Since it began 10 months ago, the statement said, Operation Lone Star has led to 96,000 “apprehensions and referrals to Border Patrol,” more than 8,700 “turn backs” by migrants attempting to cross the border and the construction of eight miles of temporary border barrier.
Nailing down the exact number of soldiers on the border is difficult. The Texas Military Department said Friday it has approximately 10,000 personnel assigned to the mission across the state and along the border.
When Abbott has touted the 10,000 number, it’s been a combination of soldiers and state troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Last year, lawmakers gave the Texas Military Department about $412 million for its role in Operation Lone Star.
The money appropriated by lawmakers for the mission is running out in the next several weeks, budget experts said.
A mid-October cost estimate by the department shows that having 10,000 Guard soldiers at the border during this fiscal year, which started Sept. 1, would be slightly more than $2 billion. Next fiscal year, the price tag would jump to nearly $2.7 billion, the department estimated.
It means the state still needs to find between $4.3 billion and $4.4 billion if it wants to maintain a 10,000-soldier Guard presence down there.
At a minimum, the top budget writers would have to do some more shifting of funds in the state budget, as they did earlier when they approved redirecting $250 million from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to help build a border wall.
Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the chamber’s Finance committee, did not return a request for comment. Neither did Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood Republican who leads the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, said he plans to hold hearings later this year on Operation Lone Star’s progress.
He said it’s too early to tell whether the mission is successful, but “it’s definitely having a positive impact, by showing our resolve that if the feds don’t do it, we’re going to pick it up and do it ourselves.”
Recent reports about a lack of direction are concerning, White said, but that “gives us an opportunity to explain to (soldiers) their time is being used effectively.”
“If it’s not being used effectively, we want to put them in a position where it is,” he said.