AUSTIN — Jerald Perkins was leaving his job at an oilfield in West Texas when he saw the telltale blue lights in the rearview mirror. The state trooper pulled him over for lingering too long in the fast lane. Perkins told the officer about two hits in the car and braced himself for the worst. But the soldier simply wrote Perkins a citation and fired him, according to the officer’s report.
The traffic stop about 150 miles from Mexico had no clear connection to cross-border crime. Perkins is an American citizen. And the amount of drugs involved was miniscule.
Still, the February incident has been attributed to Operation Lone Star, the state’s multi-billion dollar effort to secure the border with Mexico. It’s not an outlier.
Governor Greg Abbott points to the most over 14,000 criminal arrests as proof that its border mission is cracking down on drug smugglers and human traffickers. But mixed in the statistics, Texans are being caught with small amounts of marijuana during routine traffic stops away from the border, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News.
About one in five arrests in the operation have been a low-level marijuana charge that would only trigger one ticket, or less, in some of the state’s largest cities. Fewer than 100 people were arrested with more than 5 pounds of drugs, arrest records show The news obtained through an open records request from the Department of Public Safety.
The department did not say how it determines which arrests are attributed to the operation that flooded the border with state troopers and members of the Texas National Guard. Critics say Abbott is touting inflated numbers to sound tough on immigration in an election year.
State GOP leaders pointed to an increase in illegal immigration as justification for pumping more than $4 billion into the border security mission.
Quality data is essential for leaders to make informed decisions about how to use these taxpayer-funded resources, said Victor Manjarrez, Jr., a former Border Patrol chief who now teaches at the University of Texas to El Paso. He questioned the inclusion of low-level marijuana charges that have no connection to the border.
“No one would ever say it’s a 2-ounce-at-a-time smuggling cartel,” Manjarrez said.
Abbott, who has made border security a centerpiece of his campaign, is seeking a third term in November. Since launching the immigration net in March 2021, the mission has expanded in cost and scope, but the central focus has remained the fight against drug and human trafficking across the US-Mexico border. .
But the Department of Public Safety said it views the operation as covering a wide swath of 63 counties that stretch away from the border in West Texas and up to the Gulf Coast. Texas counties are also included when there is “a seizure or arrest that has a border connection,” department spokeswoman Ericka Miller said. The ministry gave no further explanation.
Arrests in counties that are home to Midland, San Angelo and Corpus Christi — all more than two hours by road from Mexico — add up to hundreds of arrests at border operations. The most common offense is low level pot possession.
They include a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran arrested in Pecos County for tinted windows and a traffic ticket after an officer found a ‘green leafy substance’, as well as a San Angelo cosmetologist arrested for speeding in the West Texas town and arrested for a “marijuana cigarette in the ashtray,” according to DPS reports and public records.
Both were cited for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. The department did not respond to questions about how these cases line up with Operation Lone Star.
“It looks like a trap,” said Perkins, the oilfield worker who lives in Houston and is trying to hire an attorney to handle the case in court.
The Department of Public Safety has already come under scrutiny of its border parameters. In 2015, a legislative committee tasked with evaluating the performance of state agencies noted that the DPS did not provide “enough information to the public and policy makers about the return on investment of border security funds.”
Representative James White, a Hillister Republican who chairs a House Homeland Security Committee, said the arrests attributed to the operation are expected to have a border connection. For example, he would expect cartel members caught with small amounts of marijuana to be included in the count.
“If they’re unrelated to the mission, those metrics really shouldn’t be in the data pool,” White said.
But the arrest records provided by the DPS make the task difficult. Immigration status, potential gang affiliations and criminal history are not identified. The department did not respond to questions about the number of US citizens arrested in connection with the operation.
“Our staff have stopped gang members, human traffickers, sex offenders and many more from illegally entering our country. If we hadn’t been there, everything probably would have flowed across the country unhindered,” Miller, the DPS spokesperson, said in a statement. “The State of Texas sends a message to anyone considering illegal entry into our country to think again.”
Statewide, the majority of arrests attributed to Operation Lone Star have been for criminal trespassing. But they are mostly concentrated in rural Kinney County, which borders Mexico and where authorities have aggressively enforced a controversial initiative to arrest and jail migrants captured on private property.
In 10 other border counties, including Dimmit, Zavala and Uvalde, suspected human trafficking accounts for the most state border mission-related arrests, according to DPS data that extends through April.
In the Rio Grande Valley, a collection of southern Texas counties that make up the state’s busiest immigration corridor, low-level marijuana possession is the most common arrest under the Operation Lone Star, according to records. The same is true in El Paso County and Webb County, where the city of Laredo is located.
Representative Alex Dominguez, a Democrat from Brownsville, criticized the operation as doing little.
“There are more soldiers on the road here, which forces people to drive a bit slower,” he said. “It’s nothing more than a political showpiece for the governor to try to show his tough stance on border security in hopes of him being re-elected.”
In a statement, Abbott’s office defended the operation, saying it resulted in the seizure of deadly drugs like fentanyl and produced thousands of criminal arrests.
“Texas has and continues to escalate all available strategies and resources in response to President Biden’s current border crisis to protect our state and our nation,” spokeswoman Renae Eze said.