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Texas This Week: 'We're essentially mall security,' James Barragán discusses conditions for service members in Operation Lone Star

James Barragán of The Texas Tribune reports some service members on the border were being sent to stand watch over private ranches, an hour away from the border.

AUSTIN, Texas — In this week's edition of Texas This Week, Ashley Goudeau talks with James Barragán, politics reporter for The Texas Tribune, about his latest report that found service members assigned to Gov. Greg Abbott's mission at the border to deter unlawful immigration, Operation Lone Star, were stationed 80 miles away from the border, outside private ranches.

Three things to know in Texas politics 

About 23,000 mail-in ballots weren't counted in the March primary.

Thousands of mail-in ballots for the March primary election weren't counted, largely because of the state's new elections law that requires voters to put an ID number on the return envelope containing their completed ballot. 

The Associated Press reached out to all 254 counties in Texas to find out how many ballots were rejected. A total of 187 counties responded, representing 85% of March primary voters. 

Initially, about 27,000 ballots were flagged for rejection. Under the law, voters have six days after election day to fix their ballots and thousands did -- still, 22,898 ballots were rejected statewide. 

Locally, Travis County initially flagged 1,856 ballots but finally rejected 948 ballots. Williamson County initially flagged 1,690 ballots and rejected 521. The total number of rejected ballots is a significant increase from years prior, before Senate Bill 1, the state's controversial elections law, went into effect. 


The U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on the new state voting law.

The state's new voting law and its impacts was a topic of discussion on Capitol Hill this week. A subcommittee on elections for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on House Administration held a hearing Thursday. Lawmakers listened as several Texas officials talked about how the new law disenfranchised thousands of voters and also heard from Republicans who stand by the law. 

You can watch the hearing here: 

RELATED: Texas leaders testify in front of U.S. House subcommittee on state elections law

State lawmakers called DFPS leaders to the Texas Capitol.

Leaders of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) were called to answer to members of the Texas Legislature. A special Senate Committee on CPS held a hearing Thursday after reports surfaced that girls rescued from human trafficking, who are now in the state's care, were abused and neglected at a facility in Bastrop called The Refuge. 

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety said the allegations are not quite what they seem, though there are two instances where criminal charges are expected to or have already been filed. The hearing revealed failures within DFPS and what leaders call issues with the culture of the department. 

These leaders will be back at the Capitol on Monday, this time to answer to members of the House of Representatives.


James Barragán: Operation Lone Star service members sent to watch over private, politically connected ranches

This week Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer as the Adjutant General of Texas, immediately replacing Maj.Gen. Tracy Norris whose appointment expired last month. 

Norris was overseeing Operation Lone Star, the governor's initiative to address unlawful immigration at the Texas-Mexico border. The change in leadership comes amid reports of harrowing conditions faced by the service members on the border. 

And also this week, The Texas Tribune reported some of those service members were being sent to stand watch over private ranches an hour away from the border. Politics Reporter James Barragán joined Ashley Goudeau to talk about what he found.

Ashley Goudeau: You put out an interesting report about the work that military members, the Texas military, are having to do as a part of Operation Lone Star. Talk to us about your latest findings.

James Barragán: "Well, it's, it's pretty confounding. What we found with this story is that as part of Operation Lone Star, that's Gov. Abbott's highly touted border mission to deter migrants at the Texas border, they were sending Texas National Guard service members to private ranches, some of which your audience may know it's the big one King Ranch down in South Texas and Armstrong Ranch and other very politically connected ranch that's down there in South Texas. And they were essentially being sent out there to stand basically on the side of the road and watch for migrants, watch for smugglers going through there. But what we heard from service members is that they were sitting out there for eight hours at a time and doing a whole lot of nothing, which kind of confused them and concerned them about the mission because they felt that could be more effective at other places on the border."

Goudeau: You know, I think one of the most telling quotes that a service member told a member of the Tribune was, they said, quote, 'We're essentially mall security for ranches that already have paid security details to protect them.' I mean, that really sums up what they were doing there, right?

Barragán: "Yeah. And I think that's why there was concern from the service members part. I mean, some of them, you know, they vary in terms of how they feel about the mission, but for those people who are interested in helping out the mission of deterring migrants, they were sort of wondering 'What are we doing here,' when they could have been more effective at points on the actual border. You've got to remember these ranches are about 80 miles away from the nearest border town. It's more than an hour away. And so to have these National Guard Service members out there basically staring out into nothing, it really it really made them question why they were out there. It also raise questions about, you know, what role did these private ranches have in sort of ordering protections there. Obviously, that looks like, it's a terrible optics to have a National Guard service members deployed down there to the ranches. I have to say that we did speak to the owners of King and Armstrong Ranches, and they said that they did not ask for the service members to be there, and that means that the Texas Military Department just sent them out there on their own, basically."  

Goudeau: Well, now you did have some interesting commentary or comments in this story from one of, a member of the sheriff's office who said they do see people going across the land on these very large ranches. But as you pointed out, the service members weren't allowed to go into the property, right?

Barragán: "Right. And that's the big concern. That's why Gov. Abbott, the Texas Military Department, the Department of Public Safety have made such a big deal of this -- they say ranches down here in South Texas are getting broken into. They're getting driven, their fences are getting broken because they're getting driven by smugglers who veer off when they're getting pursued by law enforcement. They're having migrants cross through their borders. So that was the concern. When we spoke to the Kennedy County sheriff [and] he said that was a big concern for his small agency and he needed all the help he could get. The issue is that the national guard service members did not sign up to be law enforcement, and they did not sign up to be Border Patrol. If they had wanted to do that, they would have signed up for those. They signed up to be national guard service members, which by and large are sent out for hurricane aid, you know, tornado aid, that kind of stuff. They want to help out their fellow Texans when they're in need. It's a very different situation here."

Goudeau: This is just sort of the latest thing that's happened with Operation Lone Star. I want to talk about a leaked survey from some members that you also reported on showing some of the conditions that they're dealing with and the low morale. Talk to us about what you learned in that survey.

Barragán: "Yeah, I mean, one of the quotes was literally, 'I hate it here,' and so many of the comments in that leaked survey were 'There's nothing good about the mission.' 'I don't like anything.' Most of the people who had positive things to say were either 'I like my direct supervisors,' 'I like the friends that are here,' or you know, there's hardly anything good to be had in this mission. It really showed the very deplorable living conditions that these service members are living under and showed that there is a lack of communication or a lack of understanding from leadership about what the troops really need down there. And it was, it was very revealing because it also showed that a lot of those service members are thinking twice about whether they're going to re-enlist in the National Guard if they are to be expected to be subjected to these conditions again."

Goudeau: One of the things I thought was really interesting is sometimes they were given just a few days notice that they were going to have to go to the border. And these are Texans with families and jobs and other responsibilities, right? 

Barragán: "Exactly. This is not like, you know, you're enlisting in the Army or the Air Force or Navy or Marines, you know, active duty where you sign up for this kind of stuff. These are part time jobs essentially. They have other civilian jobs, lives, families. So when you only give them a week's notice, two weeks notice even -- a lot of these people have like two days notice, so imagine if you, viewer at home, were told, 'Hey, within two days, you've got to leave everything and go down to the border.' It would be very difficult. It would be a strain on your life, on your family, on your economic well-being. And that's sort of what I think service members really want to drive home. These are involuntary deployments. They are not volunteering to do this, and it's not what they signed up for, and they're having a major, major impact on their lives."

GoudeauYou know, obviously Operation Lone Star, under a microscope and just this week, the governor appointed a new lead to the Texas military service. Talk to us -- do you think that some of that has to do with that leaked survey, with perhaps sending these service members to these private ranches that they they are essentially not being able to do anything at? 

Barragán: "Well, the governor did not mention any criticism of Operation Lone Star or of Adjutant General Traci Norris in her departure. But it, there's there's no possible way that this can not be seen as a response to the months and months of criticism that there has been about the operation. You've got to remember that Adjutant General Norris served starting in 2019 and then her term expired or so, the governor said, in February, right? But the past adjutant general served for nearly eight years, so she could have been re-up, but wasn't. What does that tell you? I think you've got to read between the lines and see that there are some unhappiness or there's at least some type of response to the criticism that the operation has been facing, with lack of pay for service members on time, deplorable living conditions and even some suicides tied to the mission."

Goudeau: Gov. Abbott, of course, launching Operation Lone Star ahead of the primary election -- has really touted this particular mission, has gone to the border several times to hold news conferences on the border with these service members, you know, talk to us about the political aspect of all of this.  

Barragán: "It can't be overlooked. And obviously you talked a little bit about, you know, this was in the in the context of a Republican primary where Gov. Abbott had two challengers from the right, Allen West and Don Huffines, who had slammed them for not being conservative enough, not securing the Texas border. And this is not lost on the service members who are down there. They have said to us in stories and in that survey that they feel like political pawns, that the mission is serving no purpose other than to reelect Gov. Abbott. That is what the service members are saying, and that is how the service members feel. And sure, there are some service members who are happy to be down there, happy to be helping sort of try to curb the, the the flow of migration into Texas. But by and large, I think what you'll hear from service members is that they feel like political pawns in this political game."

Click here to read Barragán's full report.

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