Is Operation Lone Star Unconstitutional? Some Lawyers Are Afraid to Challenge It


When Jesús Alberto Guzmán Curipoma, an engineer in Ecuador, decided to escape rampant gang violence and head to the United States last fall, he did not imagine the legal dragnet that would ensnare him. Curipoma knew a bit about the asylum process in the U.S. and planned to turn himself in to federal immigration authorities at the border. But a few months before he began his journey north, Texas governor Greg Abbott launched a showy initiative, Operation Lone Star, under which Texas law enforcement agents were deployed to arrest thousands of immigrants on state trespassing charges. When Curipoma crossed the Rio Grande into rural Kinney County in September, he was arrested by state troopers, not federal agents. Then, because Kinney County was arresting so many migrants and could not handle its caseload, Curipoma spent weeks in a Frio County jail, about one hundred miles to the east, awaiting a hearing. 

Curipoma’s family contacted Angelica Cogliano and Addy Miró, Austin-based criminal defense attorneys, who secured his release. As his hearing was delayed with no relief in sight in backlogged Kinney County courts, Cogliano filed a writ of habeas corpus in Travis County, home to Austin, arguing that the operation that had imprisoned her client had unconstitutionally violated the preemption doctrine, which holds that state laws cannot interfere with federal authority on matters of immigration or otherwise. A state district judge agreed, finding that Operation Lone Star was indeed preempting federal immigration enforcement. “Even the Travis County district attorney’s office, our adversary at the hearing, agreed with us, and we were all in tears after that,” Cogliano said.  

On the heels of the ruling, the future of Abbott’s program appeared in peril. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit providing legal services to those in poverty, filed more than four hundred cases in the Austin court that issued the Curipoma decision. But Kinney County appealed in February on the basis that it, not Travis County, was the proper venue for the hearing. The Curipoma case, along with the hundreds of similar ones, has been held up since then. 

As their clients’ fates remained in limbo, many lawyers representing migrants hoped that constitutional lawyers would bring a larger challenge to Abbott’s border security initiative that could offer wholesale relief. “Preemption was on the radar of everyone litigating criminal cases in Operation Lone Star,” Cogliano said.  She reached out to S. Rafe Foreman and Susan Hutchison, Fort Worth–based attorneys, and convinced them to get involved in bringing a larger suit.  

In April, Hutchison, who has spent the better part of four decades working on employment discrimination and civil rights cases, sued state officials in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. She brought claims on Fourth Amendment and equal-protection grounds, arguing that Operation Lone Star enforcement constituted an unreasonable “search and seizure” and targeted her clients because of their race. But, above all, Hutchison built her case on preemption. There was a widely held view among attorneys and other legal experts that Texas officials were in flagrant violation of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found that an Arizona “show me your papers” law interfered with federal immigration authority. In June of 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union argued in a letter to Kinney County officials that state and local officials had no grounds for enforcing federal immigration laws, citing the federal preemption doctrine. In the fall of 2021, more than two dozen members of Congress, including Joaquin Castro, a Democrat who represents much of San Antonio, sent a letter to U.S. attorney general Merrick Garland and Alejandro Mayorkas, head of the Department of Homeland Security, accusing Abbott of violating the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, from which the doctrine of preemption is derived. 

And yet, months later, the preemption challenge has not come. Hutchison says that, from the outset, the ACLU privately urged her against bringing forward a case built on preemption, and the Department of Justice never rallied around her lawsuit. While representatives in neither organization granted requests for interviews about their rationales, some legal scholars believe the organizations feared that the federal judiciary had shifted so far to the right that it would use the Operation Lone Star suit to overturn the Arizona precedent. “Everybody and their brother, including the ACLU, was telling us to drop the preemption claim,” Hutchison said. “And considering the current state of the Fifth Circuit, and the Supreme Court, making a preemption argument might just be giving Texas a chance to overturn Arizona, or at least make it super narrow.” 

Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said the refusal to sue on preemption grounds is part of a larger strategy to avoid bringing precedent-setting cases before the Supreme Court with its 6–3 right-wing majority. “To avoid adverse precedents, sometimes you make the decisions you may not like. That’s just how litigation works,” Blackman said.

Hutchison has subsequently refocused her case, dropping the preemption argument in favor of the equal-protection and Fourth Amendment ones. Regardless of how her ongoing lawsuit on those grounds resolves, experts think Texas has already won in many respects. Abbott and state leaders have designed a program that made clever use of the state’s existing criminal infrastructure to avoid a sweeping lawsuit for more than a year and counting. An official in Texas attorney general Ken Paxton’s office, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me that Paxton believes Arizona was incorrectly decided, but added with a dash of bravado that the precedent doesn’t apply to Operation Lone Star in the first place, since the program simply relies on enforcing Texas laws already on the books, including laws against trespassing.  

Cogliano acknowledged that the program’s design makes it hard to challenge. “Texas wants Arizona reversed, but instead of tackling it directly, and creating state laws that let us litigate them on their face, they’re hiding from it under the blanket of criminal justice,” she said. “Texas is a mastermind at manipulating the way the legal system is supposed to work.”

Many lawyers argue, nonetheless, that Operation Lone Star does, in fact, preempt federal immigration authority, even if not by letter of the law. Geoffrey Hoffman, a former professor and director of the immigration clinic at the University of Houston Law School and a newly appointed immigration judge in Houston, said, “While they are prosecuting for trespass, a state-level crime, the actual implementation has been to enforce immigration law, and that interferes with federal policies and the federal statutory scheme.” He and other lawyers point to the evidence of who is being arrested on trespassing charges. In Kinney County, for example, officials say that law enforcement agents have arrested just three individuals for trespassing who were not immigrants since Operation Lone Star began—against the more than four thousand arrested who had just crossed the border. 

Lawyers also note that Abbott speaks of Operation Lone Star as a border enforcement initiative, not one designed to stop trespassing. The governor has repeatedly referred to the program as a way to secure the border despite what he identifies as the Biden administration’s refusal to do so, and he’s said the policy will send a message to those south of the Rio Grande to not attempt a crossing. He also once tweeted that Lone Star was a “program to arrest and jail illegal immigrants.” Operation Lone Star prosecutors have spoken of the program in similar terms. When the first migrant defendant arrested under Operation Lone Star was convicted in May and sentenced to a year in jail on a misdemeanor, Tony Hackebeil, the San Antonio–based prosecutor in the case, declared the ruling had sent a message to those considering crossing the border. The trespassing prosecution, he seemed to suggest, was just a means to an end.

The Biden administration sued Texas in July of last year over a specific Lone Star directive that sought to prevent drivers from transporting migrants suspected of carrying COVID-19. And the Texas Tribune and ProPublica reported this July that Justice Department officials are investigating Operation Lone Star for alleged civil rights abuses. But Texas lawyers say the Department of Justice’s silence on Texas’s overall enforcement activities appears to acknowledge a legal disadvantage. Others say federal authorities might even be cooperating with Texas. Homeland Security and the Texas Department of Public Safety declined to comment for this story, but according to Amrutha Jindal, chief defender of migrants arrested under Lone Star at the Lubbock Private Defenders Office, the state initiative would not be possible without the support of federal immigration authorities. “We’re seeing the U.S. Border Patrol apprehend individuals that they later turn over to the Texas Department of Public Safety for prosecution, and then federal law enforcement picks them up after they’ve posted bond or their case is complete,” Jindal said. “And state law enforcement relies on Border Patrol technology, and sharing information over radio dispatch channels.”

Meanwhile, as the Curipoma case has been appealed, it has become effectively impossible to pursue habeas corpus relief for migrants. “The high [we felt with the release] of Curipoma has been stomped on by our inability to address the real issue,” Cogliano said. She added that she understands the risks of challenging Operation Lone Star more broadly, but that playing it safe offers little comfort to her clients. Since his release, Curipoma has settled in Texas and has kept busy working on his graduate dissertation in engineering, but many others like him remain imprisoned while awaiting long-delayed trials. “The Biden administration doesn’t have to look our clients in the face. They don’t see the desperation, or what they’re enduring in prison,” Cogliano said. “There comes a point when you have to stop being scared.” 


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