Sen. John Cornyn calls Ken Paxton scandals an 'embarrassment' when asked about attorney general runoff

Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said he is embarrassed by the lingering scandals surrounding Attorney General Ken Paxton when asked by reporters Thursday for his thoughts about the runoff primary election early next week.

Paxton is seeking a third term as the state’s top lawyer and is facing Land Commissioner George P. Bush in a runoff for the Republican nomination.

But the incumbent has faced a slew of controversies in the past few years, including an FBI investigation into allegations he abused his office to help a wealthy donor, a 7-year-old felony securities fraud indictment, a lawsuit from the state bar challenging his ethics as a practicing attorney for suing to block the 2020 election results, and accusations he cheated on his wife.

“I will tell you that I remain very disturbed by the fact that the incumbent has had an indictment hanging over his head, for now, I don’t know, what has it been, six years? This is the chief law enforcement officer of the state of Texas. And it’s a source of embarrassment to me that that has been unresolved,” Cornyn said on a Thursday call with reporters, noting that he tries “very hard” not to get involved in primary politics. Cornyn has not endorsed in the primary.

Cornyn is the most prominent Texas Republican to criticize Paxton’s rocky record. Cornyn has represented Texas in the U.S. Senate for almost 20 years and served six years as the second-highest-ranking Republican in the chamber. He’s also a former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court justice.

Paxton has denied criminal wrongdoing in all of the legal charges brought against him. He remains the favorite heading into the runoff and is backed by a number of top conservative politicians — most notably former President Donald Trump, who called him “a fighter like no other” to wide applause at a recent Austin rally.

He remains beloved by many conservatives for his frequent challenges to the Biden administration over its policies. Paxton’s campaign did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The senator also pointed to unresolved claims from whistleblowers in the attorney general’s office who said they were retaliated against after they accused Paxton of malfeasance.

“Obviously, the voters will have access to that information,” Cornyn said. “They’ll make their own decision. I can’t predict what the outcome will be, but I do, as a former attorney general myself, I’m embarrassed by what we’re having to deal with."


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/19/john-cornyn-ken-paxton-texas-attorney-general-runoff/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

The US census estimates it missed more than a half-million Texans during 2020 count

By Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune

Tripped up by politics and the pandemic — and with only a last-minute investment in promotion by the state — the 2020 census likely undercounted the Texas population by roughly 2%, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday.

The once-a-decade national count put Texas’ official population at 29,145,505 after it gained the most residents of any state in the last decade, earning two additional congressional seats. In a post-count analysis using survey results from households, the bureau estimated that the count for people living in Texas households — a slightly smaller population than the total population — failed to find more than half a million residents. That’s the equivalent of missing the entire populations of Lubbock, Laredo and then some.

The undercount means that many residents were missing from the data used by state lawmakers last year to redraw congressional and legislative districts to distribute political power. For the next decade, the undercount will also be baked into the data used by governments and industry to plan and provide for communities.

Texas is just one of six states that the bureau determined had a statistically significant undercount. The others were Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee.

The census flows down to Texans’ daily lives, helping to determine the distribution of millions of dollars in funding and services. It plays a role in decisions on where grocery stores are built, how many dollars are needed to adequately fund early childhood programs, which roads are built or repaired and whether schools will be large enough.

The undercount follows state Republican leadership’s refusal ahead of the census to put significant funding toward chasing an accurate count, rejecting proposals by Democratic lawmakers to create a statewide outreach committee and set aside millions of dollars in grants for local outreach efforts.

Even as other states poured millions of dollars into census campaigns, Texas left local governments, nonprofits and even churches to try to reach the millions of Texans who fall into the categories of people that have been historically missed by the count — immigrants, people living in poverty and non-English speakers, to name a few.

Already without state funds, the local canvassing and outreach efforts relying on in-person contact were shut down by the coronavirus pandemic just as they were ramping up in the spring of 2020. The bureau extended time for counting by a few months, but the Trump administration later accelerated the deadline.

As Texas fell behind in the counting compared to other states, organizers struggled to reach groups at the highest risk of being missed as the pandemic continued to ravage their communities. It wasn’t until the 11th hour that Texas quietly launched a sudden pursuit of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to promote the count using federal COVID relief dollars.

By then, with just a month of counting to go, the self-response rate for Texas households had barely topped 60%. As census workers followed up in person with households that hadn’t responded, the share of households accounted rose, but Texas remained far behind several other states and several percentage points behind the national average.

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Census Bureau's analysis also uncovered a statistically significant overcount in eight states — Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Utah.

Because it’s based on comparing the 2020 census to a followup population survey, the Texas undercount is more of a statistical guess and carries a margin of error. In the case of Texas, the bureau estimates the undercount could have been as large as 3.27% or as small as .57%. By limiting its analysis to people living in households, it leaves off people living in college dorms, prisons and other group quarters.

The bureau did not report any statistically significant undercounts after the 2010 census.

The bureau will not be providing more detailed undercount figures to determine which areas of the state or residents were missed in the census. But earlier this year, it reported the communities were not equally left off. Nationally, the census significantly undercounted communities of color, missing Hispanic residents at a rate of 4.99% — more than triple the rate from the 2010 census. Black residents were undercounted at a rate of 3.3% and Native Americans at a rate of 5.64%.

The 2020 Census also had a larger undercount of children under the age of 5 than every other census since 1970.

Even with the undercount data in hand, remedying the results of the census will be a tall order and no changes will be allowed for political redistricting. States and municipalities have until next year to file challenges with the bureau, but no Texas municipalities have contested their local count so far.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/19/census-2020-texas-undercount/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas librarians face harassment as they navigate book bans

By Brooke Park, The Texas Tribune

May 17, 2022

Librarian Suzette Baker said she faced a hard choice last year when her boss asked her to hide a book on critical race theory behind the counter.

“OK, I’ll look into it,” Baker recalled telling her boss at the time.

But eventually, Baker — a librarian at the Llano County Public Library’s Kingsland Branch — decided to ignore the request. And she continued to vocally protest other decisions, like the ban on ordering new books. She spoke up, telling her supervisors that the library was facing a censorship attack.

By February, the pressure to keep new or donated books from the shelves increased, she said. After waiting weeks for a local library board to approve the books Baker wanted to add to her library, Baker’s boss would tell her that even donated books could not reach the shelves.

On March 9, Baker was fired for insubordination, creating a disturbance and failure to follow instructions.

“This change is inevitable and you are allowing your personal biases, opinions and preferences to unduly influence your actions and judgment,” her dismissal documents stated.

Baker’s experience represents one of many new conflicts facing Texas librarians as book challenges continue to multiply. Many feel left out of decisions on banning books while also facing increased scrutiny from politicians, parents, and county and school district staff. Some have already quit, and others are considering it.

For those librarians working at schools and at public libraries, the pressure to keep some challenged books off the shelves is growing. And some Texas librarians say the insults and threats through social media and the added pressure from supervisors to remove books are taking a toll on the profession.

“It’s the job I’ve always wanted my entire life,” Baker said. “But then it started getting to be a place where it was hostile.”

The Llano County Commissioner’s Court and the county judge, who oversaw some library services and suspended new library book purchases in November, declined to comment, as did the library system’s director, Amber Milum.

Now that Baker is no longer working at the library, she said she worries for the future of Llano County’s library system.

“Immobilized by what the future could look like”

The Texas Tribune spoke to librarians in two independent school districts that have been at the center of book challenges and bans: Keller, northeast of Fort Worth, and Katy, west of Houston. One from each district spoke to the Tribune, but both asked that their names not be published because they feared harassment.

In Keller, local Facebook group pages and Twitter accounts have included pointed comments about librarians being “heretical” and portrayed them as pedophile “groomers” who order pornographic books. After a particular book challenge failed, one commenter included the phrase “pass the millstones,” a biblical reference to execution by drowning.

“It was heartbreaking for me to see comments from a community that I’ve loved and served for 19 years, directed towards me as a person,” the Keller ISD librarian said.

Parents and community members have challenged more than 30 books in Keller ISD since October, including the Bible and Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer.” The district has so far removed at least 10 from circulation, and librarians have not been able to order new books since that time, the Keller ISD librarian said.

Several successful Keller ISD board candidates ran this month on campaign promises that they would increase parent involvement in education, including looking harder at school library books.

“I don’t think there’s been a day or an hour in the last 12 months that I haven’t been frightened and immobilized by what the future could look like,” the Keller ISD librarian said.

The Keller ISD librarian said she wants to talk with more parents about the books they want to ban, but so far, only one parent has reached out to her.

“This has been our experience in reality, and we still want to work together,” she said. “Communities have to come together. We can’t keep doing this back and forth.”

“Should I play it safe?”

A librarian In Katy ISD said the wave of book bans has left her less confident about what new books to order for her school library.

She considered ordering a collection of short stories called “Growing Up Trans: In Our Own Words” but worried the book may be targeted for removal.

“Should I play it safe?” she said. “Or should I push the envelope and get a couple and see what happens?”

She worries that librarians will soon be able to fill shelves with only books included on pre-approved lists.

“Are we going to get there?” she said. “Are you just gonna take everything away that I came into this job wanting to do?”

Just north of Austin, at Round Rock Independent School District, the pressure on librarians has been intense, says Ami Uselman, the director of library services for the district. Some of her librarians are reaching breaking points. One came to her in tears, worried about what their church would think about social media accounts calling them groomers. Another quit.

Uselman said parents are walking into schools and grilling librarians with questions about books. Some demanded records for all books purchased in the library, some 30,000 titles. Surprisingly, there’s not been one formal book challenge, she said in late April.

But Uselman’s work phone still lights up with calls, some from people outside of the district, accusing her of stocking inappropriate material in libraries. The pressure to remove books has been easing, but she worries about the next event that could ignite community anger.

“There’s just a lot of misunderstandings,” Uselman said. For example, some parents mistake graphic novels as sexually explicit when instead they are picture and comic books.

“I feel like it has gotten better,” Uselman said. “The problem is just when you think it’s getting better, something else pops up.”

Disclosure: Facebook has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/17/librarians-texas-book-bans/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas law prohibiting social media companies from banning users over their viewpoints reinstated by appeals court

By Andrew Zhang, The Texas Tribune

May 11, 2022

A federal appeals court on Wednesday reinstated a Republican-backed Texas law that prohibits large social media companies from banning users over their political viewpoints.

The decision hands a win to Republicans who have long criticized social media platforms such as Twitter for what they call anti-conservative bias — disapproval that was amplified when President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules on inciting violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The order did not evaluate the law on its constitutionality but instead allows the law to go back into effect while the case proceeds in district court, according to a statement from one of the plaintiff groups. The ruling came from a three-judge panel on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which is often considered the most conservative appeals court in the country — and was not accompanied by a written opinion explaining the decision at the time of publication.

Two large industry trade groups that represent companies such as Google and Twitter sued to block the law last fall.

In December, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the groups and blocked the law while the lawsuit continues, reasoning that the First Amendment protects a company’s right to moderate content and called parts of the law “prohibitively vague.” As a result, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district judge’s decision to the circuit court.

Passed during a special session last year, House Bill 20 also requires social media platforms with more than 50 million monthly users to publicly disclose information about content removal and account suspensions.

“HB 20 is an assault on the First Amendment, and it's constitutionally rotten from top to bottom,” Chris Marchese, counsel for the NetChoice industry trade group, tweeted after the ruling. “So of course we're going to appeal today's unprecedented, unexplained, and unfortunate order by a split 2-1 panel.”

The decision comes as businessman Elon Musk is poised to buy Twitter and possibly remake the company’s moderation policies — a move that conservatives have cheered. Musk recently said he would reinstate Trump’s account if the acquisition is completed.

“Sadly, we have a handful of people in America today who want to control the town square, who want to control social media and want to enforce silence,” state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said in support of the bill last year. “If you have a viewpoint different from theirs, they want to shut you up. That’s not the American way, and that is not the Texas way.”

The law does not provide any specific civil penalties for breaking the law, besides allowing users to sue to recuperate their court costs from the company found in violation. The law also empowers the attorney general to pursue violations.

The Texas attorney general’s office said in a tweet late Wednesday that the appeals court made the right decision and said it would continue defending the Texas law.

Disclosure: Google has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/11/texas-social-media-law-reinstated/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

How Sandy Hook lies and the Jan. 6 inquiry threaten to undo Alex Jones

Lenny Pozner doesn’t understand why people are surprised to learn he used to be a regular listener of Alex Jones’ show.

Pozner’s 6-year-old son, Noah, was one of the 26 children and adults who were killed during the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Soon after the tragedy, Jones began using his Austin-based media juggernaut to spread bogus claims that the shooting was a staged government conspiracy made up of crisis actors and fake personas.

Still, for Pozner — one of the Sandy Hook parents involved in a series of defamation lawsuits that have turned into a fierce legal reckoning for Jones — the fact that he used to tune into the right-wing conspiracist’s broadcasts during long car drives is less a twist of fate and more a reflection of something obvious and unremarkable: Jones has reach.

“People repeat that as if it's a big deal. But what I've noticed is that a lot of people pretend they don't know who Alex Jones is,” he said. “That's bullshit. Everybody knows who Alex Jones is.”

RELATED: Insiders flagged credibility problems for 'key witness' in lawsuits filed to overturn 2020 election

At the height of his influence in 2018, Jones boasted an audience of about 1.4 million daily visits to his websites and social media accounts, according to The New York Times. And from 2015-18, Jones’ Infowars store raked in more than $50 million annually, HuffPost reported.

But while Jones built his brand and fortune on a keen and brazen use of misinformation, he has been unable to distance himself from his Sandy Hook falsehoods and his role in a rally that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Jones recently sought immunity from federal prosecutors investigating the Capitol riot and has been subpoenaed by the U.S. House committee investigating the attack.

In the past year, Jones has lost all the defamation lawsuits filed by 10 families of Sandy Hook victims, including Pozner’s. Juries in the cases still have to decide how much Jones must pay the victims, but on April 17, three of Jones’ companies — Infowars, Prison Planet TV and IW Health — filed for bankruptcy. The next day, Jones told his listeners he was “totally maxed out” financially.

While the Chapter 11 filings may be part of Jones’ legal strategy to obstruct court proceedings — he used them to delay his Austin jury trial, and Sandy Hook parents pushed to dismiss them last week — they’re also the latest development in Jones’ downswing from his spot at the top of far-right media. Along with a sweeping ban on social media, the loss of a fawning president and looming legal penalties, Jones’ troubles have weakened his once massive reach and influence. Close observers of his operations say the fate of the state’s most infamous misinformation peddler is more uncertain than ever.

Neither Jones nor his company Infowars responded to multiple requests for comment for this story.

The “Walter Cronkite” of misinformation

Jones has used Infowars — his primary media company that airs shows he claims are syndicated on radio stations across the U.S. — to share his conspiracy theories with his millions of followers. According to Jones, the U.S. government has meddled with water supplies and the weather, the COVID-19 pandemic was planned, and Bill Gates is a master eugenicist working to control world populations.

During the pandemic, Jones sold products like “Nano Silver” toothpaste and “Superblue Silver Immune Gargle” via his Infowars store, claiming they would fight COVID-19. He also sells doomsday prepper materials and dietary supplements, which he presents as antidotes to the false threats he drums up on his show.

His show usually features loud, energetic rants and appeals to save the country.

Rally organizer Alex Jones stands with anti-TSA protesters outside the House chamber after the House tentatively passed HB41 airport anti-groping legislation on June 27, 2011.

Jones stands with anti-TSA protesters outside the U.S. House chamber after lawmakers tentatively passed airport anti-groping legislation in 2011. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera

“Alex Jones is unique; he’s entertaining,” Pozner said. “A lot of people mistrust their government. People want a fresh perspective outside of the corporate media's version of news.”

Jones got his start advancing bogus theories on Austin Community Access Television and local radio in the early 1990s. From those pulpits, he spread falsehoods like claiming that the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco was a government conspiracy, that government authorities carried out the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and that authorities in Austin used “black helicopters” to surveil the public.

A graduate of Austin’s Anderson High School and an Austin Community College dropout, Jones was removed from his local talk radio spot in 1999 after executives said his fringe views were unsavory for advertisers.

That year, Jones founded Infowars.com. In the early years of the platform, Jones claimed the 9/11 attacks were an inside job and helped produce a feature-length film purporting to expose the tragedy as a government plot.

About a decade and a half later, Jones had attracted millions of viewers, was grossing millions in annual revenue and had captured Donald Trump’s attention.

Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public who studies how disinformation and misinformation spread, said conspiracy theorists like Jones are able to build wide audiences in part because they provide their followers with a sense of community.

Jones “is very good at building a community of people who think the same things as him and providing them with what they want,” she said. “I think it's easy for us when we don't like a figure to demonize them and pretend they are not good at what they do. Actually, Alex Jones is very good at what he does.”

Moran said Jones is masterful when it comes to harnessing skepticism and deftly toes the line between information and misinformation. He often frames his bogus theories in a way that makes his viewers believe he’s engaging in healthy questioning.

“One of the things that I always hear from people who work in my field is they lament the lack of trusted news figures,” Moran said. “They always say, ‘I wish we had Walter Cronkite during these times, and then people would trust the information.’ It's not that we don't have trusted figures. It's that in the internet age, we have trusted figures like Alex Jones.”

From Sandy Hook to Trump

Trump received support from Jones during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Former Trump adviser and Republican strategist Roger Stone was a paid Infowars host in 2015, and Stone connected Jones with Trump for an Infowars interview in December that year in which the soon-to-be president lauded Jones.

“Your reputation is amazing,” Trump told Jones on his show.

Jones likely played an outsized role in Trump’s election, according to Elizabeth Williamson, author of “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth.” The book investigates how the shooting warped into an attack on the truth from Jones and online conspiracy theorists.

Williamson said Jones was able to foresee how disaffected individuals who were also highly distrustful of the government could propel Trump to a primary victory.

“He became something of a kingmaker in the race, and with that came a really high profile that he didn't understand completely,” Williamson said. “I think he's reaping the results of that.”

All the while, Jones continued to advance conspiracy theories and misinformation to a growing audience.

Since the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, Jones has spread bogus claims about the massacre. Like many of his other conspiracy theories, Jones falsely claimed that the government was behind the shooting. But this time the lies were different.

In one 2015 show, Jones told his listeners, “Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured.” In other episodes, he mocked Sandy Hook parents weeping over the deaths of their children. Jones even shared addresses, maps and personal information associated with the families of Sandy Hook victims, including revealing information about Pozner.

Only weeks after the 2012 shooting, Pozner remembers reaching out to Infowars by email to ask the outlet to stop labeling the shooting as a government hoax to take away Americans’ guns.

“I called them out on it very early on, and I was very polite about it,” Pozner said. “I asked them to be more responsible with this particular tragedy that affects me personally. And of course, they responded and replied and said, ‘No, no, we’re not denying the tragedy,’ and totally lied, and continued to do their thing.”

Jones' Sandy Hook lies circulated online on platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and soon after, Infowars followers began harassing Pozner and other victims’ parents.

Pozner said he has had to move about a dozen times since the shooting to evade Jones' followers. In 2017, Infowars listener and Sandy Hook conspiracist Lucy Richards was sentenced to five months in prison for sending death threats to Pozner. Today, Pozner lives in hiding and goes to multiple post office boxes to receive his mail. Despite his efforts, individuals occasionally call and file false police reports on Pozner in attempts to get him in trouble with local law enforcement.

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First: Noah Pozner and his twin sister, Arielle, at kindergarten graduation. Middle: Lenny Pozner and his former wife Veronique De La Rosa. Last: Arielle Pozner at the grave site of her twin brother, who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. Credit: Courtesy of Lenny Pozner

Jones' previous falsehoods “are not harmless theories, but they did not single out individual vulnerable people the way he did with Sandy Hook. That was really crossing a rubicon,” Williamson said.

In April 2018, after facing years of harassment from Jones’ fans, Pozner; Noah’s mother, Veronique De La Rosa; and Neil Heslin, the father of 6-year-old victim Jesse Lewis, filed defamation lawsuits against Jones in Austin. A lawsuit from eight other families soon followed.

Legal troubles

Jones has attempted to slow or obstruct legal proceedings in the Sandy Hook defamation suits by refusing to follow court orders to turn over documents, filing late settlement offers and, in one instance, claiming that a medical problem that included vertigo prevented him from appearing in court. On April 15, Jones and his companies were ordered to pay more than $1 million in fines for his refusal to hand over pretrial information.

In September, a Travis County judge found Jones liable for defamation in lawsuits filed by two families of Sandy Hook victims. About one month later, Jones again lost in separate suits filed by the families of eight other victims. In both instances, the court found Jones liable by default for his unwillingness to cooperate with court orders.

Jones' legal troubles also include a federal investigation into his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Jones has suggested that inquiry could damage him more than the Sandy Hook defamation suits.

Jones, who has denied without evidence President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 elections, helped obtain at least $650,000 from Julie Fancelli, an heiress to the Publix grocery chain and Infowars fan, to pay for a pro-Trump rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol. Of that money, $200,000 was deposited into one of Jones' business accounts, according to the U.S. House’s committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack.

On his Infowars broadcast that day, Jones told his supporters, “This is the most important call to action on domestic soil since Paul Revere and his ride in 1776.” And at the Capitol, Jones used a bullhorn to excite crowds by chanting, “Stop the steal!”

He also has strong ties to individuals arrested in the attack on the Capitol, including Joe Biggs, a former Infowars staffer and a leader of the far-right group Proud Boys.

In late January this year, Jones told Infowars listeners he was questioned in front of the House committee and said he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent “almost 100 times.”

Booted by social media

Williamson said the way Jones’ falsehoods propagate and turn into harassment in the real world speaks to his reach and influence.

“He is a salesman,” Williamson said. “And when you have millions of people watching, it only takes a small fraction of those individuals to turn it into something that really travels and disrupts people's lives.”

In 2014, Pozner founded the HONR Network, an organization that works to defend victims of tragedy from online harassment.

The group has lobbied for the removal of hundreds of thousands of pieces of harmful content on social media. It also played a role in removing Jones from many online platforms.

In July 2018, Pozner and De La Rosa wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling on him to protect victims of tragedies online.

“We are unable to properly grieve for our baby or move on with our lives because you, arguably the most powerful man on the planet, have deemed that the attacks on us are immaterial, that providing assistance in removing threats is too cumbersome, and that our lives are less important than providing a safe haven for hate,” Noah’s parents wrote.

A month later, Jones' content was removed from Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify.

Jones’ Infowars.com saw a drop in web traffic after the bans, though the number of visitors he receives is back to early 2020 levels, an analysis for The Texas Tribune performed by digital intelligence platform SimilarWeb shows.

Pozner said his organization has also seen a significant decrease in the harassment of victims online after social media companies changed their policies to include victims of tragedies as a protected group. The platforms now seek to prevent online harassment of victims of mass casualty events and limit the use of their names and likenesses, Pozner said.

But appealing to technology companies may not do much to stop conspiracy theories from spreading, Moran said.

While social media companies have changed policies and banned harmful content like Jones’ to address the spread of misinformation, the platforms’ profit model fundamentally relies on user engagement — and conspiracy theories, Moran said, are uniquely engaging.

“You would go into a rabbit hole just reading about them because they're interesting, and that's the bread and butter of social media,” she said.

Instead of targeting social media companies, the use of legal remedies to show how misinformation actually harms people's lives may be the best bet for holding those like Jones accountable, Moran said.

“A lot of our conversation around the spread of misinformation has been on the platform side: What can and should Facebook and Instagram and Twitter be doing?” she said. “Actually, there's a lot more legal frameworks that we have in place that haven't necessarily been tested as avenues to remedy misinformation when it has actively harmed people in real life.”

An audience still dedicated

Infowars Founder Alex jones speaks to a crowd gathered at the Texas State Capital in protest of economic shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones speaks to a crowd gathered at the Texas Capitol in protest of economic shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020. Credit: Jordan Vondehaar for The Texas Tribune

How much damage the Sandy Hook lawsuits could do to Jones remains to be seen. He’s up against plaintiffs with a highly sympathetic story who are determined to hamstring his ability to spread misinformation. The lawsuits have drawn comparisons to the case that brought down Gawker Media, in which billionaire Peter Thiel funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit for invasion of privacy, earning Hogan $140 million in damages and essentially forcing the company to shut down.

But while Jones may be facing more difficulties today than at any point in his career, he has been known to use his lowest moments to rake in more money from supporters.

After his ban from social media, Jones presented himself as a martyr silenced by slanted technology companies for telling the truth. As the Sandy Hook defamation lawsuits have developed, Jones has directed fans to donate to a legal defense fund. And after filing for bankruptcy earlier this month, Jones hosted an “Emergency Blowout Sale” on his website.

Despite his diminished reach and prolonged legal battles, Jones' audience remains loyal, Williamson said.

The SimilarWeb analysis shows that since 2019, monthly web traffic to Jones’ Infowarsstore.com has soared from about 427,000 visitors in 2019 to nearly 834,000 in March. During the height of the pandemic, the store attracted even more viewers, with over 1 million visits in November 2020.

“He has a dedicated audience, and they support him not only by buying Infowars merchandise, but by actually donating to him,” Williamson said.

Pozner wonders if he would have been spared from the years of relentless harassment that followed Noah’s murder if Jones had never amassed such a following, if social media didn’t exist or if the two had not experienced a simultaneous surge in popularity.

“We would have had more private lives,” Pozner said. “It was an intersection of a terrible tragedy and the expansion of the internet.”

Disclosure: Apple, Facebook and The New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/28/alex-jones-sandy-hook-january-6/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Greg Abbott asks for private donations to bus migrants to DC after criticism for using taxpayer money

On Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott appeared on Fox News touting a program he’s been pushing for weeks — sending migrants who enter into Texas to Washington, D.C., by charter bus.

But this time, Abbott asked Texans to personally contribute their own money to pay for the trips.

The decision to crowdfund the free bus trips for migrants is a new development from when he initially announced on April 6 that it would be paid for by Texas taxpayers. At the time, Abbott proudly presented the trips as a tough-on-immigration act of defiance against the Biden administration.

But the shift to ask private donors to pay for the charter buses comes as his plan has been increasingly praised as an act of generosity by Democrats, immigration rights groups and even the migrants who rode the buses, while those further to Abbott’s right politically have panned it as a misuse of taxpayer dollars that incentivizes migrants to cross into Texas.

“Congratulations to Governor Abbott,” Texas Rep. Gene Wu said Tuesday in a tweet. “Word will be passed from community to community that if you can just get to Texas, the Governor there will pay for your transportation anywhere in the USA.”

Abbott announced the charter bus plan early this month as a way to get President Joe Biden’s attention in response to the president’s announcement that he was lifting Title 42, a pandemic-era health order that allowed immigration authorities at the border to deny entry to migrants as a way to contain the coronavirus. Officials have said the repeal of the policy likely will be followed by a sharp increase in illegal border crossings.

“Securing the border would cost Texas nothing if the federal government was doing its job but because Joe Biden is not securing the border, the state of Texas is having to step up and spend Texas taxpayer money doing the federal government’s job,” Abbott said at the time. He clarified later that the bus trips would be entirely voluntary for migrants after they had been processed by U.S. immigration officials.

Abbott’s office did not respond to multiple questions about the policy, including why the governor is now asking for private donations, if the plan will be partially or solely funded by private donations and how much has been raised to date. On the state-hosted website accepting funds for the transportation, the current donation tally reads only “TBD” as of April 13.

In a statement to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, Abbott’s press secretary Renae Eze said the idea to crowdsource came after Abbott’s office received calls from supporters wanting to contribute.

“After Governor Abbott announced his plan to bus migrants to President Biden’s backyard in Washington, D.C., we received an outpouring of support from across our state and the entire country of people wanting to help and donate to the operation,” she said. “Texas continues stepping up to help our local partners and protect Texans — it’s time for President Biden and Congress to step up and do their job to secure our border.”

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the governor may be trying to escape blowback.

“I think it’s a quiet way of protecting himself from criticism that he’s using taxpayer dollars to provide free transport for undocumented immigrants,” Jones said. “Many conservatives pounced on him as all hat and no cattle, in that he was talking tough but in the end all his busing was going to do was provide a free trip for undocumented migrants to the East Coast that they otherwise would have had to pay for or that liberal nonprofits would have had to pay for.”

Abbott’s office has said at least 10 buses have arrived in the nation’s capital, but his office has not provided costs for the trips or the total number of migrants who have been transported.

During the 30-some-hour coach bus ride, passengers were provided with meals, the migrants said. Many of the buses’ passengers said they had saved up thousands of dollars just to arrive at the border and had little money left by the time they arrived in Texas.

“We are very thankful for all the help that has been given to us,” Ordalis Heras, a 26-year-old Venezuelan asylum-seeker, said earlier this month to the Tribune, hours after arriving in Washington on Abbott’s first bus from Del Rio. Heras, like many other passengers, had intended to travel north of Texas anyway.

“Frankly, we did not have the money to get here otherwise, so we are very thankful for the help,” she said.

The New York Times also reported this week that Abbott’s buses are now dropping migrants off in Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina.

This isn’t the first time Abbott has looked to private contributions to bankroll his border priorities.

Last year, Abbott started a crowdsourcing effort for his multibillion-dollar plan to build a wall on the Texas-Mexico border. As of this month, the effort has raised only about $55 million, nearly all of which was from one Wyoming-based billionaire.

The Biden administration has said building the wall cost taxpayers $46 million per mile in some areas along the border.

Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said regardless of the motivation, Abbott’s bus program will have little overall impact on the issues plaguing migrants the the border.

“It’s a political circus,” Payan said. “It’s going to have no impact whatsoever on the conditions on the ground.”

Disclosure: Rice University, Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy and New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/28/texas-migrants-bus-washington-dc/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Federal judge plans to temporarily force Biden administration to keep rule that turns migrants away at the US-Mexico border

By Emily Hernandez, The Texas Tribune

A federal judge in Louisiana plans to temporarily block the Biden administration from ending Title 42, a pandemic-era health order used by federal immigration officials to expel migrants, including asylum-seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The temporary restraining order is expected in a lawsuit brought by Louisiana, Arizona and Missouri after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would let the order expire May 23. The details of such a restraining order were not available late Monday.

“The parties will confer regarding the specific terms to be contained in the Temporary Restraining Order and attempt to reach agreement,” according to minutes from a Monday status conference in the case.

Last week, Texas joined more than 20 other, mostly Republican-led states in a separate lawsuit against the Biden administration. Texas’ lawsuit claims the CDC didn’t follow the proper procedure for dismantling Title 42 and that the state would be forced to pay for social services for the influx of migrants who will enter the country after the order expires.

In response to the Biden administration’s announcement that it would lift Title 42, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state troopers to more thoroughly inspect every commercial truck coming from Mexico’s four border states. This caused delays for truckers that lasted anywhere from a few hours to a few days and wreaked havoc on international trade and the food supply chain.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/25/texas-mexico-border-title-42/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

In McAllen, Gov. Greg Abbott’s border inspections meant late deliveries, rotten produce and lost business

By Jason Beeferman, The Texas Tribune

"In McAllen, Gov. Greg Abbott’s border inspections meant late deliveries, rotten produce and lost business" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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MCALLEN — Eladio Cordero, a produce worker at Trinidad Fresh Produce in the McAllen Produce Terminal Market, sorted through jalapeños Thursday — about one in three had orange spots. A few feet away from him, dozens of flies buzzed around a pile of browning onions.

Every day at the terminal, where hundreds of trucks pass through to drop off tons of Mexican-grown goods, the fruits and vegetables that have gone bad are picked out and thrown away.

“The merchandise comes from Mexico and by the time it crosses it can go bad, and those are losses,” said Gustavo Garcia, a floor manager for Trinidad Fresh Produce, a distributor at the terminal.

After Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state inspections on commercial vehicles entering from Mexico last week, the stack of garbage-bound onions grew taller. The jalapeños that didn’t survive the long journey into the U.S. were discarded. Garcia said he doesn’t know if retailers will still want to buy the aging produce he keeps, but if they do, the price will be marked down at least 30%.

The state’s inspections, which were conducted on every northbound commercial vehicle entering through Texas’ biggest ports of entry, were in addition to those already performed by federal customs authorities. The governor effectively ended the policy Friday after reaching deals with his counterparts in the four Mexican states that share a border with Texas, but the disruption caused by the inspections will likely have lingering impacts.

In McAllen, one of the Rio Grande Valley’s busiest trade posts with Mexico, Abbott’s directive caused ripples across the supply chain. Long lines at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge left truckers waiting to cross for days, big-name grocers shifted their import routes to other ports of entry outside Texas, produce spoiled en route and warehouses sat empty. All the while, workers who depend on the commerce between the two countries lost hours and pay — and consumers will likely pay a price, too.

Eladio Corder sorts through mixed quality jalapenos at Trinidad Produce at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market. McAllen, TX. April 14, 2022.

Eladio Corder sorts through mixed quality jalapenos at Trinidad Produce at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market. McAllen, TX. April 14, 2022. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

Spoiled onions at Trinidad Produce at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market. McAllen, TX. April 14, 2022.

Spoiled onions at Trinidad Produce at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market. McAllen, TX. April 14, 2022. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

First: About one in three jalapeños had orange spots at Trinidad Fresh Produce at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market. Last: Onions were spoiling after commercial delivery trucks were delayed by the additional inspections that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered last week. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

On Friday, Abbott said he recognized that the increased inspections caused economic hardship on both sides of the border, but that securing the border is more important.

“There is the expectation that the Mexican states that I've negotiated deals with will do what is necessary to reduce illegal immigration, and there's the consequence that if not, the 100% inspections will be reinstated and they may have knock-on economic effects,” Abbott said. “We are going to do what is necessary to make sure that we have safe and secure borders.”

Long waits at the bridge

Trucks entering Texas already were subject to multiple inspections prior to Abbott's move last week. At federally controlled ports of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents use equipment such as portable X-ray machines to look for drugs and smuggled migrants. At larger commercial ports, federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also conduct specialized inspections to ensure vehicles and products alike meet federal standards.

Texas normally conducts mechanical inspections on trucks crossing into the U.S., but as part of Abbott’s order, state troopers inspected every truck for migrants and illegal drugs. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which already conducts commercial inspections, called the added inspections “unnecessary.”

The measure was part of Abbott’s response to the Biden administration’s decision to end Title 42, an emergency health order meant to halt the spread of the coronavirus that allowed immigration authorities to turn away migrants at the border, even those seeking asylum. Abbott has made border security his top priority issue as he seeks reelection in November.

State Troopers inspect trucks in front of the Pharr International Bridge. Pharr, TX. April 14, 2022.

DPS troopers inspect trucks in front of the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge in Pharr on Thursday. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

Normally, about 3,000 commercial trucks cross the Pharr bridge each day, bringing about $60 million to $70 million worth of goods into the U.S. from Mexico. But Abbott’s policy slowed transit to a crawl this week, turning a journey that typically takes a couple of hours into days for some. Mexican truckers protested the measure with a blockade, shuttering all commercial traffic for three days.

The blockade ended Wednesday, but on Thursday, hundreds of trucks were still stuck at the bridge.

Felix, a 60-year-old Mexican trucker who was transporting tomatoes, onions and avocados, waited about 13 hours in line at the bridge. He asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of retribution and targeted inspections from CBP officials.

Hearing of the delays at the border, he packed water and food for a few days. But other truckers didn’t come as prepared and were sitting in standstill traffic without anything to eat or drink. Felix said he was told by a CBP official that the agency would put portable bathrooms along the bridge for the gridlocked truckers, but he never saw them.

Once Felix made it to the state troopers’ inspection point around 9 p.m., he said they didn’t even peer into his truck, which had been sealed since Mexican authorities inspected it about 600 miles away in the state of Sinaloa.

“There’s no possibility of bringing illegal immigrants in the merchandise or in the cabin,” he said, referencing one of Abbott’s explanations for the inspections. “I can’t bring an illegal immigrant here for money because I know [inspectors] are going to discover them. It’s not a thing here. I don’t know what the politicians’ ideas are. I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Bret Erickson, Vice President of Little Bear Produce stands in an unusually empty warehouse floor where large shipments of watermelon should be. Edinburg, TX. April 14, 2022.

Bret Erickson, vice president of business affairs at Little Bear Produce in Edinburg, stands Thursday in front of an unusually empty warehouse floor where large shipments of watermelon typically would be. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

Another blow to the local economy

The delays caused by the state’s inspections are the latest blow to farmers and produce businesses in the Rio Grande Valley since 2020. Last year's winter freeze damaged millions of pounds of product. The pandemic forced companies to size down their workforce and implement virus mitigation strategies. And inflation is sending costs for business needs like fertilizer, diesel and packaging materials soaring.

But Bret Erickson, former president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association and a current executive with Little Bear Produce, a Texas produce grower and distributor, said this latest setback is different.

“There's nothing you can do about Mother Nature; that's just part of the farming business,” Erickson said. “But when you've got a politician go out and make a decision like Gov. Abbott did, it's like a slap in the face.”

“Anytime that we are losing a day of business, there's always a lasting impact,” he added. “Every day that goes by that we haven't been able to receive these loads, those are sales dollars that we will not get back. Those are dollars that are not going to be returned to our employees' paychecks, because they didn't work.”

Most of the produce that crosses into the U.S. from Mexico comes through the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge. It’s also where many car parts, electronics, types of medical equipment and other goods make their way across the border.

Little Bear Produce usually receives about a dozen truckloads of produce a day. In the week that followed Abbott’s announcement, they received four in total. Erickson said the company has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars since last week, and workers who make their living packaging and sorting the products have seen their hours cut amid a lack of goods.

Restaurants, truck stops and bodegas that cater to truckers who move goods over the border have also been affected by the delays.

Lucio Mouret stands in front of his bodega at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market. McAllen, TX. April 14, 2022.

Lucio Mouret stands in front of his bodega at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market in McAllen on Thursday. He said fewer truckers able to cross the border this week has meant a drop in business for him. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

On Thursday, McAllen’s usually bustling produce terminal was quiet with fewer trucks arriving. Lucio Mouret, 63, makes his living operating a bodega at the terminal, selling sodas, pastries and chips. But the drop in truckers has meant a drop in business.

“It affects us because we struggle to pay rent,” said Mouret, who pays $1,800 a month for the bodega at the terminal. His sales are down about 30% this week, he said, and it’s now going to be more difficult to afford car payments, personal rent and insurance.

Campos Bros Produce, another tenant at the terminal, was waiting on two truckloads of key limes that had been stuck at the international bridge for two days. Workers who sort the fruit have had their hours slashed because of the lack of product. The company pays about $50,000 per truckload of limes, and workers said they hoped the fragile produce arrives in good condition.

In the meantime, they relied on Mexican truckers like Felix to check the temperatures of their refrigerated cargo and continuously replenish diesel in standstill traffic.

Campos Bros will have to pay thousands of dollars in fees to supermarkets if they don’t make their delivery deadline.

While truckers waited at the bridge, Erickson’s loading dock, normally fully stocked with Mexican-grown watermelons this time of year, sat almost empty.

Erickson said Little Bear’s business partners — grocers like H-E-B, Walmart and Kroger — are either facing delays or redirecting their shipments through other ports of entry outside of Texas, like Nogales, Arizona, to fill shelves.

“The Texas fruit and vegetable industry is struggling to get back, and then a decision like this gets made by a politician who is trying to score political points,” he said. “It's at the expense of businesses like ours and our employees and consumers' pocketbooks.”

The inspections also affected southbound exports. Auguste Browne, a 65-year old Canadian trucker, was transporting a truckload of frozen beef from Calgary to Pharr so he could hand off the goods to a Mexican trucker who would then distribute them to Mexican consumers.

Browne was meant to deliver the meat on Monday, but on Thursday morning, he was still in Pharr waiting for his Mexican partner to arrive.

Employees at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market. McAllen, TX. April 14, 2022.

Employees at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market in McAllen on Thursday. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

Posted up at a gas station steps away from the border, Browne said delays and holdups are common in the business, but the cause of this one wasn’t normal.

“As a long-haul trucker, you get used to that sort of thing. But this was unique,” he said. “I've never had this happen before, and it caught us off guard.”

For now, Browne said, his cargo is safe.

“She’s been frozen at minus 10 Fahrenheit this whole time,” he said. “And luckily I had access to a fuel pump, and I've been stranded here, so there’s food. I've actually been one of the fortunate ones.”

Sneha Dey and Verónica G. Cárdenas contributed to this report.

Disclosure: H-E-B has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/15/mcallen-greg-abbott-border-inspections/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

International trade stopped at Texas border crossings as truckers protest Greg Abbott's new inspection demands

Commercial traffic at a key South Texas border crossing has stopped after Mexican truckers on Monday blocked north- and southbound lanes on the Mexico side of the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge in protest of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to have state troopers inspect northbound commercial vehicles — historically a job done by the federal government.

The bridge connecting Pharr and Reynosa is the busiest trade crossing in the Rio Grande Valley and handles the majority of the produce that crosses into the U.S. from Mexico, including avocados, broccoli, peppers, strawberries and tomatoes. On Monday, with trucks backed up for miles in Reynosa for the fifth day in a row, some produce importers in Texas said they have waited days for their goods to arrive and already had buyers cancel orders.

“One of our customers canceled the order because we didn’t deliver on time,” said Modesto Guerra, sales manager for Sterling Fresh Inc., which imports broccoli from Central Mexico via the Pharr bridge before shipping it to the Midwest and East Coast. “It’s something beyond our control.”

While many companies cross perishable foods in refrigerated trucks, Guerra said the bottlenecks could lead to equipment failures that cause produce and other products to spoil in the heat.

“Those refrigerated units are powered by diesel,” Guerra said. “These trucks are in line and when the diesel runs out they have no way of refueling.”

International bridges elsewhere in the Valley, as well as in Eagle Pass, El Paso and Laredo, have also seen delays, with many commercial products produced in Mexico — like electronics, vehicle parts and medical instruments — also held up. A similar protest appeared to be playing out in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Monday afternoon, affecting traffic into and out of El Paso, according to Border Report.

In response to the Biden administration’s recent announcement that it plans to end Title 42 — a pandemic-era emergency health order that lets federal officials turn away migrants at the border without the chance to request asylum — Abbott on Wednesday ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to increase its inspections of commercial vehicles, which he said drug cartels use to smuggle humans and drugs into the United States.

At times, DPS troopers appear to be checking every commercial vehicle that crosses select international bridges, with each inspection taking between 45 minutes and an hour.

Mexican news outlets reported that about 500 truckers are blocking southbound traffic into Mexico to prevent the entrance of U.S. trucks. Truckers told El Mañana in Reynosa that they had waited three to four days at the international bridge and were running out of fuel while they waited.

One trucker told the news outlet that prior to Abbott’s order, he made two crossings into the U.S. a day. Now, he’d be lucky to have one or two a week given the long delays at the bridges.

“We are losing just as much as them,” he said. “When they start needing more produce, the prices are going to go up.

“No one has told us what the reason for this is or asked what solutions we can come up with together,” he added, saying the blockade will continue until their issues are resolved. “All we know is that it’s an order from the governor of Texas.”

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Drivers at the Ysleta Port of Entry connecting El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, also commonly referred to as the Zaragoza Bridge, parked their trucks in the northbound commercial lanes with their trailers also blocking the southbound commercial lanes around 3 p.m. Monday after complaining about spending several hours in line to cross the border, according to Border Report.

David Coronado, El Paso’s managing director of international bridges and economic development, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday evening.

From 3 to 5 p.m. Monday, the average time for commercial vehicles to cross the border at the Ysleta Port of Entry peaked around 420 minutes, or seven hours, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website. That’s far above normal wait times. The day’s average wait time fell rapidly by 6 p.m., though it was unclear why.

For personal vehicles and pedestrians, wait times to cross at the Ysleta Port of Entry remain standard for a Monday evening, according to the Border Protection website.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, joined a chorus of elected officials from the border who called on Abbott to rethink his strategy, saying the DPS inspections duplicate inspections already conducted by the federal government at the ports of entry.

“Governor Abbott’s unnecessary secondary inspections are killing business on the border,” Gonzalez said in a written statement to The Texas Tribune. “If this continues it will cause further supply line issues impacting America. And we will see prices of produce and other imports rise at the grocery store. He needs to allow the U.S. Customs and Border [Protection] inspection folks to do their job.”

Commercial traffic bottlenecks on the Mexican side of the Pharr-Reynosa bridge are not unusual. From time to time, disgruntled Mexican farmers have used their tractors to block traffic in the border state of Tamaulipas to protest low government payments. Sometimes their protests disrupt traffic flow within Reynosa, and other times they block bridge traffic.

International bridges across the Texas-Mexico border also saw significant lines in 2019 when former President Donald Trump reassigned hundreds of customs officers from ports of entry to assist Border Patrol in dealing with detaining migrants crossing the border in between the bridges.

Those delays lasted hours or days in some cases. This time, importers and local officials are bracing for an even longer disruption to cross-border trade. Even without state troopers stopping vehicles, inspection times at international bridges have long been a source of delays due to federal staffing shortages as well as technology and infrastructure problems.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said he can’t remember a Texas governor upending international trade along the border like this.

“This is a very serious situation,” Cortez said in an interview. “Truckers on the Mexican side closed the bridge so nothing can come across. I mean, what has happened is idiotic. It really is.”

The delays are happening during one of the busiest weeks of the year at border crossings. Semana Santa, or Holy Week, started on Sunday and lasts through Saturday, and many families typically cross the border to see relatives, causing long lines at the bridges.

Teclo Garcia, the economic development director for Laredo, said city officials understand there are security issues the state wants to address, but the state didn’t contact local officials to discuss the best way to address those issues.

“We’re dealing with 20,000 truck crossings a day [in Laredo] — there are security issues but that’s why our federal partners are there,” Garcia said. “If [the state] wants to do more we can do more, but let’s not impede trade.”

Garcia said it’s too soon to know what economic impact the DPS inspections will have on the city, which has the busiest commercial crossings on the southwest border, but he added that eventually they could affect the entire country.

“Of course, this is going to affect Laredo, El Paso and Brownsville, but the real impact is going to be in the supply chain which is already strained and the consumer,” Garcia said.

On Saturday, five state senators from the border region asked Abbott in a letter to reconsider his directive, saying the increased inspections were “generating delays and stalling the movement of goods at the ports of entry.”

On Monday, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, whose district includes the Pharr bridge, called the situation “a crisis and a mess that has been created, but it was not necessary.”

“Many of my constituents are asking ‘Why are we being punished?’ The Valley supports border security, but this doesn’t seem to have much or anything to do with border security,” Hinojosa added. “This is hurting people in their pocketbook.”

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said a group of state House members from border communities also plans to send a letter to the governor. He said the governor's announcement last week appeared to be purely political and the new inspections will have little effect on border security.

"All the stated goals of border security are not working and they don't have a practical aspect other than [being] red meat," he said. "I'm a big fan of beef for dinner but enough red steak and red meat will kill you."

Abbott on Monday touted the state’s increasing border security efforts during a speech at the annual meeting of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition in El Paso, saying it’s been successful in apprehending drug smugglers and people previously convicted of murder. He said the Biden administration’s plan to end Title 42 next month could be “cataclysmic” for border communities because immigration officials are expecting up to 18,000 encounters a day with immigrants once Title 42 removals end. The current average is 6,000 a day.

According to an investigation by The Marshall Project, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, the state had been including drug seizures and arrests for crimes far from the border to its Operation Lone Star tally — and later revised the arrest numbers.

Last week, Abbott announced the state would be transporting migrants who already have been processed and released by federal immigration officials to Washington, D.C., or other places on buses. Later, he said the bus rides would be voluntary.

On Monday, Abbott said the buses are already available in some border counties and instructed local officials who need a bus to contact their county emergency management coordinator to request one.

He said the state is offering bus rides because some border cities don’t have the services or infrastructure to help transport the migrants to their final destination.

“If Border Patrol drops people off in your county, you will be able to work with the state to transport people out of your county to a location where they will be immediately connected with either Border Patrol professionals, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officials or other appropriate federal authorities,” Abbott said.

Typically, when migrants have been released from immigration officials’ custody, local nonprofit organizations help many of them get in touch with friends and family already in the United States. The migrants usually pay for their own transportation to other parts of the country, then wait for their asylum requests to be resolved in immigration courts.

BY MITCHELL FERMAN, JAMES BARRAGÁN AND URIEL J. GARCÍA

Emily Hernandez contributed to this story.

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Dan Patrick pushing Texas version of Florida's 'Don’t Say Gay” law

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Monday he will prioritize passing Texas legislation that mimics the recently signed Florida bill referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

That state’s controversial law prohibits classroom lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity for kids below the fourth grade or any instruction that is not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for older students. It has come under heavy scrutiny as opponents of the bill say it will harm LGBTQ children.

While Texas’ next legislative session doesn’t start until January, the issue will be addressed in Education Committee hearings before then, Patrick said in a campaign email.

“I will make this law a top priority in the next session,” he said.

Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request late Monday.

Enforcing Florida’s law falls to parents, much like Texas’ restrictive abortion law, Senate Bill 8, which empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy.

A parent can sue a school district for damages if they believe it has broken the law. If they win, parents will receive money and recoup attorney fees. In Florida, the law’s supporters portrayed it as a way to give more rights to parents. Gov. Greg Abbott has similarly said parents should have more rights concerning their children’s education as he campaigns for a third term.

Val Benavidez, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune that Patrick’s promise to bring similar legislation to the state is a “stain on Texas.”

“Gender expression by children is not something that is scary or harmful. What is scary is that political activists are grasping at power by overstepping into the lives of Texas families and education of students,” Benavidez said. “While politicians use hate speech that is far from center to harm our vulnerable youth, we will continue to love our children and make sure that all families are uplifted in public life.”

Critics say that the Florida measure’s intent is to stifle and marginalize LGBTQ people and their families. A lawsuit filed by LGBTQ groups in Florida seeks to strike down the law there. The lawsuit alleges that the law violates the constitutional rights of free speech, equal protection and due process of students and families, according to NPR.

Florida’s law also requires school districts to notify parents about health services offered at the school and the option to decline such services. Schools must also inform parents of any health-related questionnaires or health screening forms that may be given to any kindergarten through third grade student.

Patrick’s announcement comes on the heels of a Republican-led spree to limit what can be taught in schools about race and American history, restrict what books about race and sexuality appear on library shelves and criminalize gender-affirming health care for transgender children, even treatment medical experts support.

Texas Republicans are following a national playbook of feeding off conservative parents' fears that “critical race theory” is being taught in public schools and children are being exposed to obscene sexual content.

Critical race theory is the study of how race has influenced not only human behavior but shaped laws and policies, and educators say it is not taught in Texas’ public schools as it is mostly a university-level subject. The GOP often misapplies the term to any discussion about race.

Legislation like Texas’ so-called critical race theory law and investigations into books about race and sexuality have put added pressure on teachers already feeling burnout caused by the pandemic.

Texas’ teacher shortage has increased so much that Abbott called for the creation of a taskforce that will look to fix the issue. But education advocates say that the state’s own laws are driving teachers out of the profession and scaring away potential teachers.

Patrick vowed to prioritize Texas legislation limiting lessons about LGBTQ people in a campaign email Monday with the subject “I AM DONE WITH DISNEY!” Patrick denounced The Walt Disney Company for publicly promising to help repeal the controversial Florida law. After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law last week, Disney published a statement saying the law should have never passed and that the company would support organizations fighting to have it repealed, according to a Variety article about the company’s stance.

Disney’s statement comes after employee backlash and a walkout in response to Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s initially soft public stance on the bill, according to NPR. These employees called for Chapek to better advocate for LGBTQ people by publicly condemning the bill, refusing funding from lawmakers who support anti-LGBTQ legislation and donating to organizations fighting for LGBTQ rights and causes, according to the employees’ walkout website.

In his email, Patrick links to a conservative news website purportedly “Exposing Disney’s ‘Gay Agenda.’” The site includes videos of an internal Disney staff meeting held after the “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed in Florida obtained by Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who in 2020 began using the term “critical race theory” publicly to denounce anti-racist education efforts.

One recording shows a Disney employee discussing adding more queer characters into company productions, according to National Review. Another shows an employee discussing the removal of gendered terms when greeting guests at Disney parks, according to FOX News. For example, instead of saying,“Hello, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” the park employees may use “Hello, friends” or “dreamers of all ages.”

In his email, Patrick calls for parents to boycott Disney and stop their children from interacting with Disney products, lest the company “indoctrinate the children of America with their radical ‘woke’ views.” He also said he sold his personal Disney stock and encouraged his supporters to do the same.

Disclosure: Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/04/texas-dont-say-gay-dan-patrick/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

What is harm reduction, the drug-treatment program that Sen. Ted Cruz has criticized?

By Andrew Zhang, The Texas Tribune

"What is harm reduction, the drug-treatment program that Sen. Ted Cruz has criticized?" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texans seeking help for substance use can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. They can also access services available in their region through the Texas Health and Human Services website.

Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz criticized President Joe Biden last month for supposedly funding the distribution of free crack pipes — an assertion federal officials denied and called misleading.

Cruz was referring to the Biden administration’s $30 million grant program that aims to mitigate the fallout from the country’s opioid crisis and increased fentanyl overdoses. The program relies on what are called harm-reduction policies, which call for minimizing the detrimental health and economic impacts of drug abuse until users can get treatment rather than criminalizing addiction.

The senator’s comments focused on safe smoking kits, which typically contain alcohol swabs, lip balm and other protective materials meant to protect users from possible burns, blisters and transmittable infections such as HIV and hepatitis C. Some harm-reduction organizations include glass stems that can function as pipes in their safe smoking kits. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki denied that the federal program would fund the inclusion of pipes and said the federal government does not support direct or indirect funding for such items.

As conversations continue about alleviating the damage from opioids and fentanyl, here’s what you should know about Cruz’ claims and harm-reduction practices in Texas.

How were Cruz’ comments misleading?

In early February, Cruz sparked controversy when he tweeted “Biden crime policy: Crack pipes for all” and then later went on his podcast, “Verdict”, to further amplify the statement, which fact-checkers have said is false.

Cruz’s comments responded to a news article from a conservative publication that claimed the program providing funding for harm-reduction policies under the Biden administration would distribute crack pipes as part of safe smoking kits.

His statements that Biden was giving out crack pipes — in conjunction with messaging from other Republican senators — reverberated in conservative and right-wing information circles.

The fallout was significant enough that U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, joined Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to introduce legislation prohibiting federal funds for purchasing paraphernalia like pipes and needles.

But federal officials denied claims the program would fund pipes. In a joint statement, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and National Drug Control Policy Director Rahul Gupta said their agencies are focused on “using our resources smartly” to reduce the harm and fatalities caused by drug use.

“Accordingly, no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits,” they said.

A spokesperson for Cruz did not respond to requests for comment.

What is the harm-reduction approach?

Harm reduction offers a science-based alternative of recognizing addiction as a disease, as opposed to traditional and nonscientific approaches that have criminalized drug usage.

For the most part, harm reduction does not look to cure the addictions of the people served. Instead, it works to ensure people on drugs stay alive and as healthy as possible until they can receive proper treatment.

Advocates understand that drug use entails significant risks, but also believe that people — especially those dealing with addiction — need love and support.

“There are going to be people that use drugs,” said Claire Zagorski, a harm-reduction and drug policy researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Pharmacy. “I want to meet those people wherever they are.”

Zagorski said harm reduction is economically smart — people who overdose or injure themselves while using can end up with a hospital bill that they cannot pay.

Marcia Ory, a public health professor at Texas A&M University and chair of the school’s opioid task force, said the harm-reduction approach accompanies a shift in perception about addiction. Evidence shows that people who get addicted to drugs don’t have a lack of willpower but instead undergo bodily changes that entice them to want more drugs.

Ory, whose task force provides training on harm reduction and naloxone administration, said if criminalization were successful, fewer people would have addiction and fewer lives and families would be ruined.

“I would hope that harm-reduction strategies would become the norm, that they would be prevalent, that the view of addiction would be away from a criminal perspective toward a medical perspective,” said Ory. “These strategies have been around for some time, and the issue is being able to utilize them to the fullest, because that’s what’s going to save people’s lives, families, communities.”

What do harm-reduction practices look like?

Programs can distribute an array of products that all aim to reduce harm from drug use. That can include safe injection kits with clean syringes and fentanyl testing strips, which are a relatively cheap way to check for the presence of the deadly narcotic that is increasingly a contaminant in other drugs.

“Because fentanyl is becoming more prevalent — it’s deadly — it’s all the more reason why some of those harm-reduction strategies are so important,” Ory said. “The assumption is that if you have drug paraphernalia freely available, that that’s going to encourage drug abuse, that is not a scientific fact.”

Distributed items can also include naloxone, often known as Narcan, a medicine that can treat opioid overdose. Additionally, many programs also give out products for non-drug-related use, like safe sex kits and general hygiene kits with soap and toothbrushes.

Are harm reduction policies being used in Texas?

As the state grapples with the ongoing opioid epidemic and a rise in fentanyl deaths, public health experts say that harm-reduction strategies can both help people with their drug addictions and curb fallout from the crisis.

Narcan is one product many harm-reduction groups in Texas distribute that the state has also embraced using. Recent settlements between the state and pharmaceutical companies implicated in the opioid epidemic provide millions of dollars’ worth of Narcan for the state.

But other strategies face a roadblock in Texas: State law criminalizes the possession and distribution of drug paraphernalia, which includes fentanyl testing strips. Clean syringes and clean pipes can also be considered paraphernalia.

During last year’s legislative session, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, aimed to remove criminal penalties for possessing paraphernalia. The bill passed out of committee but never came up for a vote by the Texas House.

Crockett, who is up for a congressional seat in south Dallas, agrees that a harm-reduction approach is the future for helping combat drug problems, in contrast to criminalizing drugs.

“You lock someone up who has an addiction, you don’t help them at all,” Crockett said. “You just put them away, and then you let them back out. Guess what? They still have an addiction. And they’ve not been given the tools and resources. And sadly enough, they’ve not been treated with the dignity that really they should be afforded.”

Those barriers prompted many advocates for harm-reduction policies to criticize Cruz for politicizing their work.

“It’s outrageous that somebody like Ted Cruz is even commenting on harm-reduction tools when a lot of the evidence-based tools that we need in the first place are illegal in the state,” said Paulette Soltani, director of organizing for the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, which protested outside Cruz’s Austin office in March. “It’s a political issue at the expense of the lives of Texans.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/03/22/harm-reduction-drug-treatment-cruz-biden/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Gov. Greg Abbott brags about his border initiative. The evidence doesn’t back him up.

By Lomi Kriel and Perla Trevizo, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, and Andrew Rodriguez Calderón and Keri Blakinger, The Marshall Project

'Segregated South type behavior': Americans are furious at 'scared' Texas's Gov. Abbott deploying Guard troops to the polls

'Segregated South type behavior': Americans are furious at 'scared' Texas's Gov. Abbott deploying Guard troops to the polls Greg Abbott (Facebook)

"Gov. Greg Abbott brags about his border initiative. The evidence doesn’t back him up." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power, and with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for newsletters from ProPublica and The Marshall Project.

Thomas King-Randall had been waiting for two hours to drop his daughters off at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Midland. It was 10:30 on a school night in August and it was her turn to care for the two girls.

The ex-girlfriend showed up drunk and was arguing with her new boyfriend in his truck, police later wrote in a report. King-Randall, who is Black, said in an interview that the woman’s Latino boyfriend called him a racial slur, which led to a fight.

By the end of the encounter, the woman’s boyfriend had a bloody nose and swollen eyes. King-Randall was gone, and local police issued an arrest warrant for the 26-year-old California native. A month later, Texas Department of Public Safety officers arrested King-Randall when he tried to renew his driver’s license.

King-Randall’s arrest was one of thousands used to bolster claims of success for Operation Lone Star. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott launched the initiative last March, citing an urgent need to stop the flow of drugs and undocumented immigrants into the state through Mexico.

But the alleged assault had nothing to do with the border. King-Randall, a U.S. citizen, was arrested more than 250 miles from the border with Mexico. Neither DPS nor the Texas Military Department, the state agencies carrying out Operation Lone Star, played a role in the investigation. And the family violence assault charge King-Randall faced wasn’t linked to border-related crime or illegal immigration.

Operation Lone Star has helped increase the state’s budget for border security to more than $3 billion through 2023 by deploying thousands of DPS troopers and National Guard members and allocating funding to build border barriers. As part of the operation, troopers are also arresting some immigrant men crossing into the U.S. on state criminal trespassing charges.

Abbott and DPS have repeatedly boasted in news conferences, on social media and during interviews on Fox News that the border operation has disrupted drug and human smuggling networks. A year into the operation, officials touted more than 11,000 criminal arrests, drug seizures that amount to millions of “lethal doses” and the referrals of tens of thousands of unauthorized immigrants to the federal government for deportation as signs that the program is effective.

But the state’s claim of success has been based on shifting metrics that included crimes with no connection to the border, work conducted by troopers stationed in targeted counties prior to the operation, and arrest and drug seizure efforts that do not clearly distinguish DPS’s role from that of other agencies, an investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and The Marshall Project found.

King-Randall’s charges were among more than 2,000, including some for cockfighting, sexual assault and stalking, that the agency stopped counting toward Operation Lone Star more than nine months into the exercise, after the news organizations began raising questions about the ties between the arrests and border security. Of those, about 270 charges were for violent crimes, which are defined by the FBI as murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

King-Randall said in an interview that he was fighting the allegations. The case is pending, according to the Midland County district attorney’s office.

Claiming such arrests is “inherently flawed” and misrepresents the accomplishments of the operation, said Patrick O’Burke, a law enforcement consultant and a former DPS commander who retired in 2008.

“The problem could be simply related to crimes in those communities,” O’Burke said. “It’s not battling cross-border crime.”

Asked by the news organizations why such charges were not excluded from the operation’s metrics at the start, DPS officials said they are continuously improving how they collect and report the data “to better reflect the mission” of securing the border. The governor’s office maintained that “dangerous individuals, deadly drugs, and other illegal contraband have been taken off our streets or prevented from entering the State of Texas altogether thanks to the men and women of Operation Lone Star.”

But DPS and Abbott have provided little proof to substantiate such statements. A year into the initiative, Abbott, DPS and the Texas Military Department have fought two dozen public records requests from the news organizations that would provide a clearer picture of the operation’s accomplishments.

DPS, the only agency to release some records related to Operation Lone Star’s results, has made several significant revisions to the arrest data, including removing charges. The agency did not provide details that would help determine how the cases that remained are connected to the initiative’s goal of deterring border-related crime. The agency also failed to identify arrests and drug seizures that could have occurred without the additional personnel made available through the operation.

The absence of clear metrics for measuring its accomplishments points to a larger problem with the border operation and more than a dozen others launched by the state’s two governors during the past 17 years. Lawmakers have repeatedly increased state funding for border security while providing minimal oversight of the operations launched by Abbott and his predecessor, Gov. Rick Perry.

Over the years, some legislators have balked at state agencies’ calls for more accountability from border security efforts.

“It’s almost offensive to say, ‘What are the results?’” former state Rep. Dan Flynn, a Republican from East Texas, said during a hearing in 2018. At that hearing, the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which determines whether there’s a continuing need for state agencies and programs, raised concerns that DPS was not providing “sufficient information to the public and policymakers about the return on investment for border security.”

Texas, which shares a 1,200-mile border with Mexico, spends more money on border security than any other state. And at a cost to taxpayers of more than $2.5 million a week, Operation Lone Star is by far the most expensive of the state’s border operations, and the one with the broadest mandate and scope.

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Concertina wire recently installed in Eagle Pass by the National Guard as part of Operation Lone Star. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune

In South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, which was at the center of last year’s immigrant influx, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said he doesn’t know what Operation Lone Star has accomplished beyond “arresting people and making them criminals.”

Cortez said the problem is not criminal activity, but the sheer number of immigrants seeking better opportunities who sometimes attempt to cross into his community at once, straining resources and overwhelming Border Patrol. The solution, he said, is a comprehensive approach to address the reasons people are trying to come to the U.S. and provide more legal avenues to do so.

“We’re spending millions and billions of dollars in trying to manage something,” Cortez said about Operation Lone Star. “But instead of getting me the plumber to stop the leak, they’re sending me people to mop up the floor.”

Politics of border security

With DPS SUVs lined up behind him as if forming a wall, Abbott promoted his new initiative during a March 2021 news conference in Mission, a city in the Rio Grande Valley where more immigrants were crossing the border.

While federal officials started apprehending a greater number of immigrants during Donald Trump’s presidency, Abbott blamed newly inaugurated President Joe Biden for not doing enough to stem record levels of arrivals at the border.

During his first two months at the helm, Biden temporarily halted a policy that required people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico until their cases could be heard by U.S. immigration judges. A federal judge in Texas later ordered the administration to reinstate part of the policy. Under a Trump administration pandemic health order that Biden kept in place, more than three-fourths of immigrants apprehended at the border during that period were immediately turned away.

“If you were president in 2024, which some of us hope that you are, what’s the first thing that you would do to enact something down here?” asked a man in the crowd whom Abbott’s staff singled out for the final question.

“Secure the border. Period,” Abbott said.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to reporters at a meet and greet at a University Draft House in Edinburg on Nov. 30, 2021.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to reporters at University Draft House in Edinburg. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

With the presidential election in the distance, Abbott has made border security a cornerstone of his gubernatorial reelection campaign, playing offense against his primary opponents, attacking Biden and using the issue as a way to distinguish himself from his general election challenger, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from the border city of El Paso.

The governor handily won the Republican primary early this month with Trump’s support. The former president’s success rallying the Republican base by pushing hard-line policies and promoting the construction of a border wall has become a model for Texas GOP candidates, who saw Trump make inroads with Latino voters in border counties in 2020.

The results emboldened Republicans, who doubled down on Trump’s rhetoric, pushing some of his more restrictive border measures, said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s almost as if he gave permission for more straightforwardly nativist rhetoric, but he didn’t do that in a vacuum, certainly at least not here,” Henson said, pointing to anti-immigrant sentiment among Republican voters prior to Trump’s election.

In launching Operation Lone Star, Abbott went further than any other governor in recent history, attempting to curtail immigration by using state trespassing charges to directly target those who cross the border on private property.

Texas DPS special agents apprehend a group of five undocumented migrants from Honduras that were caught in private property as part of Operation Lone Star in Kinney County near Brackettville, Texas on Nov. 8, 2021. The owner of the property did not sign an affidavit for arrests of undocumented migrants to be taking place at their property so the group of Hondurans will be processed by Border Patrol instead.

A Texas DPS special agent jus a fence after catching the undocumented migrants from Honduras in private property as part of Operation Lone Star in Kinney County near Brackettville, Texas on Nov. 8, 2021. The owner of the property did not sign an affidavit for arrests of undocumented migrants to be taking place at their property so they will be processed by Border Patrol instead.</p data-verified=

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Texas DPS special agents apprehend a group of undocumented migrants from Honduras that were caught in private property as part of Operation Lone Star in Kinney County near Brackettville, Texas on Nov. 8, 2021. The owner of the property did not sign an affidavit for arrests of undocumented migrants to be taking place at their property so the group of Hondurans will be processed by Border Patrol instead.</p data-verified=

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Texas Department of Public Safety special agents apprehend five undocumented immigrants from Honduras who were caught on private property in Kinney County as part of Operation Lone Star. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune

The federal government has sole authority to enforce immigration laws, but Abbott increased trespassing penalties under a declaration that gave him more power akin to what he would have after a natural disaster.

In June, the governor shifted the operation’s emphasis from the Rio Grande Valley, where political leaders opposed some of his efforts, to a vast rural region of mostly private ranches around Val Verde County, about 170 miles west of San Antonio. Trump won the county by a 10-point margin in 2020. Until this year, Val Verde and Kinney were the only two counties prosecuting people crossing into the country through private property for trespassing.

The misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to a year in jail, makes up about 40% of the operation’s arrests from mid-July to Jan. 27, an analysis by ProPublica, the Tribune and the Marshall Project found.

The governor’s office said the operation is based on facts, not politics, and is geared to provide “maximum assistance to the counties greatest affected.” But federal statistics show some of the counties in the Rio Grande Valley that DPS shifted additional resources away from were among those experiencing the greatest influx of immigrants and drugs.

Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, a Texas Army National Guard veteran who helped oversee the guard’s deployment under the operation until his retirement in November, said he and his colleagues believed politics was the main driver for the mushrooming initiative. He said he recalls commanders saying things like, “We’re going back to the border, the governor is trying to get reelected.”

Federal and state Democratic lawmakers have urged investigations into the constitutionality of the trespassing arrests and the poor working conditions, pay delays and suicides among National Guard members assigned to Operation Lone Star, problems reported by the Tribune and the Army Times. And some state Democrats, led by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, announced a task force early this month to investigate “many layers of grave concerns” about the operation, including alleged human rights violations and a lack of accountability. Abbott’s office has said the arrests and prosecutions under the operation “are fully constitutional.”

But the broader operation’s goals and results have received little scrutiny.

In July, DPS began counting toward Operation Lone Star a number of arrests and drug seizures from a 63-county region almost the size of Oregon that officials dubbed the area of interest. The area included counties that did not receive additional resources from the operation, and some of the newly credited actions included work already conducted by troopers stationed there before the governor’s initiative began.

Before then, DPS had been counting arrests and drug seizures from what the agency called the “more focused” area of operation, a smaller group of counties closer to the border.

The governor and DPS declined to answer questions about who ordered the change and whether all the counties in the larger area of interest received extra resources from the operation. DPS officials said the area of operation is fluid as the department is continuously monitoring the border and adjusting its use of resources as needed.

Abbott pointed to some of those arrests last year as he sought additional funding for border security efforts, bringing lawmakers back for a special legislative session. Abbott’s office received $1.3 billion of the $3 billion total, marking the first time that the governor’s allocation for border security was larger than that given to DPS.

Texas Department of Public Safety special agents oversee a group of four Honduran undocumented migrants that were caught in private property in Kinney County near Brackettville, Texas on Nov. 9, 2021. The owner of the property did not sign the affidavit to allow DPS to arrest undocumented migrants in their property, so they will be processed by Border Patrol.</p data-verified=

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Texas Department of Public Safety special agents monitor four undocumented immigrants from Honduras who were caught on private property in Kinney County. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune

The growing share of border security funding managed by the governor’s office raises questions about transparency, said Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst for the progressive think tank Every Texan. She said such spending is harder to track because the governor’s office doesn’t report its expenditures with the same level of detail as DPS.

While the governor’s office argues that the agencies it funds have to report spending, DeLuna Castro said some are not subject to such rules.

In January, after increasing the number of National Guard members at the border to 10,000, the governor and a handful of the state’s Republican leaders moved nearly half a billion dollars from DPS, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to help cover the increased costs.

“He’s just running up a tab that the Legislature, and taxpayers, will have to cover,” DeLuna Castro said.

Trouble with the numbers

Fentanyl seizures have become shorthand for Operation Lone Star’s success.

Abbott repeatedly highlights them in press conferences and on social media, boasting that the state is helping to stop Biden’s “open border policies.” He has used seizures of the synthetic opioid, which is 100 times stronger than morphine, as a way to attack O’Rourke, who is challenging him in the November gubernatorial election.

At a February event in Austin before the primary election, Abbott’s campaign handed out pill bottles with a fake label that read “Beto Biden open border” and pointed to 1,334 Texas fentanyl deaths in 2021.

Inside was a mock warning label that credited the seizure of 887 pounds of fentanyl, or what he called more than 201 million deadly doses, to Operation Lone Star. Days later, Abbott repeated similar claims in a press release from the governor’s office.

The figure reflects seizures across the state and contradicts the number DPS has given for what is attributable to Operation Lone Star. About 160 pounds of fentanyl were seized from March 2021 to January 2022 in the regions that DPS uses when reporting metrics from the operation.

Abbott’s office defended using statewide seizure numbers, saying they are directly tied to Operation Lone Star because the drug generally enters from Mexico.

“DPS can’t always seize fentanyl right at the border; but they will not stop until they find it, even if it is in North Texas,” Nan Tolson, Abbott’s spokesperson, wrote in an email.

Including statewide seizures is “just disingenuous,” said O’Burke, the former DPS commander.

“Chicago has a border nexus. Are we going to count drugs that were seized in Chicago? That’s just not transparent,” he said. “It’s just not a measure of success. It’s just conflating these statistics because it makes the general public feel safer.”

Instead, O’Burke said, Operation Lone Star’s results should only count actions in which its added resources were used.

That number comes with its own caveats. All but 12 of the 160 pounds of fentanyl were captured in El Paso County, which was not one of the ones listed by DPS officials in November as receiving additional troopers and National Guard members from the operation. The county was one of several that declined to sign on to the governor’s border disaster declaration.

Fentanyl seizure claims are not the only example of the difficulty of measuring the return on investment for taxpayers.

DPS has a history of taking credit for work, such as drug seizures, carried out by other agencies. As part of the operation, DPS and Texas Military Department officials reported apprehending more than 200,000 migrants in the past year and referring them to the federal government for deportation. That included eight migrants who were caught rafting across the Rio Grande by DPS troopers, National Guard members and Border Patrol agents in November. But while DPS counted the immigrants it referred to Border Patrol as part of its reporting for Operation Lone Star, that same group may also have been included in the National Guard’s tally, meaning both agencies could be getting credit for the same arrests. The Texas Military Department did not answer questions about the case.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined multiple interview requests. Officials did say that the federal agency “does not have a role or partner in any way” with DPS on the operation and that they don’t track the state’s referrals.

DPS officials acknowledged in an interview that more than one agency could be taking credit for some of the same detentions because the Texas Military Department does not share with DPS the details of immigrants it refers to the federal government, and such data is not publicly available.

Featherston, the retired Texas Army National Guard senior enlisted adviser, said he believes immigrant apprehensions are “double counted.”

In another case, DPS posted on its Facebook page in September that it encountered more than 700 gang members as part of the operation. But officials declined requests to provide records detailing such arrests, saying gang affiliation “was not a metric the Department is tracking.”

And despite removing more than 2,000 charges from the arrest data credited to Operation Lone Star, DPS still includes other charges without explaining how they align with the operation’s goal of capturing dangerous criminals. (DPS disputed this characterization of the removed charges; a full explanation of our rebuttal is described in the methods section at the end of this piece.) In May, for example, troopers arrested a 20-year-old woman in Coke County, about 200 miles from the border in West Texas.

The woman was driving 9 mph over the speed limit in a no-passing zone on a rural highway. After troopers stopped her for speeding, they discovered a Ziploc bag with “loose leaf marijuana in the glovebox,” according to the arrest report.

The woman, who could not be reached for comment, does not appear to have a prior criminal record. The arrest report doesn’t note her immigration status. She was charged with possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana.

“The whole reason for all this, you know, playing with statistics, is for optics so that the governor could get reelected. And so from that perspective, has it worked? Yes. It's worked for him,” said Gary Hale, a former chief of intelligence in Houston for the Drug Enforcement Administration who is now at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “But what’s the net gain? I don’t think there’s any. Zero. We really haven’t had any significant impact on migrant smuggling or drug trafficking.”

A group of Mexican undocumented migrants wait as they are being arrested by DPS as part of Operation Lone Star for trespassing private property in Kinney County, Texas on Nov. 9, 2021. </p data-verified=

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Undocumented immigrants from Mexico are detained after Texas Department of Public Safety special agents caught them on private property in Kinney County as part of Operation Lone Star. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune

A year later

A year after Operation Lone Star launched, a panel of three Texas senators sought to better understand how to gauge the costly initiative’s accomplishments.

“What metrics are you using to measure success in terms of defining the arrests for which you’re responsible for, to make sure we’re using our DPS officers in an effective way?” state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat from the border city of McAllen, asked DPS’ chief, Col. Steve McCraw, at a hearing on March 8.

Success could not be measured through arrest and seizure numbers alone, McCraw responded.

For the first time since the operation began, he offered a different metric: securing the border by stopping the flow of drugs and unauthorized immigrants in Texas’ 103 Border Patrol zones, one at a time. That is accomplished when each area has enough barriers, technology and law enforcement resources to “prevent transnational criminal activity,” according to DPS, which said it has met that goal in four zones that make up some parts of Hidalgo and Starr counties.

During the hearing, McCraw didn’t say how the agency knows it has secured a region. He also did not explain how DPS would be able to continue committing the resources needed to sustain that level of security. The senators didn’t ask.

“The challenge we have is when trying to decide what success looks like, is that if the numbers go up, do we claim success because we’re more efficient?” McCraw asked, adding that arrest and drug seizure statistics fluctuate. “You can’t have it both ways, you can’t be successful when the numbers go up and when the numbers go down.”

Since the start of the operation, DPS and Abbott have repeatedly touted success using arrests and drug seizure numbers. While continuing to cite the statistics, McCraw sought to minimize their significance, saying that what matters most is “not how much crime you’re enforcing. It’s the absence of it.”

By the end of that Senate hearing, lawmakers remained uncertain about the return on their multibillion-dollar investment.

“How do we know whether the amount of money was appropriate for what was needed?” state Sen. Bob Hall, a Republican from Rockwall, northeast of Dallas, asked the state’s financial analysts. “And how do we know when we’ve accomplished what we set out to do, so that we can figure out what to do next, other than just appropriate more money and then wonder what to do next?”

The question has plagued lawmakers since the first border security operation launched nearly two decades ago.


About the data: How we analyzed criminal charges linked to Operation Lone Star

The data

Beginning in June 2021, reporters from The Marshall Project, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune began making records requests to the Texas Department of Public Safety for data on arrests and charges associated with Operation Lone Star. The department was responsive to those requests and provided information over the course of several months, though the format and contents of the files they sent changed over time in notable ways.

DPS sent us two data releases, one in July and another in August 2021, with records of arrests and charges associated with Operation Lone Star. Those releases came as separate files from three branches of DPS. However, in November, agency officials said that these records were incomplete, only capturing one of two broad border regions. In December, they then said they had retroactively started removing charges that did not “reflect the mission” of Operation Lone Star.

From November 2021 to January 2022, DPS sent three data snapshots, each of which the department said represented the totality of its records of Operation Lone Star charges and arrests at the time the files were created. This data was organized with each charge on its own row. An arrest can include multiple charges.

What we found

DPS emphasized that it is continuously improving how it collects and reports data for Operation Lone Star. As such, we used the latest data snapshot, from January 2022, when describing the criminal charges that the agency attributes to the operation, including how many charges were related to trespassing and how the charges were distributed geographically.

We also examined the evolving nature of the department’s record-keeping by looking at changes between the data snapshots provided to us. In comparing the first and second complete data snapshots (one provided in November 2021, the other in December 2021), we found more than 2,000 charges that had been removed from the data.

Vetting our findings

DPS said that our approach did not account for the fact that “each spreadsheet represents an extract from a live database, and information is subject to change.” The agency stated that our analysis “assumes that any row that does not appear exactly the same in each spreadsheet can be described as either ‘added’ or ‘removed.’”

We did not require rows to match exactly when identifying charges preserved or removed. Rows were matched using arrest IDs and charge descriptions, and we looked only at charges from dates covered in both files. For about half of the more than 2,000 charges we identified as being removed from the data, the arrest IDs for these charges were not included in the later data snapshots — for example, Thomas King-Randall’s arrest only appears in the first snapshot. For the other half, the arrest ID did appear in later data snapshots, but with fewer charges associated with it. Additionally, looking only at the number of charges in each dataset, we observed that for arrests that occured in the same time period, there were fewer charges in later data snapshots than there had been in the earlier snapshot. DPS declined to answer questions about why particular cases were removed and declined to answer many of our specific questions about the dataset.

The constantly changing nature of the database is not unique to Operation Lone Star. Methods for comparing datasets are commonly used and actively studied. It is valid to analyze changes in such databases (with the appropriate caveats) and to describe them as additions or removals. DPS itself told reporters the department “identified offenses that should be removed” in a December 2021 email about changes to Operation Lone Star data collection.

Jolie McCullough of The Texas Tribune contributed reporting. Source images for photo collage from Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune, Verónica G. Cárdenas for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Every Texan and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/03/21/operation-lone-star-lacks-clear-metrics-measure-accomplishments/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas students push back against book bans for censoring LGBTQ, racial justice issues

For high school senior Gabrielle Izu, Texas’ public school book bans feel personal.

The books Texas is targeting — mainly novels that focus on discussions of race, sexual orientation and gender identity — tell the tale of Izu’s past and future. The 17-year-old high school student is Asian American, Black and Hispanic and bisexual, and she hates to see her identities or her peers’ censored.

“I ignored [my sexuality] for a really long time. And I think that as a young girl, if a book showed me that this is a life that could be lived, I could have had a lot more peace and coming to terms with bisexuality,” said Izu, who attends James E. Taylor High School in the Katy Independent School District near Houston.

Here and there, Texas students are forming their own book clubs to read what adults want banned. Books like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Ashley Hope Perez’s “Out of Darkness” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House.” Books that, until last fall, were easy to find and access.

In Katy ISD, students have distributed hundreds of novels challenged by adults in Texas. They’re getting the books free of charge from a political advocacy organization and publishers. And Leander ISD near Austin, students are coming together in a banned-book club to discuss those books. Some students are starting to attend school board meetings to fight for the freedom to choose what to read.

More than a hundred Katy ISD students of a variety of ages, races and gender identities met after school to discuss the bans and pick up contested novels. Among the books they’re reading is Kalynn Bayron’s “Cinderella is Dead,” a novel that follows a queer, Black teenager’s coming-of-age story. Izu, who saw herself reflected in the book, said her heart broke when Texas schools targeted it for a ban.

“It felt like my identity was seen as dangerous because of the banning of a story like that. What about my story? Am I seen as a bad influence?” Izu said. “Am I seen as something that should be shamed?”

Club members discussed the banned book

Students in the banned-book club often discuss how each book introduces to them new perspectives or historical events. Credit: Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

A slide showing a recap of the banned book the club just finished, Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, during the club's meeting in Vandegrift High Scool's library on Wednesday, Mar. 2, 2022.

A slide showing a recap of the banned book the club just finished, Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, during the club's meeting in Vandegrift High School's library on Wednesday, Mar. 2, 2022. Credit: Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

Texas parents and politicians say they are protecting students with book bans. Many students, including Cameron Samuels, a senior at Seven Lakes High School in Katy ISD, aren’t buying it.

“It’s clear that these books address issues of race and LGBTQ identities, and that is the exact reason that certain people are seeking to remove these books from libraries and prohibit students from accessing them,” said Samuels, who helped with distribution efforts. “And these policies have dire consequences for us because they keep us struggling with our queer identities.”

Katy ISD students showed strong support at the events, Samuels said. But not all parents are happy, and some have even tried to enter the school to disturb student discussions on Texas’ book bans, they said.

“As far as I have seen, parents have been the center focus of the movement to ban books and remove them from libraries, where students have been at the forefront of advocating for having access to these books,” Samuels said.

Books on race are also targeted, especially after Texas lawmakers passed a social studies law to target what they referred to as critical race theory, though the law does not specifically mention it. Critical race theory is a university-level discipline that considers how racism is embedded in policies and systems. The new law states that a teacher “may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” in public schools. While this law primarily applies to social studies curriculum, some are also trying to apply it to any book found in a school library.

Katy ISD removed, temporarily, Jerry Craft’s “New Kid,” which explores how more subtle or indirect discrimination impacts Black students in a mostly white school. The school district took the action after a parent claimed the book presented harmful content about critical race theory.

The district returned “New Kid” to shelves last semester, but Samuels said only students in fifth grade and up are permitted to check it out.

Samuels, who is nonbinary, said the novel comforted them, as they have often felt isolated as one of the few students at their school who use they/them pronouns.

“I have often felt alone and have experienced microaggressions,” Samuels said. “There’s no reason that addressing these issues should be something that students are prevented from doing or prohibited from learning about.”

Katy ISD does not allow students to distribute books the district banned. Samuels said it feels condescending that those in power decide what students can and cannot read.

“As students, we must take ownership of our education and not let others decide for us which resources we can access and which topics we can learn about,” they said.

At a recent Katy ISD school board meeting, students packed the room to call for the district to return books to libraries. Samuels and other students plan to continue to protest book bans at a Capitol rally on March 12.

“This is censorship. This is bad,” Izu said. “This is condemning things that shouldn’t be condemned.”

Book bans exploded across the state and country during this school year. In October, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, called on schools to disclose whether any of about 850 book titles were in their libraries. He said books “that might make students feel discomfort” should also be identified.

Weeks later, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas Education Agency to investigate the availability of “pornographic” books at school libraries.

Maghan Sadeghi, a James E. Taylor High School senior who is working with book distribution efforts, said Abbott’s statement sounds “like a bunch of ignorance.” She notes that her AP literature class requires many readings that reference sex. In “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” it is suggested on several occasions that staff rape patients. In “Hamlet,” sex before marriage is compared to a worm invading a flower before it blooms.

“They’re OK with heterosexual scenes, heterosexual ideas. But the second something turns slightly, slightly queer, slightly homosexual, it discomforts them. It’s the same thing with [people of color] viewpoints,” Sadeghi said. “Why do we have to remove books about Black people and Asian Americans simply for the sake of white people’s comfort?”

In Leander ISD, students gather together every two weeks to answer a similar question: Should this book be banned?

Vandegrift High School sophomores Ella Scott and Alyssa Hoy created the school’s banned-book club after looking at the list of books their district aimed to ban last year. The district would remove some of their favorite books from classroom libraries, and as a result, the students began having discussions about decisions they felt the district made without them.

“I loved ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” Scott said, referring to Atwood’s novel about a totalitarian society that forces fertile women to be raped so they can carry to term the offspring of elite couples. It’s now one of the restricted books in her school. “I love that book. Forever. It’s one of my favorites. Seeing it on the list was definitely disorienting.”

Leander ISD has so far removed the physical copies of 11 book titles from classroom libraries, but nine of those still reside in the school’s main and digital libraries, according to Matt Mitchell, Leander ISD’s communications coordinator.

During study hall, dozens of students from all grades meet to discuss one of the banned books’ plot and purpose, as well as who should have access to its storylines. So far, they generally agree the banned books furthered their education and should be freely accessible in the classroom.

Often, the students discuss how each book introduces to them new perspectives or even historical events.

Two banned books, one the club is starting and one the club has finished, in Vandegrift High Scool's library on Wednesday, Mar. 2, 2022.

Vandegrift’s banned-book club recently set up an Amazon wish list to fund book purchases, and one of its founders said the community has supported the students. Credit: Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

Pérez’s now-banned novel “Out of Darkness” follows a love affair between Naomi, a Mexican American high school senior, and Wash, a Black teenager, in the days before the 1937 gas explosion at the New London school, still one of the worst national disasters in history. Many book club students were unaware of this tragic event in the East Texas town of New London.

“These are very powerful stories,” Hoy said. “Most of the time, those tough decisions and tough scenes are reasons why they are so powerful and so meaningful to so many people.”

Last semester, the club had members purchase their books. Recently, the club set up an Amazon wish list to fund book purchases. In 24 hours, donated funds paid for the group’s books. Hoy said the community has supported the club through the semester.

“Eventually, we hope our club won’t be necessary,” Scott said. “We just hope that our voices and our opinions will be considered.”

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Transgender Texas kids are terrified after governor orders that parents be investigated for child abuse

By Sneha Dey and Karen Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune

"Transgender Texas kids are terrified after governor orders that parents be investigated for child abuse" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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For LGBTQ mental health support, call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

Every couple of months, Adamalis Vigil drives eight hours from the Rio Grande Valley to North Texas so her 13-year-old transgender daughter Adelyn can receive health care. They talk and sing the whole trip.

The care she receives there is unavailable in her hometown but pivotal to her sense of identity — and her mental health.

“It makes me feel who I truly am, and I don't feel singled out for not being like other girls in school anymore,” Adelyn said. “It's just very special for me that mom takes me all the way over there.”

Adelyn Vigil, 13, left, a transgender girl, her cousin Aylette Reyes, 13, center, and her mother Adamalis Vigil, 34, pass their time at her grandma’s home in the Rio Grande Valley on Sunday, February 27, 2022.</p data-verified=

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From left: Adelyn Vigil and her cousin Aylette Reyes, both 13, passed their time on Sunday with Adelyn's mother, Adamalis Vigil, 34, at a relative’s home in the Rio Grande Valley. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Adelyn — who stands tall at 5 feet, 5 inches and is outspoken in class — had been having panic attacks in school as she approached puberty. After she started seeing the doctors in North Dallas, the attacks stopped.

But last week, the panic attacks started again when Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — seven days before the GOP primary election in which he’s being accused of not being conservative enough — ordered state child welfare officials to launch child abuse investigations into reports of transgender kids receiving gender-affirming care.

Adelyn is terrified she will be forcibly separated from her mother. So great is her anxiety that she doesn’t want to sleep in her own bed. The Vigil family agreed to speak with The Texas Tribune but did not feel safe disclosing details about Adelyn’s medical care.

Abbott’s directive followed a nonbinding legal opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton — who is also in the fight of his political life in Tuesday’s primary election — that said gender-affirming care constitutes child abuse.

Paxton’s opinion cited body modification surgeries that medical experts say are rarely, if ever, performed on children. But he also said it would be child abuse to administer gender-affirming care that is widely accepted by leading health care groups, like puberty blockers, which are completely reversible. Under the gender-affirming model of care, experts say, more time is spent allowing kids to socially transition instead of focusing on medical treatment.

Shelly Skeen, a senior attorney with Lambda Legal, said it’s highly unlikely that a judge would justify child abuse charges or removal of a child based solely on the use of gender-affirming therapy.

“Texas law has a very clear definition of what child abuse is, and it's not this,” Skeen said.

Still, the attorney general’s opinion and governor’s directive drew fire from families, lawmakers, doctors, advocates and the White House, among others. Advocates say that calling gender-affirming therapy child abuse could lead to it being weaponized in divorce cases, create legal issues for physicians and therapists who treat transgender youth and empower people to attack the young people themselves — as well as the family members and others who support them.

“It’s not a far stretch to think that you could be harassed, assaulted, killed,” said W. Carsten Andresen, an associate professor of criminal justice at St. Edward’s University in Austin.

Child abuse investigations based on gender-affirming care are almost unheard of in Texas. Officials at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services say that there have been three reports last week “meeting the description in the AG opinion and Governor's directive” but offered no other details. No investigations have been launched, officials said.

But families with transgender kids and their advocates say even an attempt at criminalizing certain care further stigmatizes an already vulnerable group of Texans.The officials’ moves also can block access to treatments that can prevent suicide and severe depression caused in part by gender dysphoria — discomfort related to feeling a disconnect between one’s personal gender identity and the gender assigned at birth.

A recent study showed that more than 40% of transgender youth attempt suicide. The rate of suicide attempts among transgender youth is three times higher than among their cisgender counterparts, according to recent studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And the moves now leave Texas families with transgender children choosing between getting their children health care that medical experts recommend or possibly facing a child protective services investigation.

“I know I have to fight. I know I have to speak up. I know I have to show up for her. But how do I alleviate her stress when I'm stressed?” Adamalis said. “The fact that she has to do the fighting, too — it's just terrible. She had to mature so much faster than kids her age.”

Riding a wave of anti-trans politics

Abbott and Paxton have spent the past year reflecting and stoking anti-transgender sentiment among voters — many of them stirred by right-wing media. The public pressure was so intense that a Dallas program that specialized in helping transgender young people was formally dissolved.

In his statement this week, Abbott even called on other Texans to act as watchdogs and report any parents for abuse if they believe the parent is supporting their child’s gender transition with professional help.

For years, the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature has targeted transgender Texans. In 2017, lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to ban people from using bathrooms that don’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. Last year, they succeeded in limiting athletic participation by transgender students. Last year during the regular legislative session, Texas filed more anti-LGBTQ bills than any other state legislature, according to Equality Texas, which tracks such legislation.

Among the proposals was a bill that would explicitly classify some gender-affirming care as child abuse. The Texas Senate passed the bill, but the legislation died in the House.

The opinion and new directive that aim to achieve the same effect without a law passing further stigmatizes an already marginalized group by normalizing speech and actions that target them, Texas House Democrats wrote this week in a letter blasting the comments by Abbott and Paxton.

“Transphobic and false statements like those made by the Governor and the Attorney General have produced an unsafe environment in our state that has forced families to flee to protect their transgender kids, adversely affected the mental health of gender expansive youth, and perpetuated an epidemic of violence against transgender Texans, especially Black trans women,” the letter from several Democratic lawmakers read.

On Thursday, district attorneys from five Texas counties — including Dallas, Bexar and Travis — posted a statement on Twitter bashing the directives as “anti-trans” and “life-threatening” and saying they would not treat gender-affirming actions as abuse.

“We want to assure our residents with transgender children that they are safe to continue seeking the care their children need,” the statement said.

Second-guessing more care

Since Adelyn’s mother sat her down and told her about the governor’s order, the teen has been reconsidering whether she wants to go to her next doctor’s appointment. She has been scrolling through TikTok videos about the order until her mother comes home from work. On Thursday, she tried to watch a Percy Jackson movie as a distraction, but the fear has been getting to her.

“When I'm at work, she keeps calling and calling: ‘When are you going to be home and how long? How much longer? Are you almost home?’” Adamalis said. “It affects her in that sense that she wants to feel that kind of security and feel safe around me.”

Five years ago, Libby Gonzales, a transgender girl, and her family told Texas lawmakers about how she never wanted to be forced into the boys’ bathroom at school, and that the idea scared her. They traveled to the Capitol to speak out against the now-infamous “bathroom bill,” which would have limited which public bathrooms transgender Texans can use. That legislation, though, died despite several attempts at getting it through the Legislature.

Libby Gonzales, a 7-year-old transgender girl, walks through the Capitol before testifying against SB 3 and SB 91, the "bathroom bills," before the Senate State Affairs Committee with her family on July 21, 2017.

Libby Gonzales was 7 when she went to the Texas Capitol in 2017 to testify against legislation that would have limited what bathrooms transgender people can use. The bills ultimately failed to pass. Credit: Austin Price / The Texas Tribune

“I am 7 years old and I am transgender,” the nervous girl told the powerful state senators looking down at her from the dais in 2017. “Please keep me safe. Thank you.”

Today, Libby, now 11, and her family do not feel safe confirming or denying her experience with gender care anymore.

Her family — outspoken opponents of Texas Republicans’ near-constant efforts to curtail the rights of her daughter and other transgender youth — are now afraid that their efforts to support Libby will be called criminal by the most powerful men in the state.

As a result of the directive, Rachel Gonzales, Libby’s mother, has developed plans in case Texas Child Protective Services shows up at her Dallas home.

“There are so many hypotheticals that my husband and I talked through.” Gonzales said. “We have to have a plan in place. It also just helps me sleep at night.“

Skeen, the Lambda Legal attorney, said political rhetoric against transgender children is already driving families out of the state. But the Gonzales family said they are here to stay.

“My daughter is a fifth-generation Texan. We're simply not leaving our home because of some bullies in the Texas [Legislature],” Gonzales said.

Extremely rare

While child abuse investigations of gender-affirming care are rare, there is at least one well-known example: a DFPS investigation into the family of a transgender child over the use of gender-affirming therapy, a bitter custody battle fueled by the blogger father of a 7-year-old girl who was assigned male at birth.

In 2019, Abbott and Paxton demanded that the state’s child welfare agency investigate whether the child’s mother was committing abuse by letting the child present as a girl. At the time, the move alarmed an already fearful community of parents of transgender children.

In that case, in which no surgical or hormonal procedures were used, child welfare officials ruled out child abuse and closed the investigation. The father, Jeff Younger, lost custody of his two children in the divorce, according to his website.

Younger is now running for the Republican nomination to the Texas House in his Flower Mound district in Tuesday’s primary. He could not be reached for comment.

In their statement this week, Texas House Democrats said gender-affirming therapy is still legal for transgender youth and supported by medical professionals and that mandatory reporting laws had not changed.

And in spite of child welfare officials saying earlier this week that they would comply with Abbott’s orders, the Democratic lawmakers said no government agency “is obligated to comply with the directive of the Governor or enforce the false assertions made by the Attorney General.”

CPS investigations are only launched if “an allegation is reported, and if the allegation meets the legal definition of abuse or neglect,” said DFPS spokesperson Patrick Crimmins.

In general, CPS investigators who find evidence of abuse may decide to set up services for the family to remove the threat to the child or stage some other intervention. In extreme cases, they may ask for an order from a judge to either temporarily or permanently remove children from the home.

First: Libby Gonzales, 11, was 7 when she testified against the so-called "bathroom bill” at the Texas Capitol. Last: Rachel Gonzales holds her daughter Libby outside their home in Dallas in 2021. Credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Texas Tribune

Their worst fear

Still, transgender kids Libby knows “are freaking out, coming home from school crying. I mean, she also has cried a lot,” Rachel Gonzales said. “That would cause irreparable harm to any family and any child to remove a kid from their home in a state where the government is very intentionally trying to hurt them.”

Even an investigation itself can be traumatic, life-altering and invasive, Andresen said. A DFPS investigator may interview family members and others familiar with a family or the child in order to decide whether there is reason to believe abuse is taking place or whether to rule it out, among other possible outcomes.

“Parents that have the money and resources are seriously thinking about looking to move outside of Texas,” said Andresen, whose wife sometimes works with transgender families in her job as a family attorney. “Even if there is no legal grounds, why would you stay here with somebody threatening to investigate you?” Also, any protection under the law could be wiped away easily if Texas lawmakers — an increasingly conservative bunch — decide to change the code, which could effectively make gender-affirming therapy for minors illegal in Texas.

Adelyn’s care has “really been life-changing” for the Rio Grande Valley girl, her mother said.

“How is that considered child abuse to accept them and love them?” Adamalis Vigil asks. “How can they overstep their power and try to come and tell me how I should love my child?”

Disclosure: Equality Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Adamalis Vigil, 34, holds a bracelet that she and her husband got for their daughter Adelyn Vigil, 13, who is a transgender girl, as they pose for a photo in the Rio Grande Valley on Sunday, February 27, 2022. Adamalis says that Governor Abbott’s order for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate parents that provide gender-affirming care to their kids , “Hasn’t made me doubt myself as a parent because I know what it’s right for my child.” Adelyn says that, “The thought of me being separated makes me cry and to think that my mom could go to jail for it and not being able to see her anymore.”</p data-verified=

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Adamalis Vigil holds a bracelet that she and her husband got for their 13-year-old daughter Adelyn. The Rio Grande Valley mom says Abbott’s order “hasn’t made me doubt myself as a parent because I know what’s right for my child.” Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/28/texas-transgender-child-abuse/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

'I hate it here': National Guard members sound off on Texas border mission in leaked morale survey

When asked in January what they liked about their deployment to the Texas-Mexico border, members of the Texas Air National Guard had few nice things to say.

“I hate it here,” one respondent said in an anonymous survey about the involuntary mission with no set end date that has taken as many as 10,000 troops away from their civilian lives and families.

Another, asked for general feedback, simply posted four middle- finger emojis.

Frustration, anxiety and anger prevailed in the survey responses obtained by the The Texas Tribune and the Military Times. The survey includes responses from nearly 250 members of Task Force South, one of six units that fall under the umbrella of Operation Lone Star — Gov. Greg Abbott’s unprecedentedly large attempt to secure the border with Guard members and state troopers.

“I’m wasting time watching the grass grow at my [observation] point [along the border], while my civilian job is dying on the vine,” one Guardsman wrote in response to another question. “IF my job still exists when I return, I will have a giant hole to dig out of.”

Another member, whose husband travels for work, said they’ve had to pay an extra $2,000 each month for a nanny to watch their kids. Yet another worried about the future of a strained marriage after having to leave his wife and new baby behind.

The survey responses provide the clearest insights yet into the simmering dissatisfaction among troops stationed at the border. The survey was distributed before the Tribune and Military Times published an investigation earlier this month detailing problems with the mission that included hasty mobilization, alarming morale issues, meager living conditions, delays in payment and the perception by troops that the mission was politically motivated to score reelection points for Abbott. Those findings have been consistently denied or downplayed by Texas officials.

Nearly 250 members of the unit — around half its troop strength — completed the survey between Jan. 5-10, according to the source who provided the survey results. The source is not being named because they were not authorized to share the survey.

Task Force South largely consists of Texas Air National Guard members under the 432nd Air Expeditionary Group. Those troops work in the Brownsville area of southernmost Texas and most are living in hotels during the deployment — the best living conditions among the thousands of Texas troops at the border.

The obtained data is from five free-response questions that asked airmen to list positives and negatives about the mission, offer feedback on benefits and off-duty restrictions and weigh in on Operation Lone Star in general. An analysis of the responses by the Tribune and Military Times found:

  • More than half expressed skepticism or frustration with Operation Lone Star and how senior leaders planned, executed and communicated about the mission.
  • Nearly 30% vented about the mobilization's length, haste or involuntary nature in their answers.
  • About 30% said the most difficult part of Operation Lone Star was the deployment’s impact on their civilian lives, including lost wages, disrupted families and interrupted careers and educations.
  • More than 1 in 5 either offered no substantive feedback on what they “like most” about Operation Lone Star or said they disliked everything about the mission.
  • Almost 3 out of 4 airmen said they wanted better state benefits. Troops on state active-duty missions like Operation Lone Star don’t get benefits common to federal deployments like tax exemptions, retirement credit, Veterans Affairs disability coverage for injuries or education benefits like GI Bill credit or the Hazlewood Act, which is a Texas education benefit that gives free tuition to veterans who served on active-duty missions.

It wasn’t all bad though. While the feedback was overwhelmingly negative, there were a few members who said they were happy with the pay (“when it comes on time,” some specified) and around 2 in 5 said they appreciated the camaraderie among the troops.

When reached for comment, Texas Military Department spokesperson Col. Rita Holton said the agency “consistently seek[s] opportunities to recognize service members, instill esprit de corps, and solicit feedback in order to continue improving morale across the board.”

“Surveys are an important, yet confidential, method in doing so,” Holton said. She also said the benefits disparity is an unavoidable consequence of the mission being done under state active-duty authority.

Holton said the surveys “[allow] leadership teams to proactively address” problems, but the source who provided the survey results said task force leadership initially didn’t respond to the results or communicate a plan to address the complaints troops made. Internal leadership meetings “focused on the positives that people seem to like their [colleagues], Mexican food in the area, etc.,” the source said.

But seven hours after the Tribune and Military Times submitted questions to the agency asking what it had done to address the troops’ concerns, Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, the operation’s commander, signed a policy memo relaxing the off-duty curfew, alcohol restrictions and distance limits on off-duty travel. Leaders communicating the changes to the troops said they were the result of members’ feedback in surveys — despite the surveys being completed more than a month ago.

The agency refused to provide the results of a similar survey sent to all Operation Lone Star troops on Jan. 3. State military officials are trying to block a public information request from Military Times and the Tribune for that information, claiming that releasing the results would put troops at risk and “have a chilling effect” on future survey participation.

Lives left behind

The responses illustrate the personal consequences of the short-notice, involuntary activation.

Most state active-duty missions are short-term emergency responses, such as the Texas Guard’s response to the 2021 winter storm or hurricanes in recent years. But Operation Lone Star is different — thousands of troops have been there involuntarily since last fall, and they’re likely to be there until they’re replaced with a fresh wave of troops this fall, according to planning documents.

“What strategic or tactical thought has there been toward the impact of [Operation Lone Star] on the morale and retention of the Guard?” one member asked. “I had [nine days’] notice to leave my wife and baby during an immensely stressful point in our marriage.”

Another echoed his concerns.

“[I had] 10 days to try and find a substitute who could manage my classes at work, make plans to keep my house in shape, prepare my family mentally and emotionally, and of course, pack myself,” the airman said. Troops who don’t report for the involuntary mission could be arrested, Texas officials have acknowledged.

Many of the troops on the mission arrived immediately following federal deployments and a separate state mobilization to help with hurricane relief in Texas and Louisiana, one airman said. Now, major life milestones are still on hold.

“Myself and others have been gone for what will be a year and a half … with mere days in between,” another airman said. “Weddings, home builds and starting [a] family have been put off for the time being, and [this mission] is grinding down what little resolve we have left.”

The mission has halted schooling and day jobs as well. One airman said they were taking a pay cut from their civilian job, and the Texas Guard’s hardship bonus pay wasn’t enough to make up their salary.

“We were rushed down here from our homes and families just to sit around for a month waiting on training [and] equipment (most of which we are still waiting on), without the proper infrastructure to support such a [massive] mobilization,” the airman said.

A college student bemoaned that the mission had delayed their graduation — and worried they “may have to restart my nursing program all over again even [though] I was supposed to graduate in December 2022.”

And one health care worker, exasperated that the Guard had indefinitely “plucked” them from their job amid the coronavirus pandemic, argued they were “lied to about the duration.”

“Whether or not you agree with the politics and morals of [Operation Lone Star], the best thing you could do to improve morale would be to shorten [deployments],” the member said. “I’ve spoken to very few people who plan on continuing their service in the Texas [National Guard], much less staying on [the border] any longer than they have to. Send people home.”

Meanwhile, problems stemming from the mission’s rapid expansion are alienating even the troops who support Abbott’s approach to securing the border.

One Guard member who reported enjoying “working in the field” to catch migrants also decried leadership’s “lack of answers [and an] unknown date to return to family and civilian career.”

“People [quit] school, [their] jobs, [their] relationships all because of the stress of not knowing when they can pick it back up or plan to start again,” the airman explained. “It’s unrealistic for the younger [airmen].”

Another service member, who thinks the operation isn’t tough enough on migrants, also demanded that senior leaders also “pay us correctly and give us actual [health] insurance.”

Other troops resented feeling like a number or a political pawn in Abbott’s 2022 reelection campaign. Abbott is facing multiple challengers from his right in the Republican primary on March 1 who have criticized him for not being tough enough on the border. Many of the mission’s critics have condemned its scale as a political ploy, despite record migration at the border.

“Members feel like political [pawns] and do not feel like their [issues] are being heard,” said one airman.

Another decried how the mission “feels like being used for a political agenda.”

“Most of us signed up to help Texas in times of need like hurricanes,” the Guard member said. “This doesn’t feel like we are helping any Texans besides the governor and his ability to say he has activated the [Guard] to the border.”

Flagging morale

The mission’s shortcomings could exacerbate a deepening morale crisis in the Texas Guard.

“I support the mission and overall am glad to be part of it,” one Guard member said. “But morale issues are becoming critical and will get worse unless dramatic action is taken to get ahead of it.”

Following a string of suicides linked to the mission, there’s fear of future self-harm by members.

“I’m concerned with having members drinking without limits, knowing they have personal firearms [with them] and mental health struggles,” one airman explained. “With limited … access to mental health providers, and the rise in suicides on the Army side [of the mission], I feel we are doing nothing to prevent suicides coming to the 432nd.”

That airman called Operation Lone Star a “huge disappointment.”

“I never imagined members of the military would be treated so poorly[,] and I plan to leave the Air Guard after this because of how myself and others around me have been treated,” the member said.

Some respondents praised the effort and said they’d stay on as long as they could, despite the murky timeline and living with roommates or without a full kitchen. But more airmen indicated in the survey that Operation Lone Star will be their final mission in the Texas National Guard.

Military Times and the Tribune previously reported a recent trend of low retention numbers for the state’s Army Guard, while more troops leave critical fields like cyber warfare for the Air Guard as well.

Some are burnt out by the onslaught of missions and activations in recent years, from pandemic response to assistance in severe weather. Others worry their civilian lives have suffered too much.

According to one service member, multiple airmen had just returned from basic or technical training or a deployment, only to be pointed to the Mexico border during their first Guard drill back home.

“We’re going to lose a lot of good [airmen],” they said. “Why are we doing that to our members?!?!?!?”

Multiple people are bracing themselves to rebuild progress they’ve lost at their regular jobs when they return from the border. One airman, who called Operation Lone Star a “political mess between the federal and state government” now plans to separate from the Guard when their contract expires in 2023 after losing most of their clients from their civilian job.

“[Operation Lone Star] cares more about numbers than the impact on individuals and their families,” said one. “It does greater harm to our members than good by putting their families and own lives at risk for an unclear mission.”

Another said they hope other states learn from the mission’s troubles.

“We are disposable in the eyes of top leaders, from the governor on down,” declared the service member. “The leadership failures of this mission will be a case study for military leaders for years to come.”

José Luis Martínez contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/24/national-guard-Texas-border-morale-survey/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.