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Operation Lone Star touts big numbers. But are they real?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been a year since Texas launched Operation Lone Star. That is Governor Greg Abbott's hardline border crackdown on undocumented immigration. To mark the anniversary earlier this month, Governor Abbott gushed about its achievements.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Operation Lone Star has apprehended more than 200,000 illegal immigrants. That includes more than 9,000 felony charges and more than 11,000 criminal arrests.

CHANG: Those numbers that Abbott just touted make it sound like Operation Lone Star is working as intended. But how real are those numbers? Well, that is what Lomi Kriel dug into in a recent story for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. Welcome.

LOMI KRIEL: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So before we get into those specific numbers, can you just first explain what the overall goal is of Operation Lone Star?

KRIEL: So Texas Governor Greg Abbott said it was to stop the flow of drugs and migrants into the state. And so the operation started off small in South Texas but then massively ballooned over the past year.

CHANG: OK. So what did you actually find when you started examining these numbers that the state is announcing for all the arrests of undocumented immigrants and drug seizures?

KRIEL: What we found during our investigation was that their claims of success has been based on shifting metrics that included crimes with no connection to the border, work conducted by troopers stationed there prior to the operation and arrests and drug seizures that don't clearly distinguish the state's role from other agencies.

CHANG: OK. So if you start subtracting the cases that you found questionable, how many cases are we talking about here that were a result of Operation Lone Star?

KRIEL: We know that the numbers that the governor is citing doesn't take into consideration the more than 2,000 charges they later removed in December after we started asking them about it. And of that number, the felonies that he is citing - many of those crimes occurred hundreds of miles from the border and have no connection to the border or illegal immigration. The crime that does have a tie to illegal immigration is prosecuting migrants for trespassing across private ranches. It's a misdemeanor. And that misdemeanor makes up about 40% of the operation since July.

CHANG: And how did the state explain what you found?

KRIEL: The state explained to us that they were instructed last July to start counting most crimes in a 63-county region that is almost the size of Oregon. And those crimes, they said, were related to the border mission because it is within that area of interest for them. But when we delved a little bit deeper, we found many crimes that had absolutely no link to the border.

CHANG: Well, putting aside these potentially inflated numbers, is this program in any way actually slowing down illegal immigration or drug smuggling in Texas in any trackable way? Like, is there any credit that this program does deserve?

KRIEL: So not according to the metrics that we have been able to measure. For instance, the number of immigrants crossing into Texas hasn't particularly slowed down while the operation has been in effect. So, you know, the governor and the state claim that they're making a dent in human smuggling, drug trafficking and deterrence, but that is not what we have been able to find so far.

CHANG: That is Lomi Kriel, a reporter with the ProPublica-Texas Tribune investigative unit. This investigation was co-published with the Marshall Project. Thanks very much for your reporting.

KRIEL: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.