Gov. Abbott Orders South Texas Prison To Make Room For Undocumented Immigrants, TDCJ Says

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice began moving incarcerated people from the Dolph Briscoe Unit in Dilley on Wednesday as part of the governor’s Operation Lone Star initiative, announced in March.

The Dolph Briscoe Unit, in Dilley.
Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia
The Dolph Briscoe Unit, in Dilley.

Updated 4:37 p.m. CT

Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered the state Department of Criminal Justice to move inmates from a south Texas state prison to make room for immigrants who have crossed the border unlawfully, a department spokesman confirmed on Thursday.

TDCJ began moving incarcerated people from the Dolph Briscoe Unit in Dilley on Wednesday as part of the governor’s Operation Lone Star initiative, announced in March.

Department spokesman Jeremy Desel confirmed in a statement that those people will be moved to other prisons with available capacity, allowing the Briscoe unit “to serve as a central holding facility for non-TDCJ detainees who have been arrested and charged with a state offense.”

“The state of Texas continues to deal with a significant number of individuals illegally crossing the border,” Desel said. “To address the ongoing crisis, Governor Abbott is directing state resources to arrest and confine those individuals crossing the border unlawfully and who have committed a state or federal crime.”

The news was first reported by the Marshall Project.

In addition to the governor’s office, TDCJ is also working with the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management to enact the plan. Desel said the agency will provide “appropriate services to the population” by working with the Windham School District and the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Operation Lone Star came after the governor declared a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, and is a joint initiative with the DPS and the Texas National Guard. The program provides more border security resources to border areas, which Abbott called “high threat areas.”

Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the University of Houston Law Center's Immigration Clinic, said the operation raises serious constitutional concerns because the state can't enforce immigration laws.

“By engaging in this kind of incarceration, there is a possibility that it could be challenged under the supremacy clause,” Hoffman said. He added that there could be possible challenges under the equal protection and due process clauses, and the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The Texas Legislature recently approved a $250 billion budget that included $1.1 billion in border security funds for the state, some of which has gone to TDCJ.

News of the relocation comes one day after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would crowdfund a border wall project. The $250 million down payment on that project will come from TDCJ’s general revenue fund, though the governor's office called it a temporary use of funds.

The decision to order the movement of incarcerated Texans from the Briscoe Unit brought condemnation from immigrant and civil rights groups. In a statement, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center called on the Biden administration to intervene against Abbott and Texas Republicans over what the group called a mission “to unleash as much harm as possible against immigrants.”

“The administration must take action now and stop Abbott and other Texas politicians from their unhinged, racist, inhumane campaign before any more harm is done," said Carolina Canizales, ILRC senior Texas campaign strategist. "No one should be allowed to wage such a barbaric operation in the U.S. against vulnerable people."

ACLU Texas attorney Kate Huddleston said Abbott’s move unlawfully conflicts with federal immigration policy, and pointed to conditions in TDCJ — particularly a long legal battle over sweltering facilities with no air conditioning that led to the deaths of at least 10 incarcerated men — as evidence of a poor track record.

“Abbott's policy is unlawful and harsh,” read a statement from Huddleston. “He plans to take $250 million from TDCJ funding for his boondoggle of a border wall, while at the same time shoving immigrants into TDCJ jails. The federal government sets immigration policy, not the states. Abbott cannot unilaterally decide to arrest and jail immigrants, or to punish them harshly by jailing them in a state prison.”