Texas' top general says Operation Lone Star needs another $531 million to keep going

AUSTIN — The military deployment to the southern border will run out of money in less than a month and the state will need to be allocated more than a half-billion dollars to keep the operation funded through August, the new commander of Texas forces told a legislative panel Tuesday.

"We're currently funded through 1 May, and so we will need additional $531 million to continue through the end of the state fiscal year," Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, who last month was appointed adjutant general of the Texas National Guard, said in testimony before the Senate Border Security Committee.

The three-member panel was examining issues surrounding Operation Lone Star, an initiative Gov. Greg Abbott launched last year in an effort to help stem the flow of illegal immigration from Mexico. Members of the National Guard, along with troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas State Guard, are assigned to enforce state laws but not to enforce federal immigration law.

A U.S. National Guard member keeps watch while on a border patrol operation on Nov. 18, 2021, in La Joya, Texas.
A U.S. National Guard member keeps watch while on a border patrol operation on Nov. 18, 2021, in La Joya, Texas.

So far, the state has appropriated $3.9 billion for the operation.

Committee members noted that because the Legislature does not meet next until January 2023, state leaders will likely have to shuffle money that was appropriated for other purposes last legislative session to cover Operation Lone Star expenses until the state's fiscal year ends Aug. 31.

Immigration policies: Gov. Greg Abbott, 10 GOP governors to talk in South Texas

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, questioned how much the operation is going to cost the state over the long haul.

"How long can we sustain the cost?" Hinojosa said. "We already spent $3.9 billion and now we are going to spend another billion, 2 billion for the rest of the year? And we haven't even started the next fiscal year. So I think those are very important questions."

The operation, which includes 6,383 military troops in several border counties and about 3,500 activated elsewhere to support them, has been beset by controversies in recent months amid reports that some soldiers had not been properly paid by the state while others told media outlets they have little to do and feel as if their deployment was politically motivated.

Hinojosa said he was concerned that too many troops are being assigned little more than paperwork duties and that some are assigned to patrol large private ranches in counties well north of the Rio Grande.

"Those are issues that you all need to review very closely and try to reduce the number of troops and costs," Hinojosa said. "One of the issues I'm trying to address is the constant complaint from National Guard troops is that they really don't have anything to do. They're really bored to death just sitting there doing nothing."

Sen. Brian Birdwell, the Granbury Republican who chairs the Border Security Committee, said correcting the payroll problems is vital to troop morale.

"These folks that are in the Guard, many live from paycheck to paycheck and a hiccup (in pay) causes a ripple," Birdwell said. "It's not just, 'Oh, gosh, money is short.' It ripples through the entire family structure."

Suelzer said that since taking over, he has ordered what he called an "assessment" to improve operational efficiency and troop morale. He and Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, the Texas Guard's deputy adjutant general, also said that the military department's antiquated payroll system is being retooled and that many of the pay issues have been resolved.

Suelzer also noted that it is not unusual for the pace of military operations to swing back and forth between periods of intense action and extended lulls. They said thousands of migrants have been apprehended for violating state trespassing laws and that "millions of lethal doses of fentanyl," an opioid considered up to 100 times stronger than morphine, have been seized during the operation.

The general also said that since the operation launched, more than 20 miles of fencing has been constructed on private land near the Rio Grande and that an additional 55 miles is being planned.

COVID outbreak. Suicides. : Shoddy living conditions. Texas National Guard troops voice border mission mistreatment.

Beginning late last year, the Army Times and other news organizations have reported what has been an alarming number of suicides among Operation Lone Star troops where deployments have lasted far longer than those when the National Guard is activated for natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Story continues below.

Birdwell, a retired Army officer who was serving in the Pentagon when the complex was hit in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, asked for an honest accounting of the suicides.

Suelzer called suicides among young American, civilian and military alike, "a public health crisis." He said the suicide rate in the Texas National Guard over the past two to three years is below the military's overall rate.

"But it continues to be a problem," Suelzer said. "So we need to do better. Part of the things you've heard today is putting behavioral health people down on the mission, chaplaincies down on the mission.

"The other thing is a leader issue. We need leaders reaching out and knowing who their troops are and what's going on in their lives."

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Texas senators question generals on Gov. Abbott's Operation Lone Star