Authorities investigating allegations of 'inhumane' treatment of migrants at Texas border

A Houston Chronicle report alleged children were being pushed into the river and denied water amid the heat wave.

Paramedics move a young boy on a stretcher into an ambulance at night.
Darwin Varela is moved into an ambulance after suffering from dehydration on Tuesday in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Department of Justice and Texas authorities are looking into claims that asylum seekers were being abused at the United States-Mexico border.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star has come under renewed scrutiny this week following a Houston Chronicle report about migrants, including children, being trapped in razor wire and denied water despite the brutal heat wave engulfing the area. Democrats at the state and federal level have accused Abbott’s initiative designed to curb border crossings of failing to coordinate with federal authorities and obstructing Border Patrol authorities from helping migrants.

‘I believe we have stepped over a line’

 Victoria Varela places her hand on her son’s chest as he's treated for dehydration.
Victoria Varela with her son, Darwin, in the ambulance as he’s treated for dehydration. Victoria and her son were among a group of migrants who recently crossed the Rio Grande into the United States. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

On Monday, the Houston Chronicle published a story that said troops stationed at the Rio Grande border crossing were following orders that included pushing children and nursing babies into the river while denying migrants water in extreme heat. The paper later published the full report from a paramedic and trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) detailing the treatment of some of the asylum seekers, including a pregnant woman who was suffering a miscarriage while caught in the razor wire, some of which has been deployed as “traps,” with the wire wrapped around barrels floating in low visibility portions of the river.

“I truly believe in the mission of Operation Lone Star,” wrote trooper Nicholas Wingate in a July 3 email to a superior. “I believe we a [sic] have stepped over a line into the [inhumane]. We need to operate it correctly in the eyes of God. We need to recognize that these are people who are made in the image of God and need to be treated as such.”

In an email, DPS Director Steven McCraw called for an audit to see if anything could be done to reduce the risk to migrants, saying troopers should warn against crossing at the wire and redirect them to ports of entry.

In a separate email, McCraw wrote, “The purpose of the wire is to deter smuggling between the ports of entry and not to injure migrants. The smugglers care not if the migrants are injured, but we do, and we must take all necessary measures to mitigate the risk to them including injuries from trying to cross over the concertina wire, drownings and dehydration.”

Abbott, McCraw and other top state officials denied the report Tuesday, stating, “No orders or directions have been given under Operation Lone Star that would compromise the lives of those attempting to cross the border illegally.”


Migrants walk by a string of buoys placed on the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico.
Migrants walk by a string of buoys in the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Sunday. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images)

At Wednesday’s White House briefing, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about the reports and said Abbott has “treated this situation that we’re seeing at the border in an inhumane way,” calling it “atrocious” and a “political stunt.”

Earlier that day, the Department of Justice said it was assessing the situation at the border, with a spokesperson saying the department was “aware of the troubling reports” and was working with the Department of Homeland Security as well as other relevant agencies.

The DPS said Tuesday that it was launching its own inquiry, telling the Texas Tribune in a statement that it was “investigating the allegations made in the email in question,” but it asserted that “there is not a directive or policy that instructs troopers to withhold water from migrants or push them back into the river.”

Operation Lone Star

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott holds up signed legislation.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, at a news conference in June, holds up a bill said to be aimed at enhancing southern border security. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021 and has now made related disaster declarations for 48 counties along the border, giving authorities special power in those areas to operate on private property. Much of the efforts have focused on the area of Eagle Pass, located along the Rio Grande Valley about 140 miles southwest of San Antonio.

In June, Abbott announced that a thousand feet of floating buoys would be set up near Eagle Pass, anchored to the riverbed with netting underneath. The devices have raised concerns about the potential for drowning migrants as well as affecting the environment in the area by trapping fish and altering the flow of the river in a way that damages habitats and downstream bridges and dams. Mexico sent a diplomatic note stating its concerns regarding the barriers, saying that they violate a treaty that says the river needs to flow unobstructed. An Eagle Pass business owner has sued the state, telling reporters, “What are you guys doing? You have no authority. You’re overreaching, you’re overstepping it.”

The Chronicle spoke to a farmer who said officers were refusing to take down razor wire on his property along the river despite repeated requests to do so. Hugo Urbina, who farms pecans on 350 acres along the border, said he had initially given permission for the wire to go up but then asked for it to be removed last year due to the injuries it was causing migrants.

Asked about the request, DPS Regional Director Victor Escalon said, “It’s private property, so it goes back to the disaster declaration. We are preventing crimes from occurring; we are preventing bad things from happening in the community and other parts of the state.”