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Serviceman had no life preserver; drowned while rescuing migrants
Senator questions ‘Lone Star’ but local DPS touts results
The death last week of a Texas Army National Guardsman in the Rio Grande River has sparked responses from both sides of the debate on the effectiveness of Governor Greg Abbot’s Operation Lone Star, aimed at reducing border-related crime and illegal immigration.
In an attempt to rescue two immigrants from drowning while crossing the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass on Friday, April 22, Specialist Bishop Evans removed his body armor and dived into the water. While the immigrants were rescued and remanded into custody by US border enforcement officers, Spc. Evans was pulled by the river’s current and vanished.
His body was recovered from the Rio Grande three days later, after a search had been activated involving agents from several law enforcement departments.
Texas Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol troopers and local law enforcement officers formed a fast-moving convoy Tuesday, April 26, to transport the serviceman’s remains to his hometown of Arlington, Texas.
Evans had been a member of Mansfield High School’s JROTC drill team and graduated in 2018. He joined the Texas Army National Guard in May 2019, according to the Texas Military Department, and served in Kuwait and Iraq.
Spc. Evans, 22, is being hailed by lawmakers and officers as a hero for his bravery in the rescue attempt and for placing the lives of others before his own as part of his duty in Operation Lone Star.
The Texas National Guardsman had been deployed to the border region this year alongside hundreds of other personnel from the state military and from law enforcement agencies to bolster security efforts during a surge in numbers of undocumented immigrants finding their way into South Texas, a crime wave in human smuggling and trafficking associated with the immigrant pressure on the border, and related crime and public safety issues resulting from the illegal border crossings.
While border counties such as Maverick and Webb have seen an increased law enforcement and military presence under Gov. Abbott’s orders, La Salle and Frio counties have been given assistance in combating smuggling and other illegal traffic, notably on IH-35 but also along state and local routes favored by smugglers and drug traffickers. Numbers of state troopers on continual patrol in the region have more than tripled during the joint-forces operation.
Spc. Evans’ death, however, has brought to light ongoing concerns among some lawmakers over the preparedness of the newly dispatched officers to handle situations involving safety risks.
The Texas National Guardsman was not equipped with a life preserver or any kind of flotation device that may have saved his life while he was trying to rescue drowning immigrants, according to Texas District 19 Senator Roland Gutierrez, who is demanding that the state provide documentation on safety supplies to service and law enforcement personnel on the border.
“For any member of our Guard or DPS who are sent to the border along the river to not be assigned basic, inexpensive safety equipment is unforgivable,” Sen. Gutierrez wrote in a prepared statement. He filed a public records request with the state on Tuesday, April 26, for information on provision of the equipment.
“Since I can’t seem to get a direct answer the nice way, I felt compelled to submit a formal request,” Gutierrez wrote. “Based on what my office has learned, we believe the death of Bishop Evans was avoidable if he had been provided with the proper equipment.”
Flags in Texas were ordered lowered to half staff last week in commemoration of the serviceman.
The senator noted that his research has revealed that “at least five service members” have lost their lives since Gov. Abbott’s Operation Lone Star began last year.
Gutierrez added that he believes there is low morale among the service personnel working in the operation, due in large part to what he described as “unclear objectives, poor living conditions, and service members being away from home as long as eighteen months due to their prior service along the Gulf Coast for hurricane relief.”
Gutierrez cited a “Texas border morale” poll conducted by the Texas Tribune in his challenge to the conduct of Operation Lone Star.
“The only person who doesn’t seem to understand what a colossal screw-up this entire operation has been from the very beginning is Greg Abbott,” Sen. Gutierrez wrote. “I represent about 500 miles of border and I formerly served as the chairman of the House Committee on Defense and Veterans Affairs. If I can’t get direct answers easily, what hope do journalists, family members and service members have of getting answers?
“Specialist Evans is a hero and I have an informed reason to believe that he was sent to that riverside without the proper equipment,” the senator added. “Spc. Evans deserved better, his family deserves answers, and I intend to make sure [that] if Abbott is going to send people into harm’s way, we are going to make damn certain they have the proper safety equipment.”
Texas Senate District 19 includes Frio, Dimmit, Medina, Zavala, Uvalde, Brewster, Crockett, Edwards, Kinney, Maverick, Pecos, Real, Reeves, Terrell, Val Verde, and Zavala counties, and portions of Bexar and Atascosa counties.
Gov. Abbott confirmed last week that he will divert $495.3 million to Operation Lone Star, the majority going to the Texas National Guard. To date, the state of Texas has expended $3.9 billion on the border security operation.
The governor issued a statement last Friday – two days before Operation Lone Star was due to run out of money – indicating that he intends to continue reinforcing the border.
“Texans’ safety and security is our top priority, and we will continue fighting to keep our communities safe,” Gov. Abbot noted in the statement published by the Austin American Statesman. “This additional funding ensures the Lone Star State is full equipped to provide Texans the border security strategy they demand and deserve.”
At the local level, Texas Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol Sgt. JD Rodriguez, based in La Salle County, said this week that he believes Operation Lone Star has been effective in helping stem the tide of human smuggling and narcotics traffic related to a surge in undocumented immigrants making their way through South Texas.
Sgt. Rodriguez’s office is tied closely to two branches of Operation Lone Star, covering the Del Rio and Rio Grande Valley sectors. Many of the additional DPS troopers dispatched to the border region have worked out of his base in the La Salle County Courthouse.
“We’ve had them all in here, working at one time or another, so yes, it’s been incredibly busy,” the sergeant said. “When they come here, they operate under their own supervisors, who accompany them, but our law enforcement efforts have been greatly boosted by the operation.
“We are confident that we have had a positive effect on border security, working alongside the US Border Patrol, the Texas Army National Guard, and local law enforcement agencies,” the sergeant said. “It’s been vital that we work as a team. That’s what has helped make this huge effort work.”
At his office in Uvalde, DPS Sgt. Juan Maldonado, public information officer for the region, described Operation Lone Star as having wide-reaching effect in the identification and tracking of criminal elements.
“Working with our partners, the Border Patrol and county agencies, we have arrested thousands of criminal suspects, not only in human smuggling cases but also for narcotics trafficking, sex offenders, and criminal gang organizations,” Sgt. Maldonado said on Tuesday. “In this respect, Operation Lone Star has been successful. All of these suspects have been entered into the system, some of them for the first time, and they can now be tracked. If they show up elsewhere, for example in northern cities, their criminal activity can be traced.
“Operation Lone Star has been a positive thing for South Texas,” the sergeant added. “We have been able to intercept this criminal activity whose perpetrators are endangering the public.”
Undocumented immigrants who are corralled in the operation are likewise added to a system that identifies them to other agencies, Maldonado said, and any criminal elements are tracked more easily and more effectively.
“This is a significant event,” the sergeant said. “We are trying to do what’s right for the state of Texas under Governor Abbott’s orders.”
Sgt. Maldonado contributed to a defense of Spc. Evans’ action on the banks of the Rio Grande, saying that he believes the guardsman did what he could to save the lives of others.
“Any normal person who sees someone in harm’s way will do anything to help,” Sgt. Maldonado said. “Specialist Evans was doing what he signed up for. He’s a hero in anyone’s eyes, regardless of where you stand on the political issues.”
Sen. Gutierrez is not the only challenger to aspects of Operation Lone Star that have affected South Texas lives and businesses as well as the careers of service personnel.
US Congressman Henry Cuellar, representing District 28 in South Texas, sent a letter to the Texas governor on April 13, demanding that Abbott order an end to what the US legislator described as duplicative inspections of commercial cargo by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
According to Rep. Cuellar, the secondary inspections had caused major roadway backups at arteries connecting the United States and Mexico. Those traffic jams, he said, had resulted in a drop in commercial traffic by 35 to 60 percent, which he said was affecting trade and the supply chain for consumer goods entering the United States.
The inspections were being conducted as an additional layer of security, as troopers carried out routine examinations of commercial vehicle equipment.
Rep. Cuellar challenged the effectiveness of the inspections in serving as any intervention in the smuggling of undocumented immigrants or narcotics into Texas.
“Requiring the Texas Department of Public Safety to conduct mechanical inspections (breaks, tires, etc.) does nothing to address Title 42 except provide costly delays to the United States supply chain,” the congressman wrote to Gov. Abbott. “Your duplicative mechanical inspections have been costly to the local, state and national economies. None of the violations from these inspections involve the smuggling of drugs or people.”
Title 42 forms a part of US immigration policy and dates to 1944, giving the government authority to expel immigrants based on a perceived risk of their spreading a communicable disease. The little-used portion of the law was reinforced during the coronavirus pandemic from 2021 onwards and enabled border authorities and law enforcement agencies to step up their blockade of immigrants and asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border.
The Pew Research Center reported on Wednesday, April 27, that enforcing Title 42 has given US Border Patrol agents “the authority to swiftly expel migrants trying to enter the US instead of allowing them to seek asylum within the country, as had long been the policy before the pandemic.”
Migrants expelled from the US under Title 42 are returned to their home country or most recent transit country. Since Mexico is the transit country that Central-American migrants cross before entering the United States, those who have traveled from Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador as refugees from drug- and gang-related violence may be rejected at the US border and forced back into Mexico.
“Part of the rationale for invoking Title 42 was to avoid holding migrants in crowded US immigration facilities as the highly transmissible coronavirus was spreading,” the Pew Research Center reported. “But some advocates, elected officials and others have criticized the policy as more of an effort to restrict immigration to the US than a public health strategy.”
Re. Cuellar pointed to statistics indicating that delays at the border resulting from the additional inspections had radically increased the amount of time it was taking commercial drivers to make their way to destinations in Texas and beyond. The congressman did not report finding any link between the purpose of Title 42 and the DPS inspections.
“These inspections have resulted in a significant increase in commercial wait times at ports of entry,” Cuellar wrote. “Since the inspections began, the Hidalgo/Pharr port of entry reached a peak wait time of 320 minutes. The average is 63 minutes. The result has been a 35-percent decrease in commercial traffic.
“Colombia Solidarity Bridge, which averages a 26-minute wait time, reached a peak wait time of 300 minutes and has seen over a 60-percent drop in commercial traffic,” the congressman added.
Gov. Abbott ordered the additional inspections to stop the following week.
“In the interests of all Texans, we must ensure that the state resources are deployed in the most effective manner possible,” Rep. Cuellar said, “and not to the detriment of the communities that we represent.”