Texas’ Governor Brags About His Border Initiative. The Data Doesn’t Back Him Up.

Photo illustration by John Whitlock for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune/The Marshall Project. Source images: Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune, Verónica G. Cárdenas for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Thomas King-Randall had been waiting for two hours to drop his daughters off at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Midland, Texas. It was 10:30 on a school night in August and it was her turn to care for the two girls.

The ex-girlfriend showed up drunk and was arguing with her new boyfriend in his truck, police later wrote in a report. King-Randall, who is Black, said in an interview that the woman’s Latino boyfriend called him a racial slur, which led to a fight.

By the end of the encounter, the woman’s boyfriend had a bloody nose and swollen eyes. King-Randall was gone, and local police issued an arrest warrant for the 26-year-old California native. A month later, Texas Department of Public Safety officers arrested King-Randall when he tried to renew his driver’s license.

King-Randall’s arrest was one of thousands used to bolster claims of success for Operation Lone Star. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott launched the initiative last March, citing an urgent need to stop the flow of drugs and undocumented immigrants into the state through Mexico.

But the alleged assault had nothing to do with the border. King-Randall, a U.S. citizen, was arrested more than 250 miles from the border with Mexico. Neither DPS nor the Texas Military Department, the state agencies carrying out Operation Lone Star, played a role in the investigation. And the family violence assault charge King-Randall faced wasn’t linked to border-related crime or illegal immigration.

Operation Lone Star has helped increase the state’s budget for border security to more than $3 billion through 2023 by deploying thousands of DPS troopers and National Guard members and allocating funding to build border barriers. As part of the operation, troopers are also arresting some immigrant men crossing into the U.S. on state criminal trespassing charges.

Abbott and DPS have repeatedly boasted in news conferences, on social media and during interviews on Fox News that the border operation has disrupted drug and human smuggling networks. A year into the operation, officials touted more than 11,000 criminal arrests, drug seizures that amount to millions of “lethal doses” and the referrals of tens of thousands of unauthorized immigrants to the federal government for deportation as signs that the program is effective.

But the state’s claim of success has been based on shifting metrics that included crimes with no connection to the border, work conducted by troopers stationed in targeted counties prior to the operation, and arrest and drug seizure efforts that do not clearly distinguish DPS’s role from that of other agencies, an investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and The Marshall Project found.

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Carbon Monoxide Killed a Mother and Daughter. A Firefighter Was Reprimanded After a Delayed 911 Response.

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The Houston Fire Department reprimanded a firefighter for misconduct after an investigation into a delayed 911 response to a case in which a mother and daughter died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The department opened the investigation in July, following reporting from ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News, which revealed that first responders initially decided not to enter a Houston family’s home during the massive winter storm that hit Texas in February 2021, a decision that resulted in a couple and their two children being exposed to the lethal gas for an additional three hours.

The fire department has not disclosed details of the investigation. In a letter to the Texas attorney general fighting the release of records to the news organizations, Houston officials wrote that state law prevents the public disclosure of records dealing with misconduct of a firefighter or police officer. But the letter states that the “allegations of misconduct in this investigation were sustained and disciplinary action was taken against the firefighter.”

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U.S. Plans New Safety Rules to Crack Down on Carbon Monoxide Poisoning from Portable Generators

The U.S. agency responsible for protecting consumers announced this week that it intends to recommend new mandatory rules to make portable generators safer, saying manufacturers have not voluntarily done enough to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning deaths caused by their products.

The announcement, part of a 104-page staff report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is a key step toward regulating gas-powered generators, which can emit as much carbon monoxide as 450 cars and which kill an average of 80 people in the U.S. each year.

The commission’s move comes more than two decades after U.S. regulators identified the deadly risks posed by portable generators and two months after an NBC News, ProPublica and Texas Tribune investigation found that federal efforts to make portable generators safer have been stymied by a statutory process that empowers manufacturers to regulate themselves, resulting in limited safety upgrades and continued deaths.

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Carbon Monoxide From Generators Poisons Thousands of People a Year. The U.S. Has Failed to Force Safety Changes.

Three days after Hurricane Ida slammed ashore on Aug. 29, leveling homes and knocking out power along the Louisiana coast, Craig Curley Sr. maneuvered through a packed crowd at Home Depot to reach the aisle with portable generators.

Curley, 50, snagged one of the last units in stock, a 6,250-watt Briggs & Stratton, and drove it to the home of his ex-wife, Demetrice Johnson, in Jefferson Parish.

He tried one last time to convince Johnson, 54, to take their children to stay with relatives in Houston as officials warned it might take weeks to restore power across the region. But she was adamant: With a generator to power her appliances, she felt safe staying.

That evening, Curley helped set up the machine in Johnson’s tiny backyard. He fired up the engine and hung around long enough to make sure the air conditioner was blowing cold. He showed his teenage son how to restart it, then headed home.

“If I’d known what I know now,” Curley said, “I never would have bought that damn thing.”

By the next morning, his ex-wife and their children, 17-year-old Craig Curley Jr. and 23-year-old Dasjonay Curley, were dead, poisoned by carbon monoxide that, according to fire officials, probably flowed from the generator’s exhaust and into the home through the back door.

Portable generators can save lives after major storms by powering medical equipment, heaters and refrigerators when the grid collapses. But desperate residents who rely on the machines to keep their families safe sometimes end up poisoning them instead.

The devices can emit as much carbon monoxide as 450 cars, according to federal figures. They kill an average of 70 people in the U.S. each year and injure thousands more, making them one of the most dangerous consumer products on the market.

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“People Will Lose Their Lives”: Texas Isn’t Doing Enough to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Deaths, Critics Say

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AUSTIN — More than five hours into a legislative debate on voting restrictions and border security last week, a Texas lawmaker made a last-ditch attempt to strengthen the state’s power grid and, in the process, prevent carbon monoxide deaths.

On Aug. 27, state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Democrat from Driftwood, just outside of Austin, offered an amendment that would redirect $250 million from a $1.8 billion border security bill to improve the reliability of the power grid. The measure, she told her colleagues, could keep “our citizens from dying during a winter storm from carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Zwiener’s amendment came months after an April investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News found that a weeklong February storm that left millions of residents without power had also resulted in the largest carbon monoxide poisoning event in recent U.S. history. At least 17 people were killed by the gas and more than 1,400 were hospitalized.

The investigation revealed weak links at every level of government, including that the state failed to regulate the power grid and lawmakers repeatedly declined to act on legislation that would have required carbon monoxide alarms in residences.

“There were a lot of people taking risks to try and stay warm enough. We’re honestly lucky we lost as few people as we did to carbon monoxide poisoning,” Zwiener said in a recent interview, adding that she had the news organizations’ latest installment of the investigation in mind when she proposed the amendment.

The amendment failed. The author of the border bill, state Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Republican from Friendswood, said he opposed taking funding away from border security.

In the six months since the storm, lawmakers have not taken any sweeping action to protect most Texas residents from carbon monoxide poisonings at home.

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