(EL PASO, Texas) — Gaston spent years as a human rights lawyer in Venezuela defending the political opponents of Nicholas Maduro’s regime — mostly students jailed for speaking out against the government plagued by corruption.
Gaston was worried it was only a matter of time before he ended up in a cell himself, so he fled the country and made his way to the U.S.-Mexico border, swimming across the Rio Grande.
Gaston, whose full name is being withheld over fears for his safety, planned to surrender to border officials and seek asylum in the United States. Instead, he was arrested by troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety upon his arrival and sent to an immigration detention center.
“I presented him with my credentials. ‘Look, I’m a lawyer, a human rights defender. Here’s my badge,’” Gaston recounted in Spanish, speaking with ABC News. “And all he said to me was, ‘I have to stop you. Put your hands behind your back.’”
Gaston spent five weeks imprisoned in the detention center.
He is just one of thousands of migrants detained through Operation Lone Star, a Texas-run border security initiative created by Gov. Greg Abbott in March 2021 to stem the influx of migrant traffic in the state.
The program authorizes the deployment of an estimated 10,000 soldiers from the Texas National Guard and Department of Public Safety, in addition to federal agents, to handle immigration patrol.
The operation’s goal is “to prevent the criminal activity along the border,” according to the Texas government website. But since only the federal government has the power to enforce immigration law, Texas troopers and state guardsman can only make arrests if migrants trespass onto private property.
“There wasn’t any there. No notice that said that was private property, or what,” Gaston said. “Neither that I have knocked down a wall nor that I have even penetrated a fence.”
“I can tell you that this is the most terrible discrimination that a human being deprived of his liberty can suffer,” he added.
Kristin Etter, an attorney who represented Gaston’s case against the state once he was detained, said he is one of many clients who were arrested “without probable cause,” some of whom have spent months in prisons awaiting trials, unable to afford bond.
“Texas has essentially militarized the border to make apprehensions and arrests primarily of migrants for criminal trespass offenses,” Etter said.
To date, the program has made just over 4,100 total trespassing arrests, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The strategy of expelling migrants does not appear to have curtailed immigration — but the price tag of funding the operation continues to go up with Texas taxpayers footing the bill.
Etter said Texas has spent more than $4 billion on Operation Lone Star, diverting funds from other areas in the state. And in late April, nearly $500 million in additional funding was approved by Abbott and state leadership for the program.
As Gaston’s asylum case moves through the federal courts, he said he hopes he can one day make a living for himself in the U.S. and support his family back home in Venezuela.
“It was through God’s Grace, he wanted my life to continue and help mine, to help my family, to help my country, and to stay here in the United States one way or another,” he said. “In spite of all that difference and all those events that have happened, thank God it didn’t go bad for me.”
ABC News’ Abby Cruz and Thomas Brooksbank contributed to this report.
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