AUSTIN, Texas — A year into the state's billion-dollar operation to secure its border with Mexico, leaders say the most significant indicator of success has not been the drugs seized or illegal immigrants apprehended but the lack of caravans showing up at their doorstep.

In sit-down conversations, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said the proof that Operation Lone Star has borne positive results might not be apparent to the public. Still, they maintained that it has effectively deterred large groups from crossing into places such as Arizona.

“Because of the way that we increased our numbers on the border — the enforcement both by the National Guard, as well as Department of Public Safety, since the large gathering of Haitians — there have been no other caravans come across the border despite there having been announcements that those caravans were coming,” Abbott said during an interview at his office in Austin in March.

“When all this first began ... a lot of the border crossings were in the Rio Grande Valley area. So, we surged resources there,” said Abbott. “The more we disrupted their activities in the Rio Grande Valley, they were forced to move to Del Rio. And then, as we surged resources in Del Rio ... they did go to Yuma [in Arizona], but also they went to further West Texas.”

Texas makes up 1,250 miles of the 2,000-mile southern border. More than half of the 800,000 people apprehended trying to enter the United States illegally from Mexico between ports of entry since the start of fiscal 2022 last October were stopped in Texas.

Illegal immigration at the southern border began to rise to historic highs last March. Federal law enforcement up and down the 2,000-mile southern border went from encountering fewer than 75,000 noncitizens in December 2020 to topping 150,000 — even 200,000 — each month over the past year, according to federal data. The two-term governor announced Operation Lone Star that month, sending state National Guard and state police to assist federal agents who were increasingly pulled from the border to transport, process, and detain those in its custody.

“Because Biden has Border Patrol babysitting people who are coming across the border and doing paper, processing work, it is Texas law enforcement that has to fill the gap that's left open,” said Abbott.

Abbott has sent more than 10,000 state troopers and state National Guard soldiers to stand guard at the border, stop human smuggling attempts via highways, install fences, and detain illegal immigrants. The state has made nearly $3 billion available to cover the initiative, as well as Abbott's promise to finish former President Donald Trump's border wall, of which 1,100 miles across Texas are unfenced.

State officials were thrown a curveball six months into the operation as tens of thousands of primarily Haitian migrants began coming across the Rio Grande and set up an encampment under the international bridge that links Del Rio, Texas, to the Mexican border city of Acuna.

Absent a federal response, Abbott surged 1,000 state troopers to Del Rio. They created a wall of vehicles to deter more people from crossing, ultimately allowing the Border Patrol to get a hold of the situation and process through the estimated 15,000 people living under the bridge.

As the situation came under control in late September, state officials began to get ready following reports that roughly 60,000 Haitians were traveling from South America and headed to Del Rio. It would be the most significant surge of migrants ever attempting to enter the country illegally from Mexico.

“We had to dramatically increase what we were doing on the border when we saw what was happening with the massive number of Haitians who were gathered under a bridge down by the Del Rio area, and at the time, we had additional caravans on their way to Texas,” Abbott said.

According to federal data, the number of known illegal crossings, or how many noncitizens are taken into custody near Del Rio, dropped weeks later, from 43,000 in September to 28,000 in October. Over in Arizona, Haitian crossings began to rise.

"Better there than Texas from our standpoint," McCraw said. "Deterring them from coming is the optimum solution for us."

While migrants intent on entering the U.S. have tried to do so in Texas regions of the border more than any other spot, officials maintained that their efforts have also had precise results. Texas troopers and soldiers have stopped more than 225,000 people who had slipped past the limited number of Border Patrol agents in the field and would not have been apprehended if not for Operation Lone Star.

“These were the gotaways,” said former U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott during remarks at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s summit in Austin earlier this year. “These would be people that are in our country wandering around with whatever's on their back.”

More than 13,000 of the 225,000 figure were arrested on criminal charges such as trespassing on private land, of which 10,400 have been charged with a felony, according to the DPS. Nearly $30 million in cash and 3,500 weapons have been seized. Authorities are heavily present on interstates and country roads near the border and counties far north of the border. They have also touted seizing 160 pounds of fentanyl as of January. The fentanyl is often interdicted hundreds of miles north of the border while being transported deeper into the country.

"We have crime corridors that flow through Texas," said McCraw. "We're interdicting actually more methamphetamine outside the [border] area of operation than we are inside the area of operation. We've knocked off smugglers from El Paso, human smugglers from El Paso in Amarillo, the Panhandle, headed to Dallas."

In December, the state began installing a border wall that was left over from Trump-era projects that the Biden administration barred from being carried out. The fence panels are going up along two miles of border in the Rio Grande Valley.

For the successes that Abbott and McCraw claimed, Operation Lone Star is not without controversy. In January, 13 Democratic state lawmakers called for an inspector general investigation into the operation following media reports of poor living and working conditions for the soldiers deployed, compensation problems, and suicides among soldiers sent to the border.

The liberal nonprofit group Every Texan, formerly known as the Center for Public Policy Priorities, is concerned about Abbott's plan to put up more border wall in addition to the 450 miles that went up during the Trump administration. They say it will make it more difficult for federal and local authorities to respond to the influx of migrants crossing because the fence pushes people out into the desert.

“There's clearly an increase of migration in rural, remote parts of Texas,” said Luis Figueroa, legislative and policy director for Every Texan. “The border wall has exasperated that problem. It used to be the migrants would come to urban areas that are better equipped to handle these huge influxes, such as El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. But with the increase of fencing, walls ... it has now moved to more rural areas, which has resulted in ranchers seeing these increasing migrations.”

Figueroa also pointed to the amount of money spent on overtime pay for DPS as being wasteful. Roughly $105 million has been spent on DPS's role in Operation Lone Star over the past year, including $65 million that went to overtime. McCraw said having officers work overtime helps maintain the presence of 2,000 DPS employees assigned to Operation Lone Star for up to two weeks at a time.

Despite Democrats’ concerns, Abbott has no plans to walk back Operation Lone Star.

“We see a need for Texas to continue to do what the Biden administration is not doing, and that is securing our border until such time as we have a president who will actually step up and follow and apply the laws of the United States Congress,” said Abbott. “It could happen before three years because what is likely going to happen is Republicans are going to regain control of Congress. And when they do so, finally, we're going to have people in Congress who are holding the president accountable.”

“This money would be better spent on the learning losses from the pandemic and on healthcare costs specifically to implement Medicaid expansion. That would have way bigger implications for the billions of dollars that are being used now,” said Figueroa. “[It] wasn't having any deterrent implications. local sheriffs there were complaining that they were taking credit for their work. They were not able to do any actual immigration enforcement, and large parts of the funds are going towards overtime.”

Abbott will face Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke in November. According to recent polls, the incumbent has an average 7-percentage-point advantage over O’Rourke.