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3 migrants drowned near area where Texas has denied entry to federal border agents

Texas blocking feds from processing migrants
Texas blocking federal agents from processing migrants in border town park 03:45

Update: This story and headline were updated to reflect information shared by federal officials with the Supreme Court on Monday, Jan. 15. In that filing, the Justice Department said the three migrant drownings had already occurred when Border Patrol requested access to Shelby Park to help other migrants, though it did note it was "impossible to say what might have happened if Border Patrol had had its former access to the area."

A woman and two children drowned in the Rio Grande on Friday while trying to enter the U.S. near a section of the southern border where Texas National Guard soldiers have prevented federal Border Patrol agents from processing and rescuing migrants.

Federal officials and a Texas congressman said National Guard soldiers deployed by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did not allow Border Patrol agents to attempt to rescue the migrants. Texas officials denied the claims on Sunday. Earlier this week, Texas National Guard soldiers abruptly seized control of a public park in Eagle Pass that Border Patrol had been using to hold migrants, marking the latest escalation in an intensifying political and legal feud between Abbott and President Biden over U.S. border policy.

In a filing before the Supreme Court late Monday, the Justice Department said Border Patrol was notified by Mexican officials that the three drownings had already occurred when it asked Texas officials for permission to enter the area. Border Patrol was seeking to render aid to other migrants who were in distress. Texas has not denied blocking Border Patrol from entering the park on Friday.

"It is impossible to say what might have happened if Border Patrol had had its former access to the area — including through its surveillance trucks that assisted in monitoring the area," the Justice Department said Monday. "At the very least, however, Border Patrol would have had the opportunity to take any available steps to fulfill its responsibilities and assist its counterparts in the Mexican government with undertaking the rescue mission. Texas made that impossible."

On Friday night, Border Patrol identified six migrants in the Rio Grande who were in distress near the park, known as Shelby Park, Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar said in a statement Saturday. Federal agents, Cuellar added, unsuccessfully attempted to contact Texas state officials about the emergency by phone. Then, when Border Patrol agents went to the park and asked to be allowed to render aid to the migrants, they were denied entry, according to Cuellar.

"Texas Military Department soldiers stated they would not grant access to the migrants — even in the event of an emergency — and that they would send a soldier to investigate the situation," Cuellar said, noting that Mexican officials recovered three bodies on Saturday.

"This is a tragedy, and the State bears responsibility," he added. 

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, said Cuellar's description of the events was accurate. In a statement Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Texas officials obstructed Border Patrol's attempts to rescue the migrants who were in distress on Friday.

"Tragically, a woman and two children drowned last night in the Shelby Park area of Eagle Pass, which was commandeered by the State of Texas earlier this week," the department said. "In responding to a distress call from the Mexican government, Border Patrol agents were physically barred by Texas officials from entering the area."

White House spokesperson Angelo Fernández Hernández said Texas soldiers "blocked U.S. Border Patrol from attempting to provide emergency assistance" to the migrants. 

"While we continue to gather facts about the circumstances of these tragic deaths, one thing is clear: Governor Abbott's political stunts are cruel, inhumane, and dangerous," Fernández Hernández added.

The Texas Military Department, which oversees the state National Guard, confirmed in a statement on Saturday that it was contacted by Border Patrol on Friday night "in reference to a migrant distress situation." It said one of its units "actively searched the river with lights and night vision goggles" but found no migrants in distress or bodies.

The state National Guard soldiers ended their search after detecting Mexican officials "responding to an incident on the Mexico side of the river bank," the Texas Military Department added. According to the department, Border Patrol said Mexican authorities did not need help.

"(The Texas Military Department) maintains water rescue equipment and actively works with local EMS to aid migrants needing medical care," the department said in its statement late Saturday.

On Sunday, the Texas Military Department issued a second statement, this time disputing the assertions of federal officials. "Claims that [the Texas Military Department] prevented Border Patrol from saving the lives of drowning migrants are wholly inaccurate," the department said.

When Border Patrol requested access to Shelby Park on Friday, federal agents informed National Guard soldiers that Mexican officials were recovering the bodies of "two drowned migrants," according to the Texas Military Department.

"Border Patrol specifically requested access to the park to secure two additional migrants that were presumed to have traveled with the deceased, though had crossed to the boat ramp," the Texas Military Department said, adding that one of the migrants was turned over to state troopers while the other was transferred to emergency medical services due to "hypothermic conditions."

The Texas National Guard took control of Shelby Park late Wednesday, saying it was an operation designed to deter illegal crossings by migrants. The drastic move alarmed local officials in Eagle Pass, who said they did not approve it, as well as the federal government, which alerted the Supreme Court of Texas' actions overnight on Thursday.

Federal officials said Texas has used armed soldiers, vehicles and fences to physically block Border Patrol agents and at least one federal National Guard soldier from accessing roughly 2.5 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. One of the concerns raised by federal officials in a filing before the Supreme Court was that Texas' actions would prevent Border Patrol from helping migrants in distress.

On Saturday, DHS called on Texas officials to relent.

"Texas's blatant disregard for federal authority over immigration poses grave risks," the department said. "The State of Texas should stop interfering with the U.S. Border Patrol's enforcement of U.S. law."   

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