Watch CBS News

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott defies Biden administration threat to sue over floating border barriers

Justice Department sues Texas over river barrier
Justice Department sues Texas over river barrier 02:44

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday defended the legality of floating barriers that state officials recently set up along the U.S.-Mexico border to repel migrant crossings, defying a Biden administration threat to sue the state over the river buoys.

Last week, top Justice Department lawyers informed Abbott and other Texas officials that the administration would file a lawsuit against the state unless it removed the barriers it deployed in the middle of the Rio Grande. The Biden administration argued the river barriers violate a federal navigable waters law, pose humanitarian challenges and impede federal law enforcement from apprehending migrants.

But in a letter to President Biden and other top administration officials on Monday, Abbott, a Republican, appeared to welcome a legal battle, arguing that Texas was using its "constitutional authority" to combat unauthorized border crossings.

"Texas will see you in court, Mr. President," Abbott wrote.

Hours after Abbott published his response, the Justice Department filed its suit, asking the federal court in Austin to force state officials to remove the buoys and block them from setting up similar structures.

The river buoys assembled earlier this month by Texas have ignited renewed criticism of the state's broader border initiative, known as Operation Lone Star. As part of the operation, Abbott has bused thousands of migrants to large Democratic-led cities, directed state troopers to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges and deployed members of the Texas National Guard to repel migrants through razor wire and other means.   

Buoys are placed on the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 15, 2023, to prevent migrants from entering the U.S.
Buoys are placed on the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 15, 2023, to prevent migrants from entering the U.S. SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images

A Texas trooper recently made alarming allegations about the state operation, detailing reports of migrants, including children and a pregnant woman, being cut by the razor wire and directives to withhold water from migrants and to push them into the Rio Grande. Texas officials are investigating the allegations, but have denied the existence of orders to deny migrants water or to push them into the river.

The state trooper also urged superior officers to remove the floating barriers, saying the structures force migrants to cross into the U.S. through parts of the Rio Grande where they are more likely to drown.

In his letter Monday, Abbott denied the Justice Department's argument that the river buoys violate the Rivers and Harbors Act. But he called that "a side issue."

"The fact is, if you would just enforce the immigration laws Congress already has on the books, America would not be suffering from your record-breaking level of illegal immigration," Abbott wrote. 

The White House has called Abbott's actions "cruel" and counterproductive, saying the river barriers have increased the risk of migrants drowning and obstructed Border Patrol agents from patrolling the river. The Justice Department has also been reviewing the reports about Texas officials mistreating migrants.

"While I share the humanitarian concerns noted in your lawyers' letter, Mr. President, your finger points in the wrong direction," Abbott said in his response. "Neither of us wants to see another death in the Rio Grande River. Yet your open-border policies encourage migrants to risk their lives by crossing illegally through the water, instead of safely and legally at a port of entry. Nobody drowns on a bridge."

Biden administration officials have sought to blunt Abbott's criticism by pointing to the dramatic decrease in unlawful entries along the southern border in recent weeks. Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants who entered the U.S. illegally fell below 100,000 in June, the lowest level in two years.

The administration has said the drop in illegal crossings stems from its revamped border strategy, which pairs programs that allow tens of thousands of migrants to enter the U.S. legally each month with stiffer penalties and stricter asylum rules for those who cross into the country unlawfully.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.