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Biden administration sues Texas over floating border barriers used to repel migrants

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

The Biden administration on Monday filed a lawsuit against Texas over floating barriers that state officials have deployed in the middle of the Rio Grande, seeking to force the state to remove the buoys that federal officials argue have endangered migrants and Border Patrol agents alike.

The Justice Department's nine-page lawsuit, filed in the federal district court in Austin, said Texas officials were required to request and obtain permission from the federal government before assembling the barriers, which were put in place earlier this month. The river buoys, the department argued, violate a long-standing federal law that governs structures in navigable waterways. The suit asked the court to direct Texas to remove the existing river buoys and to block the state from setting up similar barriers in the future.

"We allege that Texas has flouted federal law by installing a barrier in the Rio Grande without obtaining the required federal authorization," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. "This floating barrier poses threats to navigation and public safety and presents humanitarian concerns. Additionally, the presence of the floating barrier has prompted diplomatic protests by Mexico and risks damaging U.S. foreign policy."

The Biden administration last week said Texas could avoid a lawsuit if it agreed to remove the buoys. On Monday, however, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican and vocal critic of the administration, defended the legality of his state's actions and welcomed a legal battle: "See you in court, Mr. President."

Monday's lawsuit marks an escalation of a political showdown between the administration and Abbott over how the federal government has managed high levels of unauthorized crossings at the U.S. southern border since President Biden took office in 2021.

Operation Lone Star

The floating barriers are part of a larger, multi-billion-dollar initiative authorized by Abbott, known as Operation Lone Star, that has raised humanitarian and legal concerns related to the treatment of migrants. Abbott and other state officials have touted the operation as necessary to reduce illegal border crossings, saying the Biden administration has not done enough to deter migration to the U.S.

As part of Abbott's operation, Texas officials and members of the National Guard have been instructed to deter migrants from crossing to the U.S. by setting up razor wire on the riverbanks of the Rio Grande and to arrest migrant adults on state trespassing charges. The state has also transported more than 27,000 migrants to Chicago, Denver,  Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to protest "sanctuary city" policies that limit local cooperation with federal deportation agents.

Migrants walk by a string of buoys placed on the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 15, 2023, to prevent illegal immigration entry to the U.S.
Migrants walk by a string of buoys placed on the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 15, 2023, to prevent illegal immigration entry to the U.S. SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images

While Abbott has tied his state's actions to the record levels of migrant apprehensions reported over the past two years, unlawful crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border have recently plummeted. 

In June, the number of migrants apprehended by Border Patrol after crossing the southern border without authorization fell to just under 100,000, a sharp drop from May and the lowest level since the start of Mr. Biden's tenure, according to federal statistics. The decrease in unlawful crossings came after the Biden administration enacted stricter asylum rules for those who enter the country illegally and expanded efforts to direct migrants to programs that allow them to come to the U.S. legally.

While Operation Lone Star has faced criticism from migrant advocates and the Biden administration since it began in March 2021, the initiative recently came under internal scrutiny after a Texas state trooper and medic expressed concerns about state actions placing migrants in harm's way.

The medic's allegations included reports of migrant children and pregnant women being cut by the razor wire assembled by state officials. He also reported concerns about the river barriers forcing migrants to cross the Rio Grande in more dangerous parts of the river where they can drown.

The Texas Department of Public Safety announced an internal investigation into the medic's allegations, but has denied his accounts of state officials directing troopers to withhold water from migrants and to physically push them back into the Rio Grande. 

Robert Legare contributed reporting.

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