Justice Department sues Texas over floating barrier on the Rio Grande
Abbott ordered the installation of a 1,000-foot chain of orange buoys earlier this month at a busy area for illegal crossings near Eagle Pass, Tex. The barrier is one component of “Operation Lone Star,” Abbott’s $4 billion campaign to bus migrants to northern U.S. cities while deploying Texas state police officers and National Guard troops to the border. Texas officials have lined the Rio Grande’s banks with new obstacles to the migrants, including stacked shipping containers and thickets of concertina wire.
The Justice Department says in its lawsuit that the barrier was built without the federal authorization that is legally required under the Rivers and Harbors Act, which bars the obstruction of U.S. waterways.
“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 announcing the lawsuit. “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.”
Biden officials had previously threatened legal action over the matter, giving Abbott until Monday to respond to a letter requesting that he commits to quickly removing the buoys. But the Texas governor continued to defend the use of floating barriers despite the threat of a lawsuit.
In a response letter addressed to the president, Abbott asserted that Biden was not fully enforcing immigration laws, writing, “Texas will see you in court, Mr. President.”
Asked to comment on the Justice Department’s lawsuit, the governor’s office responded by sharing a tweet from an interview with Fox News, during which Abbott said he is prepared to take the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.
“We will litigate initially in a federal district court in the state of Texas. If we lose there we will be going to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and eventually all the way to the United States Supreme Court because Texas is defending its sovereignty and its constitutional right to secure the border of our state and our country,” Abbott told Fox News’ Brett Baier on Monday evening.
Ahead of the lawsuit announcement, the White House reasserted the administration’s belief that Abbott is undermining federal immigration efforts.
“Governor Abbott is making it harder for the men and women of the Border Patrol [with] what he’s doing. … He’s literally operating in bad faith. That’s what this governor is doing while we’re trying to fix and deal with an issue, a broken system, an immigration system that has [been] broken for decades. And he’s undermining it,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday afternoon.
Operation Lone Star has been under increasing scrutiny this week after the Houston Chronicle obtained a July 3 email from a state trooper to his superiors describing “inhumane” treatment of migrant families who crossed the Rio Grande during an incident in late June.
The trooper, Nicholas Wingate, told a supervisor that he and another officer were ordered to push families with children back into the river so they would return to Mexico. Wingate also reported seeing migrants bleeding from the razor-wire and denied access to drinking water in stifling heat.
Texas state police officials said they have launched an inquiry into the allegations, and that troopers routinely rescue migrants in distress and provide aid.
A group of more than 85 Democratic lawmakers, led by Rep. Joaquin Castro (Tex.), sent a letter to Biden on Friday calling for the administration to investigate Operation Lone Star “and pursue legal action to stop the extraordinary cruelty against migrants.”
“Glad to see the Department of Justice take legal action to get @GovAbbott’s death traps out of the Rio Grande,” Castro tweeted Monday evening. “Abbott’s barbaric actions are a clear abuse of power that have put lives at risk, and @POTUS must directly condemn this political stunt.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has spent years focusing on immigration policy, tweeted Monday that he was glad the Biden administration “is working to hold @GovAbbott accountable for his inhumane & cruel migration policies that jeopardize the safety and well-being of migrants, many of them women & children fleeing violence & persecution.”
Illegal border crossings have fallen sharply since May 11, when the Biden administration implemented new measures offering more opportunities for migrants to enter the United States lawfully while increasing penalties and deportations for those who break the rules.
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.