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Federal officials seek legal action against Texas for border policies

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The Biden administration is threatening to sue the state of Texas for placing floating border barriers in the middle of the Rio Grande, the latest sign of escalating tensions with federal officials over Gov. Greg Abbott’s crackdown on migrants.

Abbott (R) ordered the installation of a 1,000-foot chain of orange buoys in the river this month at a busy area for illegal crossings near Eagle Pass, Tex. State officials did not obtain permits to place the barriers in the international waterway, where construction is regulated by border treaties between the United States and Mexico.

The floating barriers “violate federal law, raise humanitarian concerns, present serious risks to public safety and the environment, and may interfere with the federal government’s ability to carry out its official duties,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Todd Kimm and Jaime Esparza, assistant United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas, in a letter to Texas officials sent Thursday.

The Biden officials gave Texas until Monday afternoon to respond with a commitment to quickly remove the barriers. If they don’t, “the United States intends to file legal action,” the letter states.

The floating buoys are 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 span of the border near Eagle Pass remains one of the busiest for illegal crossings despite the additional barriers. Immigrant advocates and human rights groups have raised concerns the floating buoys — which have a mesh barrier beneath the surface to block swimmers — will lead to even more drownings. Texas officials insist they will be a deterrent that reduces drownings by discouraging migrants from making the risky crossing attempt.

Abbott struck a defiant tone on Twitter in a series of postings Friday afternoon that indicated he would not remove the barriers.

“The tragic humanitarian crisis on the border was created because of Biden’s refusal to secure the border,” he wrote. “His open border policies encourage migrants to risk their lives crossing illegally through the Rio Grande.”

“We will continue to deploy every strategy to protect Texans and Americans — and the migrants risking their lives,” Abbott said. “We will see you in court, Mr. President.”

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Republican criticism of Biden’s border record has not abated despite a recent drop in illegal crossings, and the idea of a Democratic administration forcing state officials to remove barriers is the type of symbolism many of the president’s opponents have been eager to capitalize on.

But Biden officials have a balancing act of their own along a river way that is also a shared international boundary. Abbott’s floating barriers have angered Mexican officials and triggered diplomatic protests at a time when U.S. authorities say the government of president Andrés Manuel López Obrador is doing more than ever to help control unauthorized migration.

In a statement, White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan said Abbott’s actions were “undermining our effective border enforcement plan” and interfering with Customs and Border Protection operations.

“The governor’s actions are cruel and putting both migrants and border agents in danger,” Hasan said. “The Department of Justice made clear that it is prepared to take the governor to court if he doesn’t immediately remove the unlawful structures in the Rio Grande.”

The U.S. International Boundary Water Commission, which works with Mexican authorities to regulate activity and water use along the Rio Grande, has generally opposed the introduction of barriers into the river channel. Officials have cited the risk that man-made barriers and other obstacles can be swept downriver during floods, damaging private property and other infrastructure in both countries.

Frank Fisher, a spokesman for the commission, acknowledged Abbott’s announcement last month of his plans for the floating buoys “caught us by surprise.”

The Rio Grande provides water to millions of people on both sides of the border, accounting for about two-thirds of the 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexico boundary.

Matthew Nies, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, confirmed in an email Friday that the department had notified Texas “of our intent to pursue legal action related to unlawful construction of a floating barrier in the Rio Grande River.”

The letter, addressed to Abbott and Angela Colmenero, the state’s interim attorney general, said the floating barriers run afoul of the Rivers and Harbors Act, which prohibits the obstruction of U.S. waterways. An Eagle Pass business owner who offers kayaking and canoe trips along the river filed a separate lawsuit against Abbott this month over the floating barriers, which Texas officials say they want to expand.

The Justice Department officials say Texas also failed to get permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages reservoirs and levees along the river channel.

“Texas does not have authorization from the Corps to install the floating barrier and did not seek such authorization before doing so,” said the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post and first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

Abbott’s Operation Lone Star has been under increasing scrutiny this week after the 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 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.”

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.

Last month U.S. agents made 99,545 arrests along the southern border, the lowest one-month total since February 2021.

Perry Stein contributed to this report.

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