UNITED STATES NEWS

Migrant deaths in Rio Grande intensify tensions between Texas, Biden administration over crossings

Jan 14, 2024, 5:37 PM | Updated: 9:10 pm

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — After Texas fenced off a park along the U.S.-Mexico border and began turning away Border Patrol agents, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott explained why at a campaign stop near Houston.

“We are not allowing Border Patrol on that property anymore,” Abbott said Friday, drawing applause from supporters while endorsing a state legislator running for reelection. He relayed frustration over migrants illegally entering the U.S. through the border city of Eagle Pass and federal agents loading them onto buses.

“We said, ‘We’ve had it. We’re not going to let this happen anymore,’” Abbott said.

Later that night, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said three migrants, including two children, drowned near the park after Texas officials “physically barred” Border Patrol agents from entering. Mexican authorities pulled the bodies, each of them wearing jackets, from the water on the other side of the Rio Grande.

The weekend deaths intensified tensions between Texas and the Biden administration. They also unleashed a new round of criticism from Democrats over Abbott’s aggressive actions to curb illegal crossings, accusing the measures of putting migrants at risk. U.S. authorities described the drownings as underscoring the need for Border Patrol agents to have access to the area around Shelby Park, which Texas closed off earlier this week.

“U.S. Border Patrol must have access to the border to enforce our laws,” White House spokesman Angelo Fernández Hernández said in a statement.

On Sunday evening, the Texas Military Department released a statement disputing the U.S. government’s accounts, calling it “wholly inaccurate” that state personnel prevented Border Patrol from saving drowning migrants.

“At the time that Border Patrol requested access, the drownings had occurred, Mexican authorities were recovering the bodies, and Border Patrol expressed these facts to the TMD personnel on site,” the department said.

The Biden administration stuck to its initial account Sunday, saying in a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that Texas denied Border Patrol agents access before they knew the migrants died. In a direct contradiction of Texas’ version of events, Homeland Security said agents at the time knew only that migrants were attempting to cross the river.

“Texas has demonstrated that even in the most exigent circumstances, it will not allow Border Patrol agents access to the border to conduct law enforcement and emergency response activities,” wrote Jonathan E. Meyer, Homeland Security’s general counsel.

Meyer threatened legal action if Texas doesn’t restore access by the end of Wednesday.

The park lies in a major corridor for migrants entering illegally from Mexico and is at the center of Abbott’s aggressive attempts to stop them, known as Operation Lone Star. Migrants are periodically swept away to their deaths by the current of the Rio Grande.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents a Texas border district, acknowledged Sunday that state officials investigated the distress call and searched for the migrants.

“However, the bottom line is that Border Patrol was barred from entering Shelby Park,” Cuellar said in a statement.

Texas officials said Border Patrol agents had requested access to find other migrants who were presumed to have been with those who died. Two were apprehended by state military personnel, including one who was transferred to medics with “hypothermic conditions.” The statement did not say whether Border Patrol agents were allowed in the park.

Over the summer, thousands of people were crossing illegally into the U.S. through Eagle Pass. The numbers subsided but again rose in December when thousands of migrants overwhelmed federal resources. But a sharp decrease was noted at the start of January after Mexico stepped up immigration enforcement.

The 50-acre (20-hectare) park is owned by the city, but it is used by the state Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to patrol border crossings. Earlier this week, Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas questioned why the state closed the park now, since daily apprehensions in the region have fallen in recent weeks. He said the state gave city officials no warning and offered no timetable on when the park would reopen.

On Friday, the Justice Department told the U.S. Supreme Court that Texas had taken control of Shelby Park and was not letting Border Patrol agents enter. Texas acknowledged seizing the city park but told the court the the federal government had mischaracterized its actions and that it was trying to resolve any disputes over access.

Texas has come under recurring scrutiny over efforts to curb border crossings. Abbott has sent more than 100,000 migrants on buses to Democratic-led cities, even as frigid conditions set in during the winter. He also has strung up razor wire on the border and installed buoy barriers on the Rio Grande.

Melissa R. Cigarroa, a city council member in Laredo and member of the No Border Wall Coalition, was among those who attended a vigil Saturday at Shelby Park to mark the deaths of migrants who have died along the Rio Grande. She said attendees passed through a gate with armed National Guard members and that they could see could see law enforcement officers and vehicles gathered near the river.

She said that scene, coupled with the reason for the ceremony, left her thinking about “just how little people’s lives matter in these decisions.”

“People are dying, and we know now that deterrents mean nothing,” she said.

___ Stengle reported from Dallas. Associated Press journalists Paul J. Weber in Austin and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this story.

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Migrant deaths in Rio Grande intensify tensions between Texas, Biden administration over crossings