The Justice Department on Monday filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas over the installation of a floating barrier meant to prevent people from swimming across the Rio Grande, arguing that the interconnected buoys placed in the river by the state violated federal law.
Lawsuit comes after Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced installation of 1,000-foot barrier this month, refused a Justice Department request to voluntarily remove the buoys, instead vowing to fight in court to keep them in place. Mr. Abbott blamed President Biden for the large number of migrants crossing the border illegally.
« If you truly care about human life, you need to start enforcing federal immigration laws, » Abbott wrote in a letter to President Biden on Monday. « Meanwhile, Texas will make full use of its constitutional authority to address the crisis you have caused. »
There has been growing outcry among Democrats and even some in Texas law enforcement over other increasingly aggressive tactics the state is using to block immigrants, including installing additional layers of wire along the banks of the Rio Grande. State police officers shouted at migrants to turn back and, in some cases, refused to provide water to people who asked for it.
In the buoy barrier lawsuit, the federal government argues that Texas is infringing a section of the Federal Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act prohibiting the placement of structures in waterways without federal approval.
« This floating reef poses a threat to navigation and public safety and presents humanitarian concerns, » Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. « Furthermore, the presence of the floating barrier has provoked diplomatic protests from Mexico and threatens to damage US foreign policy. »
The federal government is asking the court to force Texas to remove the barriers already installed and to ban the installation of new barriers in other parts of the river.
The emerging legal battle represents the first time the Justice Department has directly challenged Mr. Abbott over his efforts to enforce immigration laws, sending thousands of National Guard troops and state police officers to stop migrants from crossing into Texas. The multibillion-dollar program, which began more than two years ago, is known as Operation Lone Star.
The various deterrent tactics now employed by Texas authorities, described in interviews and internal emails between Public Safety Department officers that have been viewed by The New York Times, have been used at points along the border where illegal crossings are common, most notably in the small border town of Eagle Pass.
Several officials within the agency have expressed concern that the aggressive new approach, which began about two months ago and described by senior DPS officials as a « hold the line » operation, has resulted in injuries among migrants.
Border Patrol officials have also complained to Texas law enforcement, according to a memo sent to DPS and obtained by the Times, that the proliferation of accordion wires along the river, placed there by Texas National Guard troops, has made it more difficult for border agents to help migrants and could lead to more drownings.
On Friday, more than 80 Democrats in the US House, including all of Texas, signed a letter to Mr. Biden urging him to investigate Operation Lone Star and stop Mr. Abbott’s « Operation Lone Star » program.dangerous and cruel actions” affirming the federal government’s authority over immigration law.
The buoy barriers, announced by Mr. Abbott last month, cover only a small section of the 1,254-mile long border between Mexico and Texas. But their deployment was an opportunity for Abbott to issue a direct challenge to Biden on the border security issue.
The Texas governor, a Republican in his third term and a former state attorney general, seemed eager to start a legal battle with the Democratic president over immigration enforcement.
« Texas will see you in court, Mr. President, » Mr. Abbott wrote in his letter.
The federal government, in its lawsuit Monday, focused on buoy barriers and federal law surrounding navigable waters and did not challenge other tactics and policies employed by the Abbott administration as part of Operation Lone Star.