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Buoys at the border

A Texas initiative heightens the debate about national security and migrant safety

Buoy barriers in the middle of the Rio Grande river in Eagle Pass, Texas, July 18 Getty Images/Photo by Brandon Bell

Buoys at the border

The Lone Star State is again under fire for a new effort to block immigrants from illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott refused to dismantle a string of 4-feet-wide orange buoys bobbing in the middle of the Rio Grande near the town of Eagle Pass.

Earlier this month, the Texas Department of Public Safety began deploying the buoys in the river and placing razor wire along the border as part of its Operation Lone Star initiative, an attempt to deter immigrants from risking the river’s deadly currents. Instead, officials urge immigrants to make appointments at ports of entry using the CBP One app.

But the floating barrier secured to the bottom of the river with netting has raised questions about the state’s authority to intervene in the area, along with concerns that Operation Lone Star may be endangering immigrants.

Abbott placed the buoys after crossings slowed significantly following the end of the pandemic-era immigration policy Title 42, when the Biden administration adopted stricter penalties for immigrants who cross illegally. Still, illegal crossings remain high. In the Del Rio Sector, the border region where Texas installed the buoys, illegal crossings so far this year have already outpaced total crossings for 2021.

Numbers are likely to climb since a federal judge struck down the Biden administration’s new asylum rule on Tuesday, saying it imposed conditions that violate immigration law. The policy banned illegal immigrants from asking for asylum between ports of entry unless they could prove they were denied asylum in a third country on the way.

In response to the federal government’s warning about the barrier, Abbott pointed to the steady stream of illegal crossings and the danger that smugglers, triple-digit heat, and strong currents pose to immigrants. A record number of immigrants died trying to cross the border last year, and deaths continue to rise.

“The tragic humanitarian crisis on the border was created because of Biden’s refusal to secure the border,” Abbott tweeted. “His open border policies encourage migrants to risk their lives crossing illegally through the Rio Grande, instead of safely and legally over a bridge.”

Migrants aren’t the only ones in danger: Texas National Guardsman Bishop Evans died last year attempting to rescue two drowning immigrants near Eagle Pass.

The governor’s office directed me to Abbott’s official statement in response to my request for comment.

The Justice Department argued Abbott approved the buoys without obtaining the necessary public safety and environmental approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. White House spokesperson Abdullah Hasan told The Texas Tribune that the barriers are “making it hard for the men and women of Border Patrol to do their jobs of securing the border, and putting migrants and border agents in danger.”

“Texas will see you in court, Mr. President,” Abbott shot back in a letter to President Joe Biden. “In the meantime, Texas will fully utilize its constitutional authority to deal with the crisis you have caused.”

Joshua Treviño, chief of intelligence and research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, called the idea that the state cannot legally secure the border a “new contention” stemming from a 2012 Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. United States. That ruling declared states cannot implement their own immigration laws or enforce laws preempted by federal law. “We think that was a wrongly decided decision,” said Treviño. “Texas is setting up a challenge to that precedent.”

The state is also fielding a lawsuit from Eagle Pass resident Jessie Fuentes, the owner of a local kayak and canoe tour business. He questioned Abbott’s authority to install the barrier and claimed the buoys disrupt his business and destroy the river’s natural ecosystem.

Mexico filed an official complaint against the buoy system on June 26, pointing to a 1944 water treaty. The agreement requires Abbott to allow the International Boundary and Water Commission to research the barrier use and negotiate an acceptable arrangement with Mexico, said Stephen Mumme, a professor of political science at Colorado State University.

Another boundary treaty in 1970 prohibited building in or near the river in a way that could potentially obstruct the flow or change the boundary without the approval of the other country. “If Mexico tried to do something like this, the United States would be within its rights to protest,” Mumme said.

Amid the legal wrangling, a Texas DPS officer’s email to his superior has sparked broader humanitarian concerns about Operation Lone Star’s methods. Medic Nicholas Wingate said he and another trooper were ordered to push immigrants, including a mother and infant, into the water and tell them to “go to Mexico.”

He accused the agency of refusing to give immigrants water in triple-digit heat and blamed the rows of razor wire for a growing number of injuries. Wingate wrote that a pregnant 19-year-old got stuck in the wire, doubled over in pain while having a miscarriage, until state police cut her free. The troopers on the scene coordinated with Eagle Pass EMS to provide her care. Another man struggled to free his child from a wire-covered barrel in the river, lacerating his leg in the process. Wingate argued the razor wire and buoys make it more difficult to spot and rescue floundering immigrants.

“I truly believe in the mission of Operation Lone Star,” Wingate wrote, but added, “I believe we have stepped over a line into the inhumane. … We need to recognize that these are people who are made in the image of God and need to be treated as such.” Between June 24 and July 1, he said, five people had drowned.

Stephen Reeves thought about Wingate’s email last Monday evening as he put his children to bed, picturing the immigrant children his family had played with in Piedras Negras, the Mexican sister city across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass. Reeves is the executive director of Fellowship Southwest, an organization that supports border shelters and churches. “I prayed to God that one of the kids they were playing with wasn’t the one that got caught in a trap on a barrel,” he told me.

“Most of the folks in the shelters are trying to get an appointment,” said Reeves. “Their chances are better. But I also know that some folks are desperate.”

Reeves pointed out that U.S. asylum law permits immigrants to make an asylum claim on American soil whether or not they arrive through an official port of entry. He argued that rather than deterring desperate families from taking their chances with the river, the barriers endanger people who will try to cross anyway and enrich smugglers who convince immigrants that they need their help to cross. “It’s not stopping people. And they’re dying,” he said, arguing that there isn’t a humane way to deter people who are “running for their lives.”

Treviño with the Texas Public Policy Foundation argued that Texas’ efforts protect vulnerable immigrants. “As long as there is an avenue for trafficking, trafficking will persist with all the horrors attended to it,” he said.

Texas DPS said Wingate misunderstood the command to “push back” the immigrants. Lt. Christopher Olivarez told ABC in an interview that officers instructed migrants to cross legally at a port of entry and said the agency does not have a policy of physically pushing back immigrants. Olivarez denied Wingate’s claim that DPS refused immigrants water in over 100-degree heat.

The Wall Street Journal obtained emails from DPS Director Steven McCraw to several troopers confirming the department has seen an increase in injuries as a result of the razor wire. “Crossing through the concertina wire without protective gear is no doubt likely to result in an injury,” McCraw wrote. “This is self evident, but we need to ensure that migrants are reminded of this by signage and continued verbal warnings.”

McCraw said he would recommend the medical unit conduct a review of procedures. “The priority of life requires that we rescue migrants from harm and we will continue to do so,” he wrote.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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