Justice Department threatens Texas with legal action over floating barrier in Rio Grande

Workers deploy a string of buoys to prevent migrants from swimming across the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass on July 14. On Thursday the U.S. Justice Department threatened Texas with legal action if it doesn't agree to remove the floating barrier. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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The U.S. Justice Department has threatened legal action against Gov. Greg Abbott over the 1,000-foot floating barrier that the state deployed in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass earlier this month.

“We write to inform you … that the United States intends to file legal action in relation to the State of Texas’s unlawful construction of a floating barrier in the Rio Grande River,” the Justice Department said in a letter sent to Abbott’s office on Thursday. The department gave the state until 1 p.m. Central on Monday to avoid legal action by responding with a commitment to remove the barrier.

“The State of Texas’s actions 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,” said the letter, which was signed by Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim and Jaime Esparza, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas.

The letter argues that the floating barrier was deployed without authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which manages the construction of federal public works projects, including bridges and dams — and violates the Rivers and Harbors Act, which prohibits obstructions in U.S. waters.

News of the letter was first reported by the Houston Chronicle.

Abbott released a response on Twitter, addressing President Joe Biden directly.

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

The floating barrier, along with razor wire installed on the riverbank, are the latest in a slew of measures that Texas has taken to control border crossings by migrants since Abbott announced Operation Lone Star in March 2021, shortly after Biden took office. Since then, Abbott has deployed state troopers and the Texas National Guard to the border, built new sections of border wall and sent more than 20,000 migrants on buses from Texas to big cities led by Democrats.

The Legislature has allocated nearly $10 billion for Abbott’s border security efforts so far.

“We’re securing the border at the border,” Abbot said in June when he announced the approach. “What these buoys will allow us to do is prevent people from getting to the border.”

U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, released a letter on Friday urging the Biden administration to investigate Operation Lone Star and pursue legal action to “stop the extraordinary cruelty against migrants.” Others who signed the letter include the entire Texas Democratic congressional delegation and the chairs of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Asian-Pacific American Caucus.

The Justice Department began investigating whether state troopers or National Guard members have violated the civil rights of migrants during Operation Lone Star, according to emails obtained last year by the Tribune and ProPublica.

And earlier this year, The Texas Military Department’s chief told Senate budget writers it would cost $459.3 million to keep thousands of active-duty troops on the border through the end of August.

Last week, a state trooper’s claims that superiors ordered officers at the border in Eagle Pass to push migrants back into the Rio Grande and deny them water sparked a national outcry.

“I believe we a have stepped over a line into the in humane. We need to operate it correctly in the eyes of God,” the trooper wrote in an email to a superior, which DPS provided to The Texas Tribune and was first reported by the Houston Chronicle. “We need to recognize that these are people who are made in the image of God and need to be treated as such.”

The trooper’s claims sparked a state investigation from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

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