Feds Tell Texas to Stop Securing the Border, Wrongly Blame Them for Migrant Deaths
“The U.S. Constitution tasks the federal government with regulating immigration … and securing the Nation’s borders,” a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) informed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) in a January 14 letter, giving Texas until Wednesday to cease-and-desist its latest and boldest attempt to secure the border by shutting federal agents out of an illegal crossing hotspot in Eagle Pass, Texas. In other words, Texas is doing for them the job the Biden administration refuses to do, and the Biden administration is threatening another lawsuit over it.
In the letter, the Biden administration yet again turned to fiction to excuse the inexcusable, distorting the facts surrounding the drowning deaths of three migrants in the Rio Grande River in an opportunistic ploy to threaten the state of Texas with yet another border-related lawsuit.
“Upon learning … that a group of migrants was attempting to cross the river, Border Patrol contacted Texas officials and requested access to the border. Texas refused,” the letter alleged. “Later, a rescue team from Mexico was able to rescue two individuals from the group, both with signs of hypothermia. Three individuals drowned. Texas has demonstrated that[,] even in the most exigent circumstances, it will not allow Border Patrol access to the border to conduct law enforcement and emergency response activities.”
Texas continues to devise creative new strategies to meaningfully stem the flood of migrants illegally entering the country due to the Biden administration’s deliberately borderless regime. Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to devise creative new narratives to shirk its responsibilities. Or, more precisely, it outsources the creation of these narratives to immigrant groups, the media, and other third parties.
The controversy began on Thursday of last week, when the Texas Department of Public Safety took over Shelby Park. Texas agents installed concertina wire along a 2.5-mile stretch of the Rio Grande, preventing migrants from reaching Texas and preventing CBP officers from escorting the migrants into the U.S. — which seems to be the only thing they’re allowed to do under the Biden administration. The move was part of Governor Greg Abbott’s (R) “Operation Lone Star,” a multi-billion state effort to check the flow of illegal immigration; Abbott renewed his emergency disaster declaration related to the border crisis on December 19, 2023.
Shelby Park is a city-owned park in Eagle Pass, Texas, which the Associated Press described as “a major corridor for migrants entering illegally from Mexico.” Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents have used its flat, open space along the river as a migrant processing center. The park sits directly underneath two bridges that provide international points of entry. So, by definition, anyone attempting to swim through the river instead of crossing the bridges is going out of their way to enter the country illegally. Texas officers fenced off a 2.5-mile-long stretch of waterfront, which includes Shelby Park and some adjacent land, some of which is federally owned.
On Friday night, a 33-year-old woman and her two sons attempted to swim across the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, were caught in the frigid midwinter current, and drowned. These three fatalities brought the total up to six fatalities in 12 days on the Coahuila-Texas border (Coahuila is a Mexican state that shares a border with Texas from Big Bend to south of Eagle Pass). Two other family members were rescued by Mexican authorities and treated for hypothermia.
Although Texas’s seizure of the park had no relationship to the migrants’ deaths, almost immediately, voices on the Left determined to weaponize the incident against the state. “This is a tragedy, and the State bears responsibility,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) claimed. “Border Patrol personnel were forced out of Shelby Park earlier this week by the Texas National Guard under order of Governor Abbott. As a result, Border Patrol was unable to render aid to the migrants and attempt to save them.”
Most of Cuellar’s statement recounted the facts of the incident, with numerous inaccuracies, noted in brackets:
“Border Patrol learned on Friday, January 12, 2024, at approximately 9:00 P.M., that a group of six migrants were in distress as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande River [this is not consistent with what Mexican officials told CBP]. Border Patrol attempted to contact the Texas Military Department, the Texas National Guard, and DPS Command Post by telephone to relay the information, but were unsuccessful. Border Patrol agents then made physical contact with the Texas Military Department and the Texas National Guard at the Shelby Park Entrance Gate and verbally relayed the information. However, Texas Military Department soldiers stated they would not grant access to the migrants [CBP agents] — even in the event of an emergency — and that they would send a soldier to investigate the situation. Earlier today, Saturday, January 13, 2024, the three migrant bodies were recovered by Mexican authorities [actually it was less than an hour later].”
The implication of Cuellar’s statement was: as the migrants sat dying in the river, Texas state agencies blocked Border Patrol agents from coming to their rescue. This is simply not true, as will be explained in a moment. But first, it’s important to see how the narrative exploded first.
A DHS spokesperson also placed the blame on Texas in a Saturday statement. “In responding to a distress call from the Mexican government, Border Patrol agents were physically barred by Texas officials from entering the area,” he said. “The Texas governor’s policies are cruel, dangerous, and inhumane, and Texas’s blatant disregard for federal authority over immigration poses grave risks. The State of Texas should stop interfering with the U.S. Border Patrol’s enforcement of U.S. law.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) echoed the expanding narrative, with an even worse factual error. His office released a statement “following reports that a mother and her two children drowned after Texas officials refused to allow federal Border Patrol agents to access the Rio Grande River.” (Emphasis added.) Castro demagogued, “This is what Operation Lone Star looks like on the ground. Texas officials blocked U.S. Border Patrol agents from doing their job and allowed two children to drown in the Rio Grande. Governor Abbott’s inhumanity has no limit. Everyone who enables his cruelty has blood on their hands.”
The media also ran with the narrative, without taking care to get their facts straight. The Texas Standard ran a story titled, “CBP: Three migrants drown in Rio Grande after Texas blocks Border Patrol from rescue.” (Emphasis added.) That story continued (or was later amended) to disprove the headline: “the three migrants had already drowned by the time it received the request for access from Border Patrol.”
If anyone would have bothered to check Texas’s side of the story, they would have seen this right away. According to a statement released Saturday by the Texas Military Department (TMD), Border Patrol agents notified TMD quickly — “at approximately 9 p.m.” — despite the failed attempts at phone contact. TMD “actively searched the river with lights and night vision goggles,” in hopes of finding the migrants. However, “at no time did TMD security personnel along the river observe any distressed migrants.” Then, “at approximately 9:45 p.m.,” TMD noticed activity on the Mexico side, which turned out to be Mexican authorities rescuing the migrants and attempting to resuscitate the three that drowned, at which point they ceased operations.
Given these facts, it’s hard to find any basis to argue the outcome would have been different if CBP officers had been allowed to participate. To further dispel the false narrative that Texans don’t care about migrant lives, the state agency added, “TMD maintains water rescue equipment and actively works with local EMS to aid migrants needing medical care.”
Even after TMD’s statement, however, the Left persisted with their Texas-thumping narrative. A White House Spokesman reiterated Sunday, “On Friday night, a woman and two children drowned near Eagle Pass, and Texas officials blocked U.S. Border Patrol from attempting to provide emergency assistance.” He added, “While we continue to gather facts about the circumstances of these tragic deaths, one thing is clear: Governor Abbott’s political stunts are cruel, inhumane, and dangerous. U.S. Border Patrol must have access to the border to enforce our laws.”
Readers with long memories (at least two years), may recall the DHS “whipping” hoax, where the Left frothed up a media frenzy over a photo that allegedly showed DHS agents on horseback lashing dark-skinned migrants from Haiti with their reins. “It’s outrageous. I promise you those people will pay,” reacted President Biden, whose take was affirmed by DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, while Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) claimed the incident was worse than slavery. The only problem was, the photographer who had snapped the action shot said he “saw no whipping” — and the Biden administration knew that before promising to punish the agents involved, which they eventually did.
The DHS followed up the White House’s statement on Sunday with a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that Texas restore the Biden administration’s access to the border. “The recent actions by the State of Texas … conflict with the authority and duties of Border Patrol under federal law and are preempted under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. Texas’s actions also improperly seek to regulate the federal government,” it argued. It gave Texas until “the end of the day” on Wednesday to comply with the ultimatum.
In a follow-up statement issued Sunday, after “a thorough review of the circumstances,” TMD pushed back even harder. “Claims that TMD prevented Border Patrol from saving the lives of drowning migrants are wholly inaccurate,” they argued. “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.”
“Border Patrol specifically requested access to the park to secure two additional migrants that were presumed to have traveled with the deceased, though had crossed to the boat ramp,” TMD added. “Two migrants were apprehended by TMD, with one turned over to DPS and the other transferred to EMS in response to initial hypothermic conditions.” These details about a sixth and seventh migrant making the wintry, night crossing remain nearly unreported.
After Texas called them on it, the federal government finally admitted to the real timeline of events. “More than likely, they probably had already drowned,” a CBP source said Monday. However, this source again tried to lay the blame on Texas, alleging that the additional time needed to phone over and then explain the situation across a closed gate “exhausted” precious minutes. “It only takes a few minutes in that current to go under and disappear,” he added.
However, the one place the federal government had to tell the whole truth was in court filings. “At approximately 9:00 p.m., Mexican officials advised Border Patrol of two migrants in distress on the U.S. side of the river. … Mexican officials also informed Border Patrol that three migrants — one woman and two children — had drowned at approximately 8:00 p.m. in the same area,” the government admitted in a supplemental filing to the Supreme Court regarding a separate lawsuit against Texas. “An Acting Supervisory Border Patrol Agent went to the Shelby Park entrance gate and informed the guardsmen from the Texas National Guard stationed there of the drowned migrants and the migrants in distress.”
“The following day, Mexican officials confirmed to Border Patrol that the two migrants who Mexican officials had reported were in distress on the U.S. side had attempted to return to Mexico and were rescued by a Mexican government airboat while suffering from hypothermia,” the filing went on. “Mexican officials also confirmed that they had recovered the bodies of the three drowned migrants and had rescued two additional migrants who had attempted to cross that night.”
“The filing contradicts earlier mainstream reporting and statements made by Representative Henry Cuellar (D., Texas),” noted National Review’s Zach Kessel, “as well as a cease-and-desist letter to Texas attorney general Ken Paxton written by U.S. Department of Homeland Security general counsel Jonathan Meyer ordering Texas to stop preventing Border Patrol officials from accessing a section of the state’s border with Mexico.”
“Turns out @RepCuellar (& some media) were so eager to point finger at Texas for drowning of migrants they forgot to get the facts,” Abbott tweeted. “When BP requested access to river the drownings had already occurred & [the bodies were] found in [Mexico]. The fact is[,] the deaths are b/c of Biden’s Open Border magnet.”
Texas has dramatically stepped up its efforts to secure the border, expending state funds to deploy a floating buoy barrier, miles of razor wire, and the National Guard to the border. But, every time Texas has tried to close the border, the Biden administration has tried to stop them. The federal government is currently asking the Supreme Court to allow CBP agents to cut concertina wire strung by Texas state officials, to allow them to process migrants into the country. The federal government is also currently winning a lawsuit to force Texas to remove the floating barrier, arguing that it makes the river unnavigable. On January 3, the federal government filed a third lawsuit to block Texas SB 4, a bill that would make illegal entry “from a foreign nation” a state misdemeanor and illegal reentry a state felony.
Of course, the background to all of this is that DHS Secretary Mayorkas “refuses to execute the law of the land, that the [Secure] Fence Act of 2006 requires him to maintain operational control of the border,” complained Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). Articles of impeachment have been introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives over his dereliction of duty. If the federal government was doing its job to secure the border, Texas wouldn’t have to.
Last week, Mayorkas complained in a speech at Eagle Pass that his inability to secure the border is due to not having enough officers to secure it correctly. If that were true, then he would welcome Texas’s help and additional manpower is tackling the huge task. Instead, he is throwing every obstacle in the way of Texas, while removing every obstacle in the way of the migrants.
No wonder Abbott vowed of Shelby Park, “We are not allowing Border Patrol on that property anymore. … We’ve had it. We’re not going to let this happen anymore.” It’s easy to sympathize with Texas’s just grievances against the Biden administration. As to whether they will succeed at the Supreme Court — well, it’s always an uphill climb for a state to challenge the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause.
In any event, “We’ve got to do something about the southern border. It is out of control,” insisted Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) on “Washington Watch.” “It’s just ridiculous. And not only is it the people who are crossing that illegally, but the drugs, the fentanyl that is crossing that border, that is infesting our communities and killing our Americans, killing 200 people every day, this has got to be stopped. This is just out of control.”
On Saturday, as President Biden was about to board Marine One, a reporter asked him, “Would you call the situation on the southern border a ‘crisis’?” The president, before blaming the crisis on Republicans, answered, “No.”
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.