Justice Department Sues Texas Over Floating Barrier in Rio Grande

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The suit was the first direct challenge by the Biden administration to Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security program, Operation Lone Star.

The Justice Department filed suit on Monday against the State of Texas over its installation of a floating barrier meant to stop people from swimming across the Rio Grande, arguing that the interlocking buoys placed in the river by the state violated federal law.

The suit comes after Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who heralded the installation of the 1,000-foot barrier this month, refused a request from the Justice Department to remove the buoys voluntarily, vowing instead to fight in court to keep them in place. Mr. Abbott has blamed President Biden for the large numbers of migrants crossing the border illegally.

“If you truly care about human life, you must begin enforcing federal immigration laws,” Mr. Abbott wrote in a letter to President Biden on Monday. “In the meantime, Texas will fully utilize its constitutional authority to deal with the crisis you have caused.”

The federal government argues that Texas is in violation of a section of the federal Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act that prohibits the placement of structures in waterways without federal approval.

“This floating barrier poses threats to navigation and public safety and presents humanitarian concerns,” Vanita Gupta, an associate attorney general, said in a statement announcing the suit. “Additionally, the presence of the floating barrier has prompted diplomatic protests by Mexico and risks damaging U.S. foreign policy.”

The federal government is asking the court to compel Texas to remove the barriers already installed and forbid the installation of any new barriers elsewhere in the river.

The emerging legal fight represents the first time that the Justice Department has directly challenged Mr. Abbott over his effort to enforce immigration laws, sending thousands of National Guard troops and state police officers to block migrants from crossing into Texas. The multibillion-dollar program, begun more than two years ago, is known as Operation Lone Star.

Migrants walk near a concertina wire barrier along the Rio Grande, searching for an opening to enter the United States as Texas National Guard troops watch in Eagle Pass, Texas.Go Nakamura for The New York Times

The suit follows growing outcry among Democrats and even some in Texas law enforcement over the increasingly aggressive tactics the state is using to block immigrants, including installing additional layers of concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande. State police officers have been shouting at migrants to turn back and, in some cases, refusing to provide water to people who request it.

The tactics, described in interviews and in internal emails between officers in the Department of Public Safety that were viewed by The New York Times, have been deployed at points along the border where illegal crossings are common, particularly in the small border town of Eagle Pass.

Several officers inside the agency have raised concerns that the newly aggressive approach, which began roughly two months ago and has been referred to by top D.P.S. officials as a “hold the line” operation, has led to injuries among migrants.

Border Patrol officials have also complained to Texas law enforcement, according to a memo sent to D.P.S. and obtained by The Times, that the proliferation of concertina wire 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 Democratic representatives in the U.S. House, including all of those from Texas, signed a letter to Mr. Biden urging him to investigate the Operation Lone Star program and stop Mr. Abbott’s “dangerous and cruel actions” by asserting 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 has been a chance for Mr. Abbott to make a direct challenge to Mr. Biden over the issue of border security.

The Texas governor, a Republican in his third term and a former state attorney general, appeared eager to enter a legal fight with the Democratic president over enforcement of immigration law.

“Texas will see you in court, Mr. President,” Mr. Abbott wrote in his letter.

The federal government, in its suit on Monday, focused on the buoy barriers and federal law surrounding navigable waters and did not challenge the other tactics and policies employed by the Abbott administration as part of Operation Lone Star.

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