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Texas places buoys in Rio Grande in latest battle over migrants: What to know | CBC News


In the final months of Donald Trump’s administration, a new plan to seal off the southern U.S. border started gaining steam: a floating water barrier to discourage migrants from trying to cross from Mexico.

The idea never materialized. But three years later, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has put it into action.

The state installed a floating barrier of bright orange, wrecking ball-sized buoys on the Rio Grande beginning on July 8, stretching roughly the length of three soccer fields.

It is an untested strategy of deterring migrants along the U.S. border that is already fortified in wide sections by high steel fencing and razor wire. The rollout of the buoys on the Rio Grande has thrust Texas into a new standoff with the Joe Biden administration over immigration on the state’s 1,930-kilometre border with Mexico.

The Justice Department has asked a federal court to order Texas to remove the buoys, saying the water barrier poses humanitarian and environmental concerns along the international boundary. But Abbott has waved off the lawsuit as he is cheered on by conservative allies eager for states to take on more aggressive deterrence measures.

Here’s what to know about the river barrier:

Frequent drownings in the Rio Grande

In 2020, Mark Morgan was the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). He told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he approved plans to deploy the same water barrier on the Rio Grande that Texas is now using.

Several people are shown standing in a river from a view on high. In the background, a long orange string of connected buoys is shown.
Migrants walk by a string of buoys placed on the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 16. The buoy installation is part of an operation Texas is pursuing to secure its borders, but activists and some legislators say Gov. Greg Abbott is exceeding his authority. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images)

That August, the Army Corps of Engineers posted a solicitation for a “buoy barrier system” that would “mitigate the ability of swimmers to climb” over or under it.

Morgan called it the “water wall.”

“It was really designed to be a stopgap to utilize in high-flow areas where we didn’t have a physical structure in place,” Morgan said.

The CBP did not immediately address questions Tuesday about the 2020 plans. The federal International Boundary and Water Commission, whose jurisdiction includes boundary demarcation and overseeing U.S.-Mexico treaties, said it didn’t get a heads-up from Texas about the state’s floating barrier.

Earlier this month, before the buoys were installed, four migrants drowned in the Rio Grande. Last September, nine migrants died and 37 were rescued as they tried to cross the rain-swollen river near Eagle Pass, Texas.

Experts have also raised concerns of the buoys changing the river’s flow or of objects getting caught in them.

‘Flouted federal law’

It is unclear how quickly a federal judge in Texas will rule on the Biden administration’s lawsuit.

Until then, roughly 305-metre of barrier will remain on a portion of the Rio Grande that separates Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, Mexico. The Mexican government has also raised concerns about the barrier, saying it may violate 1944 and 1970 treaties on boundaries and water.

The Biden administration’s lawsuit accuses Texas of violating the federal Rivers and Harbor Act. Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general, said Texas “flouted federal law” and risks damaging U.S. foreign policy.

Day 69:15Texas asylum seekers face harsh – and possibly illegal – treatment

The state of Texas is now investigating claims state troopers were ordered to push asylum seekers into the Rio Grande River and refuse them water during a long heat wave. The claims were made after an email to troopers was leaked to the media. Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America tells us about the people trying to make their way to the U.S. and the conditions they’re facing.

The buoys are the latest escalation in Texas’s border mission that also includes National Guard patrols, jails that house migrants arrested on trespassing charges and busloads of asylum seekers sent to Democratic-led cities across the U.S. beginning last year.

In a letter to Biden, Abbott said the state was acting within its rights to protect its borders by installing the buoys, a contention disputed by Adam Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America, in an interview with the CBC’s Day 6 this week.

“Governor Abbott’s proposed solution is to use razor wire and other barriers, as well as deployments of troops, to keep asylum seekers from even touching U.S. soil, even if it means to try and encourage them to get back in the river. That’s actually contrary to U.S. law,” said Isacson.

Isacson was commenting in part on a report from the Houston Chronicle, in which a state trooper alleged that superiors ordered troopers to deny water to arriving migrants and even stopped them from going farther on land, sending them back into the Rio Grande. The report has sparked an investigation by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Wider dispute on migrants rages on

Abbott and other southern Republican governors, like Ron DeSantis, of Florida, have accused the Biden administration of putting migrants at risk by not doing more to dissuade them from making the journey to the U.S.

The Biden administration and Democrats have argued that it was Republicans who have been bitterly opposed to ending the pandemic-era Title 42 order, which prevented many asylum claims at the border on public-health grounds. All evidence suggests that the order only encouraged repeat crossing attempts between border points of entry.

People in military fatigues are shown near a river bank that has razor wire set up.
Guardsmen watch as migrants try to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into the U.S. in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 11. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

The White House tried to end the order in spring of 2021 but were prevented from doing so by legal challenges, until the administration declared an end to all COVID-19 health emergency declarations this May.

Immigration activists and Democratic members of Congress have also taken Republican politicians to task for using dehumanizing words like “invasion” to describe flows of migrants.

A man accused of killing 19 in a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019 railed about migrants and used such language in an online manifesto. He was given a life sentence in prison this month on federal hate crime charges.

The legal battle over the buoys also comes as Biden’s administration defends a new asylum rule in court. A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the policy, though the order won’t take effect for at least two weeks as the government plans an appeal.

The new rule imposes severe limitations on migrants seeking asylum between border points, but encourages people into the U.S. to apply at centres throughout Latin America or through a new app.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups had argued the rule violates a U.S. law that protects the right to asylum regardless of how a person enters the country. The groups said it forces migrants to seek protection in countries that don’t have the same robust asylum system and human rights protections.


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