A federal judge was hearing arguments on Tuesday about whether state authorities should remove huge buoys installed to stop migrants crossing the river that divides Texas from Mexico.
The court hearing in Austin came a day after Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, and a group of hardline Republican governors gathered on the riverbank to defend local militarization of the US-Mexico border – while also acknowledging that the 1,000-foot (305-meter) floating barrier had been adjusted after complaints that it had mostly drifted into Mexican territory.
Texas is defending itself against a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice against the use of the buoys in the Rio Grande without federal approval and in violation of the Rivers and Harbors Act. Mexico also wants the barrier removed and has called the buoys, which have netting beneath and saw-like blades between the floats, “inhumane”.
Many different bodies have complained that the buoys and miles of razor wire installed on the riverbank by Texas state authorities, as well as the aggressive turning back of migrants by state troops, are dangerous and a threat to life and the environment.
On Monday afternoon in blistering heat above 105F (40.5C) in Eagle Pass, Abbott spoke at a riverside public park that has been largely taken over by state law enforcement and turned into a staging ground to launch boats and helicopters and deploy troops and vehicles as part of Texas’s controversial multibillion-dollar border anti-immigration program Operation Lone Star.
He was accompanied by the Republican governors of Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota, who have all deployed military and law enforcement resources hundreds of miles from home to back up Abbott’s efforts.
“All together, if you add in the other states that are supporting this mission, 25 governors in 25 states – half of the states of the United States of America – are banding together to step up and secure a border that President Biden has abandoned,” Abbott said.
Governor Kristi Noem likened the border to a war zone and noted that her state of South Dakota was the first to send its national guard troops to work alongside the Texas national guard at the border.
Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa called Texas “ground zero” in the battle against irregular immigration and the border situation a “catastrophe”.
In fact, Biden is under intensifying criticism from immigration advocates and humanitarian campaigners for his administration’s hardline move this spring to restrict migrants from exercising their right to cross on to US soil to request asylum.
Many, especially from countries in Central and South America and Africa, Haiti and Cuba, where growing numbers are driven to the brink by combinations of conflict, political oppression and intensifying poverty, are stuck on the Mexican side of the border and prevented from exercising their right to request asylum in the US by restrictive policies, physical barriers or both.
Biden discontinued his predecessor Donald Trump’s huge but unfinished federal spending on high metal barriers that the then president called a border wall. Abbott has spearheaded state initiatives to continue Trump’s anti-migrant thrust, including busing asylum seekers to Democratic-led cities without liaison and installing armed personnel, razor wire, old shipping containers and now buoys on the border to deter people from reaching US soil and asking for sanctuary in the first place.
Protesters at the park under the scorching sun in Eagle Pass on Monday variously held signs saying “We want our park back!”, “Don’t let Abbott steal our land” and “Border communities say: don’t trust Abbott”.
Eagle Pass resident Amerika Garcia Grewal gestured at the river and told the Guardian: “The buoys are a complete failure. They don’t float, they’re on the Mexican side of the river, they’re changing the course of the river and they’re making our largest trade partner, Mexico, unhappy with us.”
She also speculated that the buoys have actually brought higher profits to the coyotes, people paid to smuggle immigrants across the border, whom Grewal ventured have raised their prices because of the increased difficulty crossing the river.
But another local, retired border patrol agent Gregory Mayer, praised Operation Lone Star.
“To me, national security trumps everything, you know – your feelings, your inconveniences,” he said. Of the buoys he said: “When I first saw them, I thought, why didn’t I think of that? I had 20 years to think about this being in the border patrol … It’s not perfect but I think it’s pretty ingenious.”
Abbott wrote to Joe Biden in July arguing that the measures he is taking are legal and justified to protect state security, saying: “Texas will see you in court, Mr President.” He also claimed that Biden’s policies are responsible for pushing people towards the river, saying: “Neither of us wants to see another death in the Rio Grande river.”
The International Boundary and Water Commission, a bilateral border body, has complained about the buoys and environmental advocates are outraged at the wider destruction of riverbank habitats. While the banks of the Rio Grande on the Mexican side in the area are verdant, much land is being bulldozed on the Texas side to install barriers and stage law enforcement.
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