Justice Department sues Texas over floating ban on Rio Grande aimed at preventing migrants from crossing

The Justice Department on Monday filed a lawsuit against Texas and its Republican governor for placing floats in the Rio Grande as part of the state’s effort to keep immigrants from entering the United States.

The civil suit said Gov. Greg Abbott violated federal law by establishing the ban and asked a judge to order the defendants to “immediately remove the unauthorized ban” at their own expense.

The lawsuit cites the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899, which prohibits “the creation of any obstruction to the navigability of any waters of the United States, not authorized by Congress.”

It also alleges that Abbott failed to obtain approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before installing a dam on the Rio Grande as required by federal law.

A worker helps deploy a string of large buoys to use as a barrier in the middle of the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 11. Eric K / AB

The governor’s office did not immediately respond after the Justice Department announced its intent to sue Abbott on Thursday, arguing that unless Texas took action to remove the floats by Monday afternoon, the ban would endanger public safety and interfere with the federal government’s official duties.

Earlier Monday, Abbott sent a letter to President Joe Biden accusing him of trying to obstruct his state’s “sovereign interest” in securing its border.

“In a midnight letter to me last Thursday, your attorneys at the Justice Department threatened to sue the State of Texas over the floating marine barriers we have placed on the Rio Grande River at Eagle Pass,” Abbott said. wrote. “Texas will see you in court, Mr. President.”

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Migrants trying to enter the United States from Mexico approach a site where workers assemble large floats for use as a border barrier on the banks of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 11, 2023.Eric K / AB

Abbott also argued that the Rivers and Ports Appropriation Act does not apply to Texas’ actions, saying that while he shares the administration’s concern for immigrant welfare, Biden is “pointing fingers in the wrong direction.”

“Neither of us wants to see another death on the Rio Grande River,” Abbott wrote. “Yet your open-border policies encourage immigrants to risk their lives illegally by water, rather than safely and legally at a port of entry. No one drowns on a bridge.

Commenting on Abbott’s letter, A A spokeswoman for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division declined to comment further on Monday, referring to the case.

White House spokesman Abdullah Hassan defended Biden’s border policies in a statement, arguing that Abbott’s “dangerous and illegal actions undermine that effective plan.” Such actions, he said, “make it harder for the men and women of border patrol to protect the border and put migrants and border agents at risk.”

Vice President Kamala Harris also lashed out at Abbott and her state’s immigration enforcement, including orders for Texas troopers to push nursing women and young children back into the river and deny them water in the sweltering heat.

“Across our country, so-called extremist leaders are demonizing, targeting and attacking immigrants,” Harris said Monday at the annual conference of the Latino civil rights and advocacy group Unidos, where he called it “inhumane, outrageous and un-American” in Texas.

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Speaking to reporters on Monday before the lawsuit was announced, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre accused Abbott of “sowing confusion” and staging inhumane “political stunts.”

“He’s seriously undermining our border enforcement program,” he said, adding that illegal border crossings are at their lowest level since Biden took office.

Abbott “didn’t act in good faith here,” he added.

The Texas governor has previously made immigration policy a focal point of his administration. Last month, Abbott bussed 42 immigrants to Los Angeles. Report He said the transit of more than 21,000 immigrants from Texas to cities across the country since last year has provided “much-needed relief” to the state’s small border towns.

The DOJ’s letter to Texas last week asked officials to respond by Monday at 2 p.m., a sign that the state plans to “rapidly remove” the floats. If Texas does not provide such a response, the letter states that “the United States intends to file legal action.” said.

Abbott, in his response, made it clear that he did not intend to comply with the DOJ’s request.

“Texas will exercise its full constitutional authority to deal with the crisis you have caused,” Abbott said.

Correction (July 24, 2023: 8:10 pm ET): An earlier version of this article misstated when the Justice Department first threatened to sue Texas. It was in a letter on Thursday, not Friday.

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