Migrant deaths in Rio Grande intensify tensions between Texas, Biden administration over crossings

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — After Texas fenced off a park along the U.S.-Mexico border and began turning away Border Patrol agents, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott explained why at a campaign stop near Houston.

“We are not allowing Border Patrol on that property anymore,” Abbott said Friday, drawing applause from supporters at a stop for a state legislator running for reelection. He relayed frustration over migrants illegally entering the U.S. through the border city of Eagle Pass and federal agents loading them onto buses.

“We said, ‘We’ve had it. We’re not going to let this happen anymore,’” Abbott said.

Later that night, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said three migrants, including two children, drowned near the park after Texas officials “physically barred” Border Patrol agents from entering. Mexican authorities pulled the bodies, each of them wearing jackets, from the water on the other side of the Rio Grande.

The weekend deaths once again escalated tensions between Texas and the Biden administration. They also unleashed a new round of criticism from Democrats over Abbott’s aggressive actions to curb illegal crossings, saying the measures are putting migrants at risk. U.S. authorities described the drownings as underscoring the need for Border Patrol agents to have access to the area around Shelby Park, which Texas closed off earlier this week.

“U.S. Border Patrol must have access to the border to enforce our laws,” White House spokesman Angelo Fernández Hernández said in a statement Sunday.

Spokespersons for Abbott did not return messages seeking comment Sunday. His office on Saturday referred questions to the Texas Military Department, which said a unit searched the river after being informed by Border Patrol around 9 p.m. Friday that migrants were in distress. Texas authorities did not find anyone in the water, the department said in a statement.

The park lies in a major corridor for migrants entering illegally from Mexico and is at the center of Abbott’s aggressive attempts to stop them, known as Operation Lone Star. Migrants are periodically swept away to their deaths by the current of the Rio Grande.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents a Texas border district, acknowledged Sunday that state officials investigated the distress call and searched for the migrants.

“However, the bottom line is that Border Patrol was barred from entering Shelby Park,” Cuellar said in a statement. “Furthermore, Border Patrol was not allowed to investigate the situation and has not been given access to the area since last week.”

Texas Military Department officials did not release further details Sunday and did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Over the summer, thousands of people were crossing illegally into the U.S. through Eagle Pass. The numbers subsided but again rose in December when thousands of migrants overwhelmed federal resources. But a sharp decrease was noted at the start of January after Mexico stepped up immigration enforcement.

The 50-acre (20-hectare) park is owned by the city, but it is used by the state Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to patrol border crossings. Earlier this week, Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas questioned why the state closed the park now, since daily apprehensions in the region have fallen in recent weeks. He said the state gave city officials no warning and offered no timetable on when the park would reopen.

On Friday, the Justice Department told the U.S. Supreme Court that Texas had taken control of Shelby Park and was not letting Border Patrol agents enter. Texas acknowledged seizing the city park but told the court the the federal government had mischaracterized its actions and that it was trying to resolve any disputes over access.

Texas has come under recurring scrutiny over efforts to curb border crossings. Abbott has sent more than 100,000 migrants on buses to Democratic-led cities, even as frigid conditions set in during the winter. He also has strung up razor wire on the border and installed buoy barriers on the Rio Grande.

Melissa R. Cigarroa, a city council member in Laredo and member of the No Border Wall Coalition, was among those who attended a vigil Saturday at Shelby Park to mark the deaths of migrants who have died along the Rio Grande.

Cigarroa said attendees passed through a gate with armed National Guard members and that they could see could see law enforcement officers and vehicles gathered near the river.

She said that scene coupled with the reason for the ceremony left her thinking about “just how little people’s lives matter in these decisions.”

“People are dying, and we know now that deterrents mean nothing,” she said.

___ Stengle reported from Dallas. Associated Press journalists Paul J. Weber in Austin and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this story.

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