Three migrants drowned in the Rio Grande by Eagle Pass, Texas, officials said Saturday, setting off a dispute among state and federal officials in what seemed to escalate the feud between the Biden administration and Gov. Greg Abbott over the stringent security measures the state has imposed to keep migrants from entering the country.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, Border Patrol agents received a distress call from Mexican authorities about a woman and two children who were trying to cross into the United States near the entrance of Shelby Park, which Mr. Abbott recently closed to curb migration.
Homeland Security said that when Border Patrol agents tried to respond to a distress call, they were “physically barred” by Texas Military Department agents from accessing the area. But the military department said when Border Patrol agents requested access to Shelby Park, the migrants had already drowned, adding that claims that it had prevented the agents from saving the migrants were “wholly inaccurate.”
For more than two years, Mr. Abbott has been testing the legal limits of what a state can do to enforce immigration law, expanding the use of concertina wire along the riverbank and installing buoy barriers to discourage migrants from crossing. But Border Patrol officials in the area have complained that those moves have made it harder for agents to help migrants in distress. And a Homeland Security spokesperson said Texas officials must stop interfering with federal law enforcement.
“The Texas governor’s policies are cruel, dangerous and inhumane and Texas’ blatant disregard for federal authority over immigration poses grave risks,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The military department said its agents searched the Rio Grande with lights and night-vision goggles but did not see any migrants trying to cross. The department said that its agents confirmed that when the federal agents tried to get into Shelby Park, they said that Mexican authorities had already recovered the bodies of two of the migrants.
The Mexican government confirmed that its National Guard recovered three migrants’ bodies and rescued two other Mexican people.
The Texas Military Department denied that it was made aware of any dire situation or people in need of assistance near Shelby Park. “At no time did T.M.D. security personnel along the river observe any distressed migrants, nor did T.M.D. turn back any illegal immigrants from the U.S. during this period,” it said in a statement.
The Times could not independently confirm the events that occurred around the drownings.
In response to the deaths, U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat representing a portion of South Texas that includes San Antonio, said over the phone on Sunday, “The state should not be preventing Border Patrol from doing its job in that area.”
Eagle Pass is a small border town that saw up to 5,000 migrant crossings a day during the height of the influx. More recently, that number has gone down to around 400 to 500, Mayor Rolando Salinas Jr. said in a news conference last week.
Many migrants crossing the border are in urgent need of medical attention when they arrive in Eagle Pass, which is struggling to meet the needs of its 28,000 residents, much less of those who make it across the border as well. The city has had to assign one of its five ambulances full time to transport injured migrants from the Rio Grande’s edge.
An estimated 300,000 migrants were apprehended along the southern border in December, a record, prompting the temporary closure of four international crossings, including the one in Eagle Pass. The Justice Department denounced the governor’s decision to close the entrances.
Texas has long been at the center of American immigration policy, with some of the largest levels of arrivals in recent years occurring in El Paso and across the Rio Grande Valley. But the area has turned into a key point of friction this year between Republican leaders and the Biden administration.
Edgar Sandoval, J. David Goodman and Lola Fadulu contributed reporting.