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Reports of ‘inhumane’ treatment of migrants in Texas outrage leaders from D.C. to Mexico City

  Migrants attempt to cross the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas in July 2023
Eric Gay/Associated Press
Migrants attempt to cross the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas in July 2023

Reports that members of Texas’ border security force are purposely endangering the lives of migrants are drawing more scrutiny, including an official U.S. Department of Justice assessment of the alleged actions.

Earlier this week the Houston Chronicle and other Hearst publications reported that, according to emails from a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper, a DPS officer allegedly told other troopers in Eagle Pass, Texas to push a group of migrants — which included small children and nursing babies — back into the Rio Grande earlier this month after the migrants attempted to cross into the United States.

The Texas DPS is a main agency participating in part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a multi-billion-dollar, state-led border security mission that Abbott said was launched in response to President Biden’s so-called “open borders” policy.

The news of the alleged abuse has spurred outrage from Democrats and civil rights groups, who have implored the Biden administration to act. On Wednesday the administration appeared to have answered the call. CNN reported that the Department of Justice is assessing the situation and confirmed to the outlet that it is working with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to investigate.

Xochitl Hinojosa, a DOJ spokesperson, told CNN that the reports were “troubling”, and that the agency is looking into the matter.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center called on the federal government to do more than sit idly by.

“Rather than promoting public safety, Abbott's vile vision of the border harms asylum seekers and border residents alike and consistently puts the most vulnerable at the greatest risk,” Marisa Limón Garza, the executive director of Las Americas, said in a statement Tuesday. “The Biden administration must act now and stop Abbott's callously inhumane and punitive border enforcement. What will it take for you to intervene, Mr. President?”

The ACLU called on U.S. Customs and Border Protection to cease working with the state officers. Under Operation Lone Star, many of the migrants apprehended by the Texas DPS are handed over to U.S. Border Patrol agents for processing or removal.

“Texas must immediately stop intentionally endangering the lives of migrants seeking protection at the border,” Sarah Mehta, senior border policy counsel at the ACLU, said in a statement. “The federal government must also act, by investigating these damning allegations and by the Department of Homeland Security decisively ending its own collusion with Operation Lone Star, which has facilitated and encouraged Texas’s expansion of a proven human and civil rights disaster.”

Abbott has denied any claims that his officers have been ordered to deliberately mistreat the migrants.

“No orders or directions have been given under Operation Lone Star that would compromise the lives of those attempting to cross the border illegally. The Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas Military Department continue taking steps to monitor migrants in distress, provide appropriate medical attention when needed, and encourage them to use one of the 29 international bridges along the Texas-Mexico Border where they can safely and legally cross,” Abbott said in a joint statement with DPS Director Steve McCraw, Texas Border Czar Mike Banks, and Texas Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer. His office has not released a statement on the DOJ’s latest actions.

During a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Democratic members of Texas’ Congressional delegation also called on the Biden administration to do more.

“Greg Abbott placed death traps in the Rio Grande and has now issued barbaric orders to state troopers that endanger peoples’ lives.” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said. “He needs to stop immediately [and] President Biden also needs to speak up and his administration needs to do everything possible to stop Greg Abbott from these horrific actions.”

Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said Abbott’s actions don’t represent “Texas values.”

“This is barbaric and inhumane and simply, it’s evil. Gov. Abbott’s heartless anti-immigrant policies prey upon vulnerable children who are seeking lawful asylum in the United States,” she said. “It’s shameful that our governor is the one that’s leading the pack. Today’s reporting of this barbaric activity against the migrants, including attempting to drown babies, deserves to be investigated by the federal government.”

U.S. Rep Al Green, D-Houston, said if the allegations are true, Abbott should be removed from office.

“It’s important for us to speak truth to power on this and the truth is the governor is unfit to serve,” he said. “No person with an ounce of decency would do what this is indicating.”

Abbott has also drawn criticism for ordering the deployment of floating buoys in the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass to deter migrants from crossing the river.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said Tuesday that the state of Texas is going at it alone and isn’t coordinating with the federal government.

“They’re doing everything solo,” he said. “Even Border Patrol has said they are concerned that if they have to jump in the water and save somebody’s life, if there is wire or there are buoys there, that could interfere with their work. So, the problem we have is that the state is not cooperating or working or coordinating at all with the federal government.”

Also on Wednesday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that, while he didn’t believe the Texas troopers would push migrants back into the Rio Grande, denying them water was “inhumane,” the Dallas Morning News reported.

“We’re going to keep defending our citizens and the general mistreatment of immigrants,” the Mexican leader said.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom