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Three migrants drown in Rio Grande after Texas blocks Border Patrol from rescue

Texas National Guard troops control who enters and exits Shelby Park at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S., January 12, 2024.
Texas National Guard troops control who enters and exits Shelby Park at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S., January 12, 2024.

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Editor's Note: This story was updated on Monday January 15 at 2:25am CST to reflect an updated statement from the Texas Military Department.

A woman and two children drowned in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass on Friday night as they were attempting to cross the U.S. southern border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection told TPR that Border Patrol was prevented from deploying lifesaving efforts by agents with Operation Lone Star, the controversial Texas border security initiative.

Under the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott, Operation Lone Star this week seized control of Eagle Pass' Shelby Park, which faces the Rio Grande and has denied access to the Border Patrol.

On Friday night, Border Patrol agents nearby learned from Mexican officials that a group of migrants were in distress.

They tried to call the Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard unsuccessfully and then drove over to Shelby Park, according to Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), who was briefed on the matter.

"Border Patrol agents then made physical contact with the Texas Military Department and the Texas National Guard at the Shelby Park Entrance Gate and verbally relayed the information," Cuellar said. "However, Texas Military Department soldiers stated they would not grant access to the migrants—even in the event of an emergency —and that they would send a soldier to investigate the situation."

The bodies of the migrant woman and two children were eventually recovered by Mexican authorities.

The Texas Military Department acknowledged in a statement to TPR that it was contacted by Border Patrol about a "migrant distress situation" at 9pm on Friday night and did not deny that it blocked access.

"TMD had a unit in the vicinity of the boat ramp and actively searched the river with lights and night vision goggles. No migrants were observed," the statement said. "At approximately 9:45 pm, TMD observed a group of Mexican authorities responding to an incident on the Mexico side of the river bank. TMD reported their observations back to Border Patrol, and they confirmed that the Mexican authorities required no additional assistance. At that time, TMD ceased search operations."

TMD issued a followup statement on Sunday claiming it was not responsible for the deaths because the three migrants had already drowned by the time it received the request for access from Border Patrol.

Border Patrol maintains that it isn't able to perform its duties without unrestricted access to the border — especially in "incidents of imminent danger to life and safety."

The White House said it is "gathering facts about the circumstances of these tragic deaths."

"One thing is clear: Governor Abbott's political stunts are cruel, inhumane, and dangerous," said a White House spokesperson. "U.S. Border Patrol must have access to the border to enforce our laws."

Earlier Friday, the Justice Department asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene to allow the Border Patrol to regain access to the 47-acre Shelby Park, stating that Texas is using armed Texas National Guard soldiers to stop the Border Patrol from accessing two-and-a-half miles of border.

Operation Lone Star deploys Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard soldiers to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges.

The Justice Department has filed two lawsuits against Texas over the border security initiative that is testing the limits of a state's ability to enforce immigration, which is under the purview of the federal government.

The Department of Homeland Security sent a cease-and-desist letter Sunday to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, giving the state until end of day Wednesday to return Border Patrol's access to Shelby Park or it could face a third lawsuit over Abbott's immigration policies.

On X, formally known as Twitter, Abbott indicated the park seizure was intended to make Eagle Pass a tough place for migrants to cross.

Abbott and national Republicans have made Eagle Pass the center of their political fight with President Biden over immigration. The area experienced a rise in migration at the end of the year but that increase has since slowed down considerably.

"The state of Texas is doing things that are more political than actually trying to find a real solution," Cuellar told TPR. "I can understand frustration with the policies of the Biden administration — I certainly don't agree with many of the things that the Biden administration does at the border — but to exclude the very one agency that's empowered and authorized to secure the border is just beyond reason. This is a tragedy, and the State bears responsibility.”

Abbott's office referred TPR's request for comment on the drowning deaths to the Texas Military Department, which oversees the Texas National Guard's operations.

"Maybe one of the questions should be when should the president federalize a guard when you have the state of Texas taking this kind of action?" Cuellar said.

Abbott faced condemnation this past week for saying Texas has decided to not shoot migrants crossing the border unauthorized “because of course the Biden administration will charge us with murder.”

In an interview with far-right talk show host Dana Loesch, Abbott said the state has deployed “all the tools and strategies” to curtail illegal migration, including placing barriers in the Rio Grande, and signing a law making it illegal to enter Texas from another country without authorization.

Abbott then added, “The only thing we are not doing is, we are not shooting people who cross the border because of course the Biden administration will charge us with murder.”

Congressman Joaquin Castro (D- San Antonio) said Friday night's drowning in Eagle Pass just days later is what Abbott's border rhetoric looks like on the ground.

"Texas officials blocked U.S. Border Patrol agents from doing their job and allowed two children to drown in the Rio Grande," Castro said. "Governor Abbott’s inhumanity has no limit. Everyone who enables his cruelty has blood on their hands.”

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Copyright 2024 Texas Public Radio

Dan Katz