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Texas Democrats say Biden is enabling Abbott’s cruel treatment of migrants by not taking action

A floating wall of border buoys in the middle of the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas.<br/>
David Martin Davies, Texas Public Radio
A floating wall of border buoys in the middle of the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro is calling on the Biden administration to stop cooperating with Texas law enforcement on border-enforcement activities until the White House does more to investigate Gov. Greg Abbott’s state-led immigration-enforcement efforts.

Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, was among a delegation of state and federal lawmakers who visited Eagle Pass on Tuesday. The group met with local officials and landowners in the small border town, which recently became ground zero in the battle between Abbott and the federal government over border enforcement.

“Let me say this clearly: The Biden justice department is allowing the state of Texas to oppress people, to oppress people’s civil rights in this state,” Castro said. “There is no reason why the justice department should not have intervened by now.”

Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in 2021. Since then, the state-led, multi-billion-dollar effort has sent thousands of Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard officers to the border.

The operation has been widely criticized by Democrats and some local border officials who have decried the effort. The outcry has only grown louder in recent weeks, following reports migrants have been mistreated and that the state has taken over some privately owned land.

Under Operation Lone Star, state officials sometimes turn migrants over to federal authorities for processing. But on Tuesday Castro said that cooperation should end unless it's necessary to ensure migrants’ wellbeing.

 Congressman Joaquin Castro speaks Tuesday during a news conference in Eagle Pass.<br/>
Congressman Joaquin Castro speaks Tuesday during a news conference in Eagle Pass.

“This operation isn’t about border security, it’s a political stunt designed to distract from the Abbott administration’s failure to make progress on other issues that Texans care about,” said Castro. “I am calling on the Biden administration to end all cooperation between [U.S.] Customs and Border Protection and the Texas Department of Public Safety except for that which protects the health and safety of asylum seekers.”

The visit by Democrats comes as the state and Biden administration prepare to square off in court over Abbott’s recent deployment of a floating wall in the Rio Grande comprised of buoys and razor wire. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state last month after Abbott refused to remove the barriers, which federal officials said violates federal law and a long-standing treaty with Mexico.

It was reported last week that one body was found stuck in the buoys and another a few miles upstream. But Abbott has denied the barrier caused the deaths, instead saying the people found had drowned. The deaths occurred shortly after reports from the Houston Chronicle that state officers were told to push migrants back into the water or deny them water once they reached U.S. soil. Abbott and other state officials have denied that such orders were given.

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, was visibly upset on Tuesday while explaining she doesn’t believe the state’s efforts reflect Christian values.

“To see all these barriers that are set, it almost looks like they’re trying to trap wild hogs or something. I mean, we’re talking about people,” she said, her voice shaking. “The cruelty of the barriers and the wires that are out there, is just so graphic that this morning I was brought to tears. It’s just horrible to see someone treat people this way.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday’s news conference.

Jesse Fuentes, an Eagle Pass resident who owns owner of Epi’s Canoe and Kayak, sued the Abbott administration after the buoys were deployed, alleging the barriers were hurting his business and harming the river’s physical properties. During the news conference Tuesday, he said he never thought he’d have to address reporters and elected officials on something so personal to him and the community.

“Because of my small business … that I started eight years ago, it was my job to promote positivity, it was my job to promote Mother Nature, to promote the beauty of the Rio Grande,” he said. “What I’ve seen over the last two years has been just atrocious. I can’t believe that we’ve gotten to this point where people are dying, and our state doesn’t care.”

Aside from the human toll, Fuentes said the ecosystem tethered to the Rio Grande is in jeopardy.

“The river is dying. They have razed five beautiful sanctuary islands in the middle of the river, without any environmental studies,” he said. “Did we ask for this? No, we didn’t. Can we put a stop to this? N, we can’t. Why? Because [Abbott] is determined … to prove a point. What is that point?”

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, said what’s transpiring in Eagle Pass adds to the list of Abbott’s “stunts” over border security that include busing migrants to Democratic-led cities and halting trade when the governor ordered enhanced inspections of commercial vehicles.

“He wants America to see a country and a border in chaos,” said Gutierrez, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz next year. “This border is not in chaos. These communities live and thrive and work every day but now unfortunately they have Greg Abbott’s helicopters circling around.”

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom