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Congresswoman Veronica Escobar calls out Texas ‘gaslighting’ on migrant drownings

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, speaks during a press conference in 2021.
Graeme Sloan
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, speaks during a press conference in 2021.

El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar said the State of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott are trying to “gaslight” the public about the circumstances leading to the deaths of a migrant woman and her two children in Eagle Pass last week.

“There's been a lot of back and forth between Greg Abbott and his personnel about what did and did not happen,” Escobar said on a press call with fellow border leaders this week. “I want to be very clear, and I think it's really important that the media not allow Greg Abbott's gaslighting.”

After initial reports that a woman and two children drowned after the Texas National Guard denied access to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, a Department of Justice filing at the Supreme Court this week confirmed that three migrant bodies had already been recovered at the time CBP made contact with the Guard.

Abbott, the Texas Department of Public Safety and other Republicans rushed to shift blame away from the governor’s border security mission known as Operation Lone Star, which includes Texas DPS and the Texas Military Department (TXMD), for the migrant drownings. The governor placed blame on the Biden administration, pointed to the filing and focused on the timing of the drownings.

But they did not mention that the filing also included the fact that two other migrants were still in distress in the water at the time CBP made contact with the Texas National Guard. Surveillance equipment belonging to CBP — which might have allowed CBP to spot the three migrants who died much earlier — was removed by the Texas National Guard when it took over Shelby Park earlier that week.

“The Border Patrol, which is trained and equipped to save lives, was not allowed to be at Shelby Park,” the Democratic legislator said. “And by not being allowed, that means their equipment was not allowed, and it means they did not have visibility. Had they had visibility, had personnel been there, had their equipment been there, they might have been able to prevent those drownings before they happened.”

On Sunday, Abbott, in response to an earlier TXMD press release with similar details, said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the media had been too eager to point fingers. He placed the blame for the migrant deaths on what he called “Biden’s border magnet.”

However, Escobar said the recent drownings were part of a larger pattern for Abbott and Operation Lone Star on the border.

“Greg Abbott has demonstrated a clear pattern and practice of dehumanizing some of the most vulnerable people,” she added. “It's very important that Abbott and his actions not be let off the hook.”

Clothing remains on razor and concertina wires, topping a newly installed non-scalable fence, at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S., January 16, 2024. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal
Kaylee Greenlee Beal
Clothing remains on razor and concertina wires, topping a newly installed non-scalable fence, at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass in 2024.

Last month, TPR published a video that showed a woman and child in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass yelling for help while four Texas National Guardsmen watched only feet away from boats, appearing to not provide any aid or respond verbally to the woman in any way. Eyewitnesses said the woman and child “went under” for several minutes before safely reaching the Mexican bank of the river on their own.

In a response to that incident, TXMD told TPR that they were aware of the video and that the soldiers had “determined that there were no signs of medical distress.”

In July, the Houston Chronicle published internal emails from a medic working at the border with the Texas DPS under Operation Lone Star that included a complaint that officers had “been ordered to push small children and nursing babies back into the Rio Grande and had been told not to give water to asylum seekers even in extreme heat.”

In an internal investigation, Texas DPS found no wrongdoing by its own personnel. The agency released a summary report of its investigation last month, saying it had found “no reasonable cause to believe that the South Texas leadership of the department institutionally engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violated law or department policy.”

Texas troopers began arresting migrants for the first time since taking control of Shelby Park late on Wednesday.

“Frequently it’s women and children who have gone through a horrific journey,” Escobar said of the migrants who travel to the U.S.-Mexico border. “They have at times been subjected to violence, to persecution, and to sexual assault. The journey to flee their homeland and get to our nation's front door to seek asylum is an incredibly dangerous one.”

Escobar co-authored legislation titled the ‘Comprehensive Dignity Act of 2023’ with Florida Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar in an attempt to reach across the aisle on immigration. The plan called for increased investments in border communities that include vital services and fortified CBP infrastructure like the surveillance that is missing at Shelby Park.

“I welcome my Republican colleagues to join some of their Republican colleagues in finally addressing what is a broken system,” Escobar said, “and to stop the dehumanization of migrants.”

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Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.