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Did Texas block border agents from rescuing 3 migrants who drowned in Rio Grande?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Department of Homeland Security says Texas is responsible for the drowning of a woman and two children in the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border. The department says the state blocked federal Border Patrol agents from accessing a park in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Friday night. The agents were trying to rescue migrants in distress who were crossing the river. It's the latest spat in a growing feud between the state and federal authorities over access to the border. Joining us now to talk about the latest is Texas Public Radio's Dan Katz. Hi, Dan.

DAN KATZ: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So, federal Border Patrol agents accusing Texas of being responsible for these deaths. What's the state's response?

KATZ: Well, as with everything, there's a dispute over the facts. But let's start with what's not in dispute. The state did, in fact, block the Border Patrol from accessing this area. It's part of an escalating standoff between Governor Greg Abbott and the Biden administration over who controls the border. Abbott essentially took control of the 47-acre Shelby Park on the Rio Grande, which is owned by the city of Eagle Pass. It's been a hot spot for migrant crossings, although lately the numbers have been down. As far as Texas' culpability in the drownings, that's the dispute. Last night, the Texas military department released a statement pointing out that the migrant woman and two children had already drowned by the time Border Patrol reached out to them about performing a rescue operation.

FADEL: So tell us more about the circumstances that night that led to these drownings. What do we know?

KATZ: So we know that Border Patrol got a call from Mexican authorities warning them that a group of migrants was attempting to cross the river. Nighttime is always dangerous, and it's been particularly cold here. People can drown in just minutes. And the Border Patrol says it tried repeatedly to call Texas officials about the possible rescue. And when that didn't work, they drove to the shuttered park gates and were told by Texas National Guard soldiers at the gate that they couldn't let anyone in, including them, even in the case of an emergency like this. Mexican officials recovered the bodies of the woman and the two children on Friday night and rescued two others in the group who are suffering from hypothermia.

FADEL: The Justice Department has filed two lawsuits against the state of Texas over Abbott's border policies. How does this latest incident fit into this legal fight?

KATZ: Well, the Biden administration is threatening a third lawsuit if Border Patrol isn't given access to the park by end of day Wednesday. They've also asked the Supreme Court to intervene. The other suits involved the buoys that Abbott placed in the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, and a new law that Abbott signed that would allow Texas law enforcement to arrest anyone they suspect of crossing illegally. Of course, immigration enforcement is federal. There's precedent that it's not under the purview of states. But that's what Abbott's trying to challenge here.

FADEL: So these lawsuits are going to make their way through the legal system. Some Texas Democrats are saying there needs to be more immediate steps from the president. Can you talk about that?

KATZ: Yeah. Congressman Joaquin Castro is pushing for the president to federalize the Texas National Guard. Castro has criticized Abbott for politicizing the guard in this effort.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOAQUIN CASTRO: It's clear that Greg Abbott is trying to use them to interfere with the enforcement of the United States law.

KATZ: And there's no indication that Abbott will back down in his effort. And we'll see if the White House takes that route.

FADEL: That was Texas Public Radio's Dan Katz. Thanks so much for joining us.

KATZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dan Katz