A woman and two children drowned in the Rio Grande on Friday night in Eagle Pass, Texas, after U.S. border agents were prevented from responding, federal officials said Saturday.
In a statement, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said U.S. Border Patrol agents were made aware of the migrants’ distress by the Mexican government but were unable to enter the area from the U.S. side after Texas National Guard troops, under the direction of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, prevented them from doing so.
“In responding to a distress call from the Mexican government, Border Patrol agents were physically barred by Texas officials from entering the area,” the spokesperson said.
The deaths were highlighted Saturday by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who said the deceased were part of a group of six migrants in the river Friday night who were in distress.
Mexican authorities recovered the bodies of three of the migrants Saturday, Cuellar said in a statement. Identities and exact ages were unavailable.
“Border Patrol attempted to contact the Texas Military Department, the Texas National Guard, and DPS Command Post by telephone to relay the information, but were unsuccessful,” Cuellar said in the statement.
He continued: “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. 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.”
In its own statement, the Texas Military Department disputed that narrative, saying its personnel were made aware of a distress report but could find no migrants needing help in the river and later were made aware of an incident nearby, on the Mexican side of the river, that did not require their help.
The department said it had been in touch with Border Patrol on Friday night, and the agency said Mexican authorities did not need the Texas department’s help.
“At no time did TMD security personnel along the river observe any distressed migrants, nor did TMD turn back any illegal immigrants from the US during this period,” it said.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Texas Department of Homeland Security referred such requests to the Texas Military Department, saying it was not involved in Friday night’s incident.
The mayor of Eagle Pass, Rolando Salinas Jr., said during a news conference Thursday he received a phone call the previous day from a Texas Department of Pubic Safety official informing him the state was taking emergency custody of Shelby Park, which lies along the river and is in the area where the three migrants were in distress.
Salinas said a Texas Military Department official confirmed the takeover. The department directs the Texas National Guard.
The move came amid an ongoing court battle between the Department of Homeland Security and Texas over access to the border in Eagle Pass, which DHS says is cordoned off by concertina wire erected by the state. A lower court in December ruled in favor of Texas and barred federal agents from removing the barriers.
The latest U.S. Supreme Court filing by the Department of Homeland Security this week renews its request to prevent the state from blocking federal agents from area.
“Border Patrol’s normal access to the border through entry points in the federal border barrier is likewise blocked by the Texas National Guard installing its own gates and placing armed personnel in those locations to control entry,” the filing stated.
The filing continued, “And the Texas National Guard has likewise blocked Border Patrol from using an access road through the preexisting state border barrier by stationing a military Humvee there.”
White House spokesperson Angelo Fernandez Hernandez told Reuters in a statement on Friday that the state’s efforts to block Border Patrol agents were essentially a form of political theater.
“Governor Abbott continues his extreme political stunts that not only seek to demonize and dehumanize people, but that also make it harder and more dangerous for Border Patrol to do their jobs,” he said.
The park takeover appeared to be a component of Abbott’s attempts to highlight migrant crossings and shame the Biden administration for what he and other top Republicans have characterized as an open border policy. Abbott has been sending planeloads of migrants to cities led by elected Democrats that have vowed to care for them or otherwise provide sanctuary.
At a news conference Friday, Abbott said the Eagle Pass takeover was legal and necessary to prevent border crossings to “maintain operational control.”
The governor was criticized for remarks during a radio appearance Jan. 5 during which he said Texas was doing everything short of killing migrants in order to stop illegal crossings.
“The only thing we are not doing is we’re not shooting people who come across the border, because, of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security on Saturday criticized Abbott’s policies as beyond everyday politics.
“The Texas governor’s policies are cruel, dangerous, and inhumane, and Texas’s blatant disregard for federal authority over immigration poses grave risks,” it said. “The State of Texas should stop interfering with the U.S. Border Patrol’s enforcement of U.S. law.”
A CPB spokesperson expressed a similar sentiment Saturday: “We are saddened by tragic migrant drownings in Eagle Pass. We remain gravely concerned by actions that prevent the U.S. Border Patrol from performing their essential missions of arresting individuals who enter the United States unlawfully and providing humanitarian response to individuals in need.”