The Department of Justice sued the state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday for building a floating barrier at the southern border that the state says will deter migrants but that the Biden administration calls a threat to public safety.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Austin, alleges that Abbott violated the law by building structures in the Rio Grande River without authorization, creating an obstruction in U.S. waters.
The Justice Department is seeking to require Texas officials to remove the barrier at the state’s expense. The suit claims that structures placed in the Rio Grande require approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and that Texas never sought or received such a permit.
“This floating barrier poses threats to navigation and public safety and presents humanitarian concerns,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. “Additionally, the presence of the floating barrier has prompted diplomatic protests by Mexico and risks damaging U.S. foreign policy.”
The lawsuit was expected after the Justice Department sent a letter to Abbott last week disclosing its plans to sue the state if Abbott didn’t remove the barricade, which consists of large buoys to deter migrants coming from Mexico. In its letter, the department cited the “unlawful construction of a floating barrier in the Rio Grande River” and asserted that it might impede the federal government’s “official duties.”
Abbott said in a letter early Monday that he would not comply with the Justice Department’s request to take down the barricade. The department had given the state until Monday to comply. Earlier this month, Texas set up miles of barriers using barbed wire and buoys in the river near Eagle Pass.
“To end the risk that migrants will be harmed crossing the border illegally, you must fully enforce the laws of the United States that prohibit illegal immigration between ports of entry,” Abbott said in the letter, which department lawyers attached to the complaint in the suit. They also included photos of the floating barrier taken by a Border Patrol drone.
In an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier on Monday evening, Abbott asserted that devices like the floating barrier had repelled “tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands,” of people trying to cross the border.
Abbott said that he was willing to litigate the suit up to the Supreme Court in an effort to defend his state’s “sovereignty and its constitutional right to secure the border of our state and our country.” He called on President Joe Biden to enforce border control policies more stringently, adding that until he did, Texas would be “stepping up to do so.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday afternoon that by not complying with the Justice Department request, Abbott was not acting in good faith.
“Instead of coming to the table and trying to figure out a way to work together, [Abbott] continues to do this really cruel, unjust, inhumane ways of moving forward with a system that has been broken for decades,” Jean-Pierre said.
Vice President Kamala Harris also slammed Abbott on Monday, calling the border tactics “inhumane, outrageous and un-American” during a speech in Chicago.
The lawsuit, which names both Abbott and the state of Texas as defendants, was filed by the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division in collaboration with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.
“The Rio Grande is a significant stretch of the southern border of our country,” Jaime Esparza, U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Texas, said in a statement. “We must all recognize that there are laws and policies in place — both domestic and international — to ensure the safety and security of everyone working, living and traveling along the river. These laws cannot be ignored, and my office will take and support the appropriate legal action to uphold them.”
While the suit is aimed at the floating barrier, a Justice Department spokesperson said last week that officials were also examining complaints that Texas state troopers were ordered to push migrants back into the water even though some members of the group were children.
Kelly Garrity and Lucy Hodgman contributed to this report.
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