For more than two years, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas has pursued an increasingly aggressive approach to the border, sending thousands of National Guard soldiers and police officers to patrol the Rio Grande and testing the legal limits of state action on immigration.
But in recent weeks, Texas law enforcement officials have taken those tactics much further, embarking on what the state called a “hold the line” operation, according to interviews with state officials and documents reviewed by The New York Times. They fortified the riverbanks with additional concertina wire, denied water to some migrants, shouted at others to return to Mexico and, in some cases, deliberately failed to alert federal Border Patrol agents who could help incoming groups get to the coast and make asylum claims, the review found .
The increasingly brutal, no-nonsense approach has worried people inside the U.S. Border Patrol and the Texas Department of Public Safety, the agency primarily responsible for enforcing the governor’s border policies. Several Texas officers filed internal complaints and expressed opposition.
The reality of these tactics in one area of the border, around the small town of Eagle Pass, was detailed in an email from one state police doctor, who described exhausted migrants cut with razor wire, a teenager breaking his leg to escape the. barriers and officers directed to withhold water from migrants struggling in the dangerous heat. The actions described in the email drew widespread condemnation from Texas Democrats in Congress and from the White House after the email was released. reported by The Houston Chronicle.
“If they are true, it is disgusting. It is despicable. It’s dangerous,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, referring to the reports. “We are talking about the fundamental values of who we are as a country.” The Justice Department said Wednesday it was assessing the situation.
But the objections within the Texas Department of Public Safety extended far beyond a single doctor: At least three other officers working around Eagle Pass, a main arrival point for migrants who cross illegally, expressed their outrage and doubt to higher-ups about the. actions they saw, according to internal correspondence and interviews with state officials briefed on the border response.
And it is not only officers who describe the severity of the new tactics. In several interviews with The Times in Eagle Pass, about two hours southwest of San Antonio, migrants nursing injuries said they encountered phalanxes of police along banks of the United States that had recently been cordoned off with barbed wire, some of it underwater.
“They kept yelling at us, ‘Go back, go back!'” said Reyna Gloria Dominguez, 42, who arrived in Eagle Pass from Honduras in a wheelchair. “We said, ‘We can’t.’ My son told them: ‘She needs help. She is hurt.”
Similar scenes played out elsewhere along the border, including in the Texas town of Brownsville, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, where state troopers stood guard at checkpoints behind two layers of concertina wire.
The growing aggression has created international tension with Mexico because, in addition to placing a barbed wire, Texas also deployed a 1,000-foot floating barrier of buoys into the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass this month. Mexican officials said the barrier may have violated international treaties and could invade Mexican territory.
Texas officials blamed the Biden administration for allowing a chaotic situation on the border. They said the buoy barrier and concertina wire were designed to discourage people from taking the risk of a dangerous swim across the Rio Grande and direct them to safe, official border crossings.
“No orders or directions were given under Operation Lone Star that would endanger the lives of those trying to cross the border illegally,” Mr. Abbott said in a joint statement with top officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department. . , using the name of the state operation.
The new Texas tactics have damaged relations between state and federal law enforcement agencies, which have long worked together to police the border.
In a memo to the Texas DPS last month, Border Patrol officials in the Eagle Pass area expressed concern that the concertina wire placed along the water by Texas officials is creating new dangers for migrants as well as federal border agents.
At the same time, state police inspectors have been directed by their own superiors not to alert Border Patrol when they encounter groups of migrants, but rather to handle the situation themselves, according to a departmental text message addressed to sergeants, obtained by The Times.
“Would you please send a message to your troops,” the text read, referring to those stationed at a city-owned park near the international bridge in Eagle Pass. “They should NOT call BP when they see a group approaching or already on the bank.” Officers were instead directed to make arrests for criminal trespass, an element of Operation Lone Star.
The text message, which was sent last week and was not previously reported, also directed officers to tell migrants to “go back to Mexico” and cross the border at one of the international bridges.
Many of the hikers who arrived at Eagle Pass after passing through the treacherous new gauntlet were left shaken, and some were injured.
Gleyders Durant, 27, a migrant from Venezuela, peeled off bandages on his right foot to reveal several wounds. He said that as he crossed the river on Friday and stepped onto American soil – his 3-year-old son on his shoulders and his wife following them – he felt a sharp pain. Blood spurted through one of his tennis shoes.
“That’s when I realized I was stepping on a piece of wire hidden under dark waters,” he said. Panicked, he stretched out his arms and carried his wife over it. “It was hidden, under the water.”
Nearby, in a quiet center in Eagle Pass, another migrant from Venezuela, Marjorie Escobar, 32, described a disturbing encounter Saturday between her group of about 20 people, including children as young as 4, and several Texas law enforcement agents.
As some in her group threw inflatables and blankets over the concertina wire to avoid injury, she said, the agents began yelling, “Go back to Mexico!” and “If you cross, we will arrest and charge you.”
Then, she said, an agent wearing a brown uniform and cowboy hat who appeared to be a Texas state trooper roughly pulled a blanket off the barrier as people climbed over it. The abrupt maneuver caused a young woman to hit her face on a spike, leaving a gash on her forehead, Ms. Escobar recalled. She said several of the officers stood still for several minutes, until an officer wearing what looked like a military uniform offered aid to the injured woman.
State officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the incident.
“I was still in the river, about to jump in, when I saw what that agent was doing and was horrified,” she said of the officer in the cowboy hat. “She was crying, saying, ‘Help me, help me.'”
Because of the increased number of migrants taken to the only hospital in Eagle Pass, residents often waited up to eight hours to receive medical care, Mayor Rolando Salinas Jr. said. “I support legal migration and proper law enforcement,” he said. in an interview on Wednesday. “What I’m against is the use of tactics that hurt people.”
Texas’ tactics appear to have intensified ahead of the repeal in late May of Title 42, a public health policy imposed during the coronavirus pandemic that allowed federal agents to quickly deport most incoming migrants.
The Department of Public Safety defended its approach and said officers were providing aid to migrants in medical distress. “There is no directive or policy that instructs troopers to withhold water from migrants or push them back into the river,” agency spokesman Travis Considine said.
At the same time, Mr. Considine said, officers who have been directed to prevent migrants from entering and to instruct them to return to Mexico are given some discretion in how they carry out those orders.
“If there are women and children who ask for water, they get water,” he said. “A group of 30 adult males come, and they ask for water. I will not say that there are no soldiers who say: ‘We will not give you water.’” He said that if the migrants did not appear to be in distress, soldiers could tell them to go get water in Mexico. .
The four officers who raised concerns said there were express orders to deny water to migrants and tell them to go back to Mexico. Three said they were told by supervisors that troopers did not have to notify the Border Patrol when migrants were in the water or on the Texas riverbank.
One of the officers, Private Nicholas Wingate, was a doctor. In an email to supervisors on July 3, he said many hikers, including a pregnant woman, had become entangled in the razor wire. He said the woman, 19, was “doubled over” and “in obvious pain, stuck in the victim wire.” A 4-year-old girl who tried to cross was “repressed by Texas Guard soldiers due to orders given to them,” he wrote in the email.
With temperatures rising past 100 degrees that day, the girl passed out and became “unresponsive,” Trooper Wingate wrote. She was taken away by emergency medics.
Mr. Wingate also described seeing a father with lacerations on his leg after pulling his child from what he called a “barrel trap,” a plastic barrel floating in the water with concertina wire surrounding it. “I believe we have crossed the line into the inhumane,” he wrote.
Mr Considine said the agency had not deployed “barrel traps”. But he said it was possible that a barrel that had been wrapped in concertina wire in one part of the river to hold it in place floated away in rising waters, although he said the agency had not confirmed that was the case.
On the question of coordination with Border Patrol, Mr. Considine said officers did not alert Border Patrol when arresting migrants for criminal trespassing. He said the number of such arrests has increased recently in and around Eagle Pass.
But federal law allows people who enter the United States, even illegally, to apply for asylum by stating that they faced persecution in their home country.
It is not clear how many migrants have died crossing the border in recent weeks.
The river is always treacherous, and four people, including a baby, drowned this month in the course of a few days. According to the sheriff’s office in Maverick County, which includes Eagle Pass, 26 hikers have drowned so far in 2023. There were 77 hiker drownings in the county all of last year.
For some local officials, the hardened border sent the wrong message.
“Seeing barbed wire on the banks of the river, it doesn’t look good for the United States,” said Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber. “We are used to seeing all that in communist countries. Now we have them here in Texas.”
“It’s like a black eye. And it doesn’t work anyway,” he added. “It doesn’t stop the immigrants.”
Miriam Jordan contributed reporting from Brownsville, Texas, and Glenn Thrush and Michael D. Shear from Washington.