By Paul J. Weber
Mexico's government has repeatedly raised concerns with the U.S. about large buoys Texas put on the Rio Grande to deter migrants and agreements between the two countries could suffer if the floating barrier remains in place, a State Department official said in court Tuesday.
The testimony sought to reinforce what the Biden administration argues are the diplomatic stakes over wrecking-ball-sized buoys that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott authorized this summer as part of the Republican's increasingly hardline measures in the name of curbing the flow of migrants crossing the border.
U.S. District Judge David Ezra did not immediately rule at the conclusion of the hearing Tuesday in Austin. At one point, Ezra said the issue centered on whether Abbott has the power to unilaterally try stopping what the governor has described as an “invasion” on America's southern border.
“Mexico has sensitivities about sovereignty and doesn't want to be seen as a lesser partner to the United States,” said Hillary Quam, the State Department's coordinator for border affairs between U.S. and Mexico.
The hearing is one of two key court cases in Texas this week surrounding immigration. On Thursday, the Biden administration will again be in court, this time on the defense as it tries to keep in place a program designed to allow people to come to the U.S. from four countries.
Texas is one of 21 states that have sued over that program, and a victory would undercut a broader policy seeking to encourage migrants to use the Biden administration’s preferred pathways into the country. A decision in that hearing, which will be held in Victoria, Texas, also was not expected to come immediately.
In Austin, Quam said Mexico has raised concerns “at the highest diplomatic levels” with the U.S. in the short time that the buoys — which stretch roughly the length of a handful of soccer fields on a portion of the river near the Texas city of Eagle Pass — have been on the water. Quam said infrastructure projects between the countries and Mexico's commitments to delivering water to the U.S. could stall over the barrier.
The hearing was held days after Texas repositioned the barrier closer to U.S. soil. During a trip Monday to Eagle Pass, Abbott said the barrier was moved “out of an abundance of caution” after what he described as allegations that they had drifted to Mexico's side of the river. He added that he did not know whether the allegations were true.
Ezra questioned why Texas would have moved the barrier if it was already on the U.S. side and whether the currents of the river were causing the buoys to drift.
“If it were in a position Texas was comfortable with, they wouldn't have done that,” Ezra said.
The state's only called witness was a representative from Cochrane Global, which manufactured the buoys, who testified that barrier was securely in place. Patrick Sweeten, a special counsel for the Texas attorney general's office, also drew attention to recent comments made by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that ties between the U.S. and Mexico were strong.
Ezra, who was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan, made a point to emphasize at the end of the hearing that his ruling would stick to the dispute at hand and not veer into politics. A ruling either way would likely be appealed to the conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In the meantime, Abbott's sprawling border mission known as Operation Lone Star continues to face numerous legal challenges, including a new one filed Monday by four migrant men arrested by Texas troopers after crossing the border.
The men, including a father and son, are among thousands of migrants who since 2021 have been arrested on trespassing charges in the state. Most have either had their cases dismissed or entered guilty pleas in exchange for time served. But the plaintiffs remained in a Texas jail for two to six weeks after they should have been released, according to the lawsuit filed by the Texas ACLU and the Texas Fair Defense Project.
Instead of a sheriff’s office allowing the jails to release the men, the lawsuit alleges, they were transported to federal immigration facilities and then sent to Mexico.
Officials in Kinney and Val Verde County, which are named in the lawsuit, have not commented or responded to the claims.
Associated Press writer Valerie Gonzalez in McAllen, Texas, contributed to this report.
Updated August 23, 2023 at 5:30 am E.T. with additional details throughout.