Human rights advocates called for federal intervention Monday after it was reported that state troopers assigned to Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border militarization initiative have been ordered to push migrant children back into the Rio Grande and to deny water to asylum-seekers amid a life-threatening heatwave.
The exclusive reporting by Benjamin Wermund of the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News is based on a July 3 email in which an unnamed Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer “discloses several previously unreported incidents” they witnessed in Eagle Pass, where Abbott “has strung miles of razor wire and deployed a wall of buoys in the Rio Grande.”
As the outlets — both owned by Hearst Newspapers — reported:
According to the email, a pregnant woman having a miscarriage was found late last month caught in the wire, doubled over in pain. A four-year-old girl passed out from heat exhaustion after she tried to go through it and was pushed back by Texas National Guard soldiers. A teenager broke his leg trying to navigate the water around the wire and had to be carried by his father.
The email, which the trooper sent to a superior, suggests that Texas has set “traps” of razor wire-wrapped barrels in parts of the river with high water and low visibility. And it says the wire has increased the risk of drownings by forcing migrants into deeper stretches of the river.
The trooper called for a series of rigorous policy changes to improve safety for migrants, including removing the barrels and revoking the directive on withholding water.
“Due to the extreme heat, the order to not give people water needs to be immediately reversed as well,” the trooper wrote, later adding: “I believe we have stepped over a line into the inhumane.”
“This is absolutely monstrous, inhumane policy,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) tweeted Monday in response to the article. “Gov. Abbott’s troops have been told to push migrant children back into the Rio Grande to drown.”
Sawyer Hackett, a senior adviser to former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, Joaquin’s brother, asked, “Where is the federal response to Greg Abbott’s illegal games?”
Responding to Hackett’s Twitter thread, progressive activist Robert Cruickshank wrote, “The Biden administration needs to step in and put an end to this brutality being waged by the state of Texas against human beings.”
Political communications strategist Murshed Zaheed asked, “Does the Biden administration have any control over U.S. immigration policies?” As Zaheed pointed out, the “disturbing news” from Texas comes just days after The Intercept reported that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement disobeyed a White House order “to narrow its immigration arrests and prioritize deportation for migrants that pose threats to border security, public safety, and national security.”
Rep. Castro said that he “raised the issue of Abbott’s barbarity” on Monday night with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “I read him the title and first paragraph of the San Antonio Express-News article and urged the administration to intervene — and to remove the death traps Abbott has installed for the sake of human rights.”
Through his so-called Operation Lone Star program, Abbott has in recent weeks intensified his deadly effort to prevent immigrants from entering the United States. Texas’ GOP governor claims that his actions are a necessary response to President Joe Biden’s “dangerous open border policies,” even as rights groups have condemned Biden for continuing in modified form his notoriously xenophobic predecessor’s crackdown on asylum-seekers in what amounts to a bipartisan flouting of international human rights law.
Texas’ installation of buoys in the Rio Grande has provoked complaints from Mexico, which told the U.S. government in a diplomatic note last week that the floating barrier may violate 1944 and 1970 treaties on boundaries and water.
U.S. Border Patrol officials have also issued internal warnings that the rampant use of razor wire is preventing their agents from reaching migrants in need of help and heightening the risk of drownings.
The DPS officer voiced similar concerns, writing that the placement of the wire along the river “forces people to cross in other areas that are deeper and not as safe for people carrying kids and bags.”
As Wermund reported:
The trooper’s email sheds new light on a series of previously reported drownings in the river during a one-week stretch earlier this month, including a mother and at least one of her two children, who federal Border Patrol agents spotted struggling to cross the Rio Grande on July 1.
According to the email, a DPS boat found the mother and one of the children, who went under the water for a minute. They were pulled from the river and given medical care before being transferred to EMS, but were later declared deceased at the hospital. The second child was never found, the email said.
In addition, the DPS officer detailed how, on June 25, “troopers came across a group of 120 people camped out along a fence set up along the river,” the journalist noted. “The group included several small children and babies who were nursing, the trooper wrote. The entire group was exhausted, hungry, and tired, the trooper wrote. The shift officer in command ordered the troopers to ‘push the people back into the water to go to Mexico,’ the email says.”
According to Wermund: “The trooper wrote that the troopers decided it was not the right thing to do ‘with the very real potential of exhausted people drowning.’ They called command again and expressed their concerns and were given the order to ‘tell them to go to Mexico and get into our vehicle and leave,’ the trooper wrote. After they left, other troopers worked with Border Patrol to provide care to the migrants, the email said.”
In a statement, Mario Carrillo, Texas-based campaigns manager for America’s Voice, lamented that “my state… is now pushing small children and nursing babies back into the Rio Grande, where deployed razor wire and buoys have already increased the likelihood of drownings.”
“It’s almost too much to comprehend. Unfortunately, as horrific as this is, it’s not all that unpredictable given the escalation in dehumanization of migrants,” said Carillo. “Abbott, among many other Republicans, has placed political fear-mongering above all, including basic decency, human rights, and how we treat even the most vulnerable in need.”
America’s Voice executive director Vanessa Cárdenas echoed her colleague, pointing out that “nearly every Republican ― on the campaign trail, and in the halls of Congress ― has escalated their false portrayal of immigrants as threats and invaders.”
“At least fourteen states are using taxpayer money to support Gov. Abbott in his imagined border war against desperate women, men, and children seeking asylum,” Cárdenas added. “The climate that is created by these dangerous lies and the relentless attacks opens the door to treating immigrants ― even nursing babies and children ― as less than human.”
DPS spokesperson Travis Considine did not comment on all the contents of the officer’s email but denied there is a policy against giving water to migrants.
Meanwhile, DPS Director Steven McCraw admitted there has been a recent spike in injuries due to razor wire, including seven instances in which migrants needed “elevated medical attention” from July 4 to July 13. Those are on top of multiple injuries, described in the email, that asylum-seekers suffered on June 30.
For his part, Julián Castro argued that “Abbott has made his career by persecuting people seeking a better life in America.”
“This is awful,” he added. “Exactly how much cruelty is enough?”
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