Texas arrests migrants at border park, defying Biden order to stop blocking Border Patrol

Several soldiers standing guard behind a fence and razor-wire on a riverbank
The Texas National Guard continued blocking U.S. Border Patrol agents’ access to the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass after the federal government’s deadline Wednesday night.
(Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

Texas officials arrested migrants on suspicion of criminal trespassing at a park in Eagle Pass, Texas, late Wednesday night, intensifying a legal battle between Gov. Greg Abbott and the Biden administration and escalating a showdown over border security policies.

Tensions in Texas come amid a record-high influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, which could spell problems for President Biden in an election year.

For weeks, Texas has denied U.S. Border Patrol agents entry into Shelby Park and the surrounding area, which is restricted with fencing and concertina wire.


A woman and two children drowned Friday while trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico near the area that Texas has sealed off from federal agents.

The deaths have spurred a dispute between the federal government and Texas authorities over whether the lack of access to the area played a role.

The arrests by state authorities came as Texas defied a federal cease-and-desist letter to Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton that said the state had until Wednesday night to stop blocking Border Patrol agents from having full access to the Shelby Park area or it would refer the matter to the Justice Department “for appropriate action.”

Under the U.S. Constitution, states have no authority to enforce immigration laws, which fall under federal jurisdiction.

But Texas has creatively applied state laws, such misdemeanor trespassing, to arrest border-crossers.

Chris Olivarez, a spokesperson with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, that Texas troopers were acting under a “disaster declaration” first issued in March 2021 by Abbott.


Olivarez shared videos and photos of migrants being handcuffed and led away by authorities. Officials are arresting single men and women on criminal trespassing charges, he wrote.

The latest salvo in the dispute comes after Texas unsuccessfully sued the federal government late last year, claiming the Border Patrol had illegally destroyed state property when its agents cut through the state’s concertina wire to assist migrants.

The Texas Military Department has spent millions of dollars to place tens of thousands of rolls of wire along the border in Texas, including in Eagle Pass, where migrants have been seriously injured.

In July, Texas installed a floating buoy barrier in the river to deter migrants, which drew condemnation for increasing their chances of drowning. Migrants are already at high risk of being swept away by the strong currents of the Rio Grande.

The United Nations says drowning is the leading cause of migrant deaths in the Americas, killing nearly 3,000 since 2014. More than 5,000 trying to cross from Mexico into the U.S. were counted as dead or missing.

Texas has seized a city park in a major corridor for illegal crossings and denied entry to Border Patrol agents.

Jan. 17, 2024

“The recent actions by the State of Texas have impeded operations of the Border Patrol,” wrote Jonathan E. Meyer, general counsel for the Homeland Security Department. “Texas has demonstrated that even in the most exigent circumstances, it will not allow Border Patrol access to the border to conduct law enforcement and emergency response activities.”


Paxton released a three-page letter Wednesday night that disputed Homeland Security claims and said that because “the facts and law side with Texas, the State will continue utilizing its constitutional authority to defend her territory.”

According to Paxton’s letter, Homeland Security has a “lack of on-the-ground understanding of what is happening in Shelby Park.”

Federal agents can access the park in medical emergencies, Paxton said. He also criticized what he said were the federal government’s attempts to blame the recent drowning deaths on the state as “vile,” saying “that tragedy is your fault.”

The Biden administration has asked the Supreme Court to intervene by vacating a lower court’s injunction that prevents Border Patrol agents from cutting or moving concertina wire erected by the state that prevents access to the area.

Mexican officials on Saturday confirmed that they had recovered the bodies of the three drowning victims and rescued four other migrants, including the two initially reported to be in distress who had attempted to return to Mexico, according to the filing.

The drownings demonstrate that “Texas is firm in its continued efforts to exercise complete control of the border,” and “to block Border Patrol’s access to the border even in emergency circumstances,” the Biden administration wrote in the court filing.

But Texas has said it is “wholly inaccurate” that Border Patrol agents were prevented from saving the migrants.


“At the time that Border Patrol requested access, the drownings had occurred, Mexican authorities were recovering the bodies, and Border Patrol expressed these facts to the [Texas Military Department] personnel on site,” the Military Department said in a statement Sunday night.

According to the statement, soldiers had confirmed that when the Border Patrol requested access to the park, they stated that Mexican authorities had already recovered the bodies of two drowned migrants.

The Border Patrol “specifically” requested access to the park to locate two people assumed to be traveling with those who drowned and who had crossed the boat ramp, the state Military Department said.

The department said it had apprehended two people, releasing one to the state Department of Public Safety and transferring the other for emergency medical services to treat their hypothermia. Military officials had searched the river with lights, thermals and night-vision goggles but did not see any other migrants trying to cross or in distress, the statement said.

Times staff writer Jack Herrera in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.