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Justice Department sues to force Texas to remove floating barriers in Rio Grande

<i>Eric Gay/AP</i><br/>Workers help deploy a string of large buoys to be used as a border barrier at the center of the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass
Eric Gay/AP
Workers help deploy a string of large buoys to be used as a border barrier at the center of the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass

By Priscilla Alvarez and Hannah Rabinowitz, CNN

(CNN) — The US Department of Justice is suing the state of Texas over its use of floating barriers in the Rio Grande, which Gov. Greg Abbott has argued is intended to deter migrants from crossing into the state from Mexico.

The Justice Department is seeking an injunction to bar Texas from building additional barriers in the river and asking a court to order the state to take the existing barriers down at its own expense.

In the lawsuit, filed in the US District Court in the Western District of Texas, the department alleges that Texas and Abbott, a Republican, violated the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act by building a structure in US water without permission from United States Army Corps of Engineers.

The lawsuit further alleges that the floating barriers “constitute an unauthorized obstruction to the navigable capacity of waters of the United States.”

“We allege that Texas has flouted federal law by installing a barrier in the Rio Grande without obtaining the required federal authorization,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. “This floating barrier poses threats to navigation and public safety and presents humanitarian concerns. Additionally, the presence of the floating barrier has prompted diplomatic protests by Mexico and risks damaging US foreign policy.”

The lawsuit comes after Abbott said earlier Monday that he would not order the floating barriers be removed from the Rio Grande, in defiance of a Justice Department request.

“Texas will fully utilize its constitutional authority to deal with the crisis you have caused,” Abbott wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden following last week’s DOJ request to remove the barriers.

He added, “Texas will see you in court, Mr. President.”

The Justice Department’s legal action over the floating barriers is based on a clause in federal law that “prohibits the creation of any obstruction to the navigable capacity of waters of the United States, and further prohibits building any structure in such waters without authorization from the United States Army Corps of Engineers.”

Abbott claimed in a Fox News appearance Monday evening that the clause does not apply but did not say why.

“The fact of the matter is they are using some obscure statute to try and stop us from continuing to deploy those buoys,” the governor said. “It’s not grounded in law whatsoever.”

The showdown between Abbott and the federal government comes as Texas’ treatment of migrants who attempt to cross into the US illegally faces increased scrutiny. Biden administration officials have grown increasingly concerned in recent months about Abbott’s measures, which have disrupted US Border Patrol operations in the region and put migrants at risk. A Homeland Security official told CNN last week that Abbott’s moves are “making our job harder” while disturbing images of migrants with injuries and troubling reports of Texas troops pushing migrants back to Mexico have drawn criticism from the White House and scores of Democratic lawmakers.

The Justice Department told Texas on Thursday that it intended to file legal action against the placement of the floating barriers in the Rio Grande as part of the state’s operation along the Texas-Mexico border, according to sources familiar and a letter obtained by CNN. The Justice Department gave Texas a deadline of Monday at 2 p.m. ET to commit to the removal of the floating border barriers or face legal action, according to the letter sent to Abbott.

The Republican governor pushed back on those demands, saying, “I have asserted Texas’s ‘sovereign interest in protecting [her] borders. I have done so in my role as the commander-in-chief of our State’s militia under Article IV, § 7 of the Texas Constitution.”

Later Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly slammed Abbott for what she called “dangerous and unlawful” actions.

“We actually saw the president’s plan working and what you see the governor doing is dangerous and unlawful,” Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday. “It’s actually hurting the process. It’s hurting the process of what we’re trying to do.”

Later, Jean-Pierre said bluntly, “He’s literally operating in bad faith.”

“Governor Abbott is not moving forward in good faith. He’s just not,” she said. “The one person that is sowing chaos is Governor Abbott. That’s where he continues to do political stunts in an inhumane way.”

Texas is already facing a lawsuit against its installation of a marine floating barrier. The owner of a Texas canoe and kayaking company filed the lawsuit earlier this month on the same day that Texas started deploying buoys for the barrier. That suit lists the state of Texas and Abbott, as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard.

The dispute is separate from the ongoing assessment of mistreatment of migrants, which the Justice Department described as “troubling reports.”

The inspector general for the Texas Department of Public Safety has received several additional complaints from DPS personnel on the front lines at the border about the treatment of migrants trying to enter the United States, three sources familiar with the investigation told CNN. Among the complaints are reports that Texas troopers were told to push back migrants into the Rio Grande and ordered not to give them water.

Abbott’s office has denied that any orders have been given that “would compromise the lives of those attempting to cross the border illegally.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Jasmine Wright and Taylor Romine contributed to this report.

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