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Texas defies federal threat to abandon border area, setting up legal showdown

The attorney general of Texas on Wednesday defied federal officials who demanded state authorities abandon a public park along the U.S.-Mexico border that state National Guard soldiers seized last week, setting up a legal showdown with the Biden administration over the country’s immigration policies.

Over the weekend, the Department of Homeland Security called on Texas officials to stop blocking federal Border Patrol from entering Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, an area next to the Rio Grande that the agency had been using to hold and inspect migrants. The department said Texas’ move to commandeer the park was obstructing Border Patrol’s obligations to apprehend and process migrants.

The top lawyer at DHS, Jonathan Meyer, warned Texas Attorney General Paxton over the weekend that the department would refer the matter to the Justice Department for potential legal action if the state did not relent.

In a scathing response to Meyer on Wednesday, Paxton indicated that Texas would not back down, rejecting the Biden administration’s accusation that state’s actions were “clearly unconstitutional.” 

“Because the facts and law side with Texas, the State will continue utilizing its constitutional authority to defend her territory, and I will continue defending those lawful efforts in court,” Paxton wrote.

Texas National Guard soldiers install additional razor wire along the Rio Grande on Jan. 10, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas.

John Moore/Getty Images


“Rather than addressing Texas’s urgent requests for protection, President Biden has authorized DHS to send a threatening letter through its lawyers,” Paxton added. “But Texas has lawyers, too, and I will continue to stand up for this State’s constitutional powers of self-defense.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on Paxton’s letter.

Texas National Guard soldiers took control of Shelby Park in the middle of last week, alarming federal authorities and local officials in Eagle Pass, who said they did not approve the takeover of a city park. 

While Texas said the abrupt move was designed to deter migrants from crossing into the area illegally, the Biden administration has argued the park’s seizure has prevented Border Patrol agents from doing their jobs, including during emergency situations.

Over the weekend, federal officials and a Texas congressman said Texas National Guard soldiers barred Border Patrol agents from attempting to render aid to a group of migrants in distress, including a woman and two children who drowned. Texas officials denied the allegation, and the Justice Department later clarified in a filing to the Supreme Court that the drownings had already occurred when Border Patrol agents asked for and were denied permission to enter Shelby Park to attempt to help other migrants in distress. 

Still, the Justice Department suggested the situation could have played out differently if Texas had not sealed off Shelby Park.

“It is impossible to say what might have happened if Border Patrol had had its former access to the area — including through its surveillance trucks that assisted in monitoring the area,” the Justice Department said Monday. “At the very least, however, Border Patrol would have had the opportunity to take any available steps to fulfill its responsibilities and assist its counterparts in the Mexican government with undertaking the rescue mission. Texas made that impossible.”

While it’s unclear whether the Justice Department will sue Texas to regain federal control of Shelby Park, it has already alerted the Supreme Court of the situation in a case regarding the razor wire the state has set up to repel migrant crossings. The Justice Department is asking the high court to suspend a lower court ruling that has generally prohibited Border Patrol from cutting the wire to process migrants who are already on American soil. 

The Eagle Pass standoff is the latest flashpoint in a political battle between Texas Gov. Greg Abott and President Biden over how the U.S. should deal with migrant crossings, which have soared to record levels over the past three years. Among other actions, Abbott has directed Texas to bus tens of thousands of migrants to Democratic-led cities with “sanctuary” policies. 

Over the weekend, the White House denounced Texas’ move in Eagle Pass as “inhumane” and “dangerous,” saying Border Patrol “must have access to the border to enforce our laws.”

Paxton rebuffed that criticism on Wednesday, telling DHS it was not fully enforcing U.S. immigration law.

“There is not even a pretense that you are trying to prevent the illegal entry of aliens,” he said.

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