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White House blames Texas in deadly migrant drowning

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

A woman and two children drowned in the Rio Grande on Friday night as they were attempting to cross the U.S. southern border. Border protection officials say the state of Texas blocked them from conducting a rescue operation. The incident has renewed the Biden administration's condemnation of Governor Greg Abbott's border security initiatives. From San Antonio, Texas Public Radio's Dan Katz reports.

DAN KATZ, BYLINE: Arresting migrants who cross illegally and providing humanitarian relief is the job of the U.S. Border Patrol. But last Wednesday, Governor Greg Abbott seized that authority when he took control of a public park in Eagle Pass, a heavily crossed section of the Rio Grande.

ROLANDO SALINAS: That is not a decision that we agreed to. This is not something that we asked for as a city.

KATZ: That's Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas. The city is at the center of Abbott's controversial Operation Lone Star border security program, which uses Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and Texas National Guard soldiers to deter migration. Resident Amerika Garcia Grewal says she was shocked when she found National Guard Humvees blocking the entrances to the park and its main gate completely shuttered.

AMERIKA GARCIA GREWAL: In the entire time that I have lived here, I have never seen it shut.

KATZ: City officials say they were told the state was taking control to stop undocumented migrants from crossing into the city. Eagle Pass experienced a rise in migration at the end of the year, but that has since subsided considerably. Nonetheless, Abbott said in an interview with right-wing talk show host Dana Loesch that the state is doing everything it can to stop people from crossing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DANA SHOW")

GREG ABBOTT: The only thing that we're not doing is we're not shooting people who come across the border because, of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder.

JOAQUIN CASTRO: His rhetoric has gotten bloodthirsty and chilly.

KATZ: That's Congressman Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat.

CASTRO: Intentionally keeping people from saving a drowning mother with her kids - that's bloodthirsty. You know, that's "Lord Of The Flies" stuff.

KATZ: On Friday, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to intervene to allow Border Patrol to regain access to the area. Hours later, Border Patrol agents nearby learned that a group of migrants were in distress. After unsuccessful phone calls to Texas officials, they drove over to Shelby Park, according to Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat.

HENRY CUELLAR: The Texas military said that they could not grant access even in emergency situations.

KATZ: The agency that oversees the state's National Guard says it performed its own search and observed no migrants but did not expressly deny that it blocked Border Patrol from entering the area. The bodies of the women and two children were later recovered by Mexican authorities. The White House said it's still gathering facts about the tragic deaths, but it should not have been Abbott's agents conducting the search or blocking federal access. Congressman Castro is among Texas Democrats urging the president to take action.

CASTRO: I think that at this point, the president has no choice but to consider federalizing the Texas National Guard.

KATZ: For now, the state of Texas continues to block access to this 2.5-mile stretch of border to everyone, including the Border Patrol.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Katz in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dan Katz
TPR's News Director Katz leads the organization’s news and journalism efforts, overseeing the newsroom’s day-to-day management and the development of a strategic vision for the news division. He also serves on the organization’s executive leadership team. TPR’s news team currently has 16 staff members, including reporters dedicated to in-depth coverage of subjects including Arts & Culture, Bioscience & Medicine, Education, Technology & Entrepreneurship, Military & Veterans Issues and State Government.Previously, Katz served as the news director of WSHU Public Radio. Based in Fairfield, Connecticut, WSHU serves 300,000 weekly listeners in Connecticut, Long Island and New York’s Hudson Valley. At WSHU, Katz oversaw a 15-person newsroom and has helped launch the organization’s business desk, podcasts and its first daily talk show. While there, he created the station’s news fellowship program for student journalists of diverse backgrounds. Previously, Katz worked as reporter, producer and on-air host at WUFT-FM and WUFT-TV in Gainesville, Florida.