BROWNSVILLE, Texas — The U.S. Homeland Security Department said Saturday that Texas denied federal agents access to a stretch of the border when they were trying to rescue three migrants who drowned.

The federal government’s account came hours after U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said the Texas Military Department and Texas National Guard “did not grant access to Border Patrol agents to save the migrants” Friday night. Mexican authorities recovered the bodies of a woman and two children Saturday across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas.

“This is a tragedy, and the State bears responsibility,” said Cuellar, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee for homeland security, in a statement.

The drownings come amid escalating tensions between Texas and the U.S. government over immigration enforcement. On Friday, the Justice Department told the U.S. Supreme Court that Texas had taken control of an area in Eagle Pass known as Shelby Park and was not letting Border Patrol agents enter.

The Texas Military Department said in a statement Saturday night that one of its units had searched the river after Border Patrol alerted them of the situation but did not find any migrants. The statement did not address the U.S. government’s claims that Texas authorities had “physically barred” Border Patrol agents from entering the park at the time.

Homeland Security echoed Cuellar’s account of the distress call. In a filing to the U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday, Texas acknowledged seizing the city park on the border but said the federal government had mischaracterized its actions and it was trying to resolve any disputes over access.


“In responding to a distress call from the Mexican government, Border Patrol agents were physically barred by Texas officials from entering the park,” Homeland Security said in a statement. “The Texas governor’s policies are cruel, dangerous, and inhumane, and Texas’s blatant disregard for federal authority over immigration poses grave risks.”

The park lies in a major corridor for migrants entering illegally from Mexico and is the center of Abbott’s aggressive attempts to stop them, known as Operation Lone Star. Migrants are periodically swept away to their deaths by the current of the Rio Grande.

Abbott’s office referred questions about the drownings to the Texas Military Department, which said its security personnel saw Mexican authorities responding to an incident across the river about 45 minutes after Border Patrol made the state aware of the situation. The department said it maintains water rescue equipment and works with local paramedics to assist migrants needing medical care.

“At no time did TMD security personnel along the river observe any distressed migrants, nor did TMD turn back any illegal immigrants from the US during this period,” the department said in the statement.

Cuellar, who represents a Texas border district, said Mexican authorities alerted the Border Patrol to the distressed migrants struggling in the river late Friday. He said federal agents attempted to call and relay the information to Texas National Guard members at Shelby Park, without success. Agents then visited the entrance to the park but were turned away, according to the congressman, who said they were told a Guard member would be sent to investigate the situation.

The 50-acre park is owned by the city, but it is used by the state Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to patrol border crossings. Although daily crossings diminished from the thousands to about 500, state authorities put up fences and stationed military vehicles by the entry to deny access to the public and Border Patrol agents this week, according to a court filing.


In its Supreme Court filing, Texas challenged claims that Border Patrol agents were denied access. They said the Border Patrol has scaled down its presence since summer when the state moved its resources and manpower to the park.

Federal agents were also granted access to the area to secure supplies, the state said.

Cuellar said there was no immediate information available about the victims’ nationalities, relationships and ages. The Mexican government made no public statements.

On Saturday members of the public held a ceremony at the park to mark the deaths of migrants in their region. Julio Vasquez, a pastor, said access was granted after making requests with the city and sharing pictures showing the entry still fenced up and guarded by members of the National Guard and military vehicles.

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