Texas didn't get permits for razor-wire fence at border in latest Gov. Abbott-Biden standoff

Week after week, Texas National Guard soldiers unfurl concertina wire on the bank of the Rio Grande, along the concrete levy and the ragged edge where tall cane grows. The military-style barrier is 6 feet tall, sharp enough to tear flesh.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s deployment of troops to El Paso under Operation Lone Star is nearing the three-month mark, raising questions about whether soldiers, Humvees and razor-wire fencing will become a permanent fixture of the El Paso border landscape — and whether the new infrastructure is lawful or warranted.

The U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, a federal agency, controls the riverbank and levies and must license and permit construction in the zone. The IBWC confirmed to the El Paso Times that Texas hasn’t pursued permits to erect infrastructure at the border.

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More:Fentanyl overdose deaths, epidemic continues to grow in El Paso, border communities

“No, they did not request permission from us before their operation,” said IBWC spokeswoman Leslie Grijalva in an emailed response to questions.

texas didn't get permits for razor-wire fence at border in latest gov. abbott-biden standoff

Texas National Guard stands guard on the north bank of the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas on Dec. 20, 2022. The National Guard was deployed by Texas Governor Abbott in response to large numbers of asylum seekers arriving in El Paso.

The U.S. section of the IBWC “reached out to the Texas Department of Public Safety (which appears to be handling this matter for the National Guard) and requested that they submit information for USIBWC review to go through our permitting/licensing process for infrastructure placed on USIBWC-controlled lands,” Grijalva said on Friday. “They submitted some information to us in December but have not responded to our request for additional material that we require.”

On Tuesday, Abbott posted the El Paso Times story and a response on Twitter: “We aren’t asking for permission. Instead we are doing the federal government’s job to secure the border.”

To some, the soldiers and fencing amount to the militarization of a peaceful border and a usurpation by the Texas governor of federal authority. Others say the National Guard and its infrastructure are there to reinforce a physical boundary the federal government isn’t adequately defending.

The National Guard has installed more than 62 miles of concertina wire and 72 miles of other fencing along the Texas border with Mexico since Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in early 2021, according to the Texas Military Department.

In El Paso, miles of razor wire and fencing extends from the border south of the University of Texas at El Paso, not far from the New Mexico state line, to a mile east of the towering red “X” monument in Juárez. Much of it has been laid south of the 18- to 30-foot steel border fence.

“We are not at war with Mexico”

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said the makeshift infrastructure is “a misuse of federal land” and should be removed, akin to the court-ordered dismantling of a cargo container barrier erected in Arizona on orders of the former governor.

“We are not at war with Mexico,” she said.

“I have Republican colleagues whose rhetoric wants to amp up hostilities between the two nations,” she said. “I think we have to be vigilant and we have to ensure the safety and security of everyone at the border, and that includes migrants as well. Militarization doesn’t do that.”

The Biden administration hasn’t challenged Abbott’s use of the National Guard on IBWC land or the construction of additional border barriers as it did in Arizona.

texas didn't get permits for razor-wire fence at border in latest gov. abbott-biden standoff

A Texas National Guard gives directions to use a port of entry to migrants who had crossed the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas in March 2023.

In December, the administration sued then-Gov. Doug Ducey and the state of Arizona to remove cargo containers placed at the border on federal land. Ducey began removing the makeshift barrier two weeks later.

An unidentified spokesperson for the Texas Military Department said in an email: “The Texas National Guard does not negotiate land-use agreements. Please contact DPS and CBP for that information.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection also declined to answer questions and referred the Times to DPS.

Texas DPS didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email.

Below an El Paso border highway overpass — at the site where thousands of migrants lined up to seek asylum last year — there are neat stacks of coiled concertina wire, barbed wire and T-posts waiting to be installed.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to border ‘disaster’

Construction of the concertina wire barrier began Dec. 21, 2022, before sunrise after Abbott added El Paso County to his border disaster proclamation. The updated declaration was filed with the Secretary of State at 7:15 a.m. CT and covered 55 counties near the border.

Under Texas law, according to the proclamation, “declaring a disaster allows the use of all available state and local resources needed to manage the situation.”

It defines a “disaster” as “the occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury or loss of life or property resulting from any natural or man-made cause.”

texas didn't get permits for razor-wire fence at border in latest gov. abbott-biden standoff

Migrants crossed the Rio Grande and approach the Texas National Guard to enquire when they will be allowed to be processed by Customs and Border Protection to seek asylum in El Paso, Texas on Dec. 20, 2022

The new declaration came four days after El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of emergency in El Paso. At the time, the city was struggling to shelter the thousands of asylum seekers who were crossing the border and turning themselves in to Border Patrol.

“The city’s disaster declaration did not trigger, from my perspective, the deployment of the National Guard to El Paso,” said Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso. “That was the governor’s response to the situation.”

Blanco said he disagrees with the use of concertina wire at the river or on the levees. But he said the National Guard presence at the borderline may be warranted.

“While some folks will try to play politics with the border, one way or another we have to recognize that that physical presence has allowed National Guard to move migrants to the ports of entry for processing,” he said.

Lupe De La O, a retired U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and El Paso Republican Party chairwoman, said the local party “always supports Gov. Abbott’s efforts to protect our border and protect our citizens.”

“People seem to forget these are people who are coming here illegally — and I feel bad for them, they are being targeted by cartels — but I think it is good for the National Guard to be here,” she said.

Seeking asylum at or between ports of entry at the border is not illegal. It’s allowed under U.S. law, although both Republican and Democrat presidential administrations have sought to restrict the right through executive action as the number of asylum seekers has grown.

The federal government has long relied on the National Guard to address border security issues, said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. and a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a precursor to the Department of Homeland Security.

“The National Guard has for years been really helpful in building infrastructure, like roadways along the fencing or lighting,” Meissner said. “A lot has been done to make it possible to enforce that area effectively and efficiently. But it’s always been at the behest of the federal government.”

“I think that’s different from Gov. Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, in which he has imposed the National Guard onto Border Patrol,” she said.

Physical, political ‘hardening’ of the border

Abbott’s physical hardening of the border in El Paso came at the same time the Biden administration began addressing the humanitarian crisis with new opportunities — and obstacles — to deter asylum-seekers from crossing the U.S. border between ports of entry.

In January, the administration launched the CBP One app that allows asylum seekers from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to apply online for an appointment at a port of entry. They and other migrants can also apply through the app for an exception from the Title 42 expulsions policy, which allows U.S. border authorities to quickly return migrants to Mexico or their country of origin.

The Title 42 policy is set to expire May 11.

The administration is exploring two new policies aimed at restricting access to the border that critics say represent a return to the immigration politics of the Trump administration.

In February, the Department of Homeland Security submitted for public comment a policy requiring asylum seekers to either first seek refuge in another country, or apply electronically in the U.S. via the CBP One app — or become ineligible. The comment period ends Thursday.

And earlier this month, the New York Times reported the Biden administration is also considering restarting family detention, a practice Biden criticized and effectively ended in 2021.

“The Biden administration is setting up a system to deny asylum to most people without Abbott,” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, based in Washington, D.C. “They are already hardening the border — if all of these rules actually go into effect.”

Crisis subsides as irregular crossings drop

In El Paso the crisis has subsided, but border barrier construction hasn’t stopped.

Monthly crossings between ports of entry plummeted border-wide in January and February, compared to the months prior.

U.S. Border Patrol reported about 129,000 encounters with migrants in January and February after four straight months of encounters topping 200,000. In El Paso, migrant encounters fell to about 30,000 in January and 32,000 in February after three months at levels above 50,000 — a historic high.

image: Texas National Guard0341


Colombian migrants walk on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande as a Texas National Guard officer explains to them that they must make an entry at a port of entry.


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texas didn't get permits for razor-wire fence at border in latest gov. abbott-biden standoff

Colombian migrants walk on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande as a Texas National Guard officer explains to them that they must make an entry at a port of entry.

On a cold morning in March, three Colombian migrants crossed the Rio Grande near Downtown El Paso and were met with the reams of concertina wire at the river’s edge. They wanted to turn themselves over to Border Patrol agents, they said, in order to seek asylum. Two men, one from Cuba, the other from the Dominican Republic, followed them.

To the east, soldiers were unraveling new coils of wire, one on top of the other.

The migrants started walking west, past Humvees and soldiers armed with M4s. Sneakers wet, they marched in single file along the strip of dry riverbank that remained, searching for where the razor wire would end.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas didn’t get permits for razor-wire fence at border in latest Gov. Abbott-Biden standoff

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