State of Texas: Buoys, razor wire sparks fight on Texas border issues

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Department of Justice is preparing to sue Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for the state’s latest border security initiative under Texas’ Operation Lone Star, according to a DOJ letter obtained by Nexstar.

First reported by the Houston Chronicle, the DOJ sent Abbott a letter on Thursday warning that the buoy barrier the state deployed along the Rio Grande is unlawful. Texas announced the initiative in early June as a way to deter migrants from crossing the Mexican side of the river into Texas, near Eagle Pass.

Abbott responded on Twitter Friday writing “Texas has the sovereign authority to defend our border, under the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Constitution.”

We have sent the Biden Administration numerous letters detailing our authority, including the one I hand-delivered to President Biden earlier this year.

The tragic humanitarian crisis on the border was created because of Biden’s refusal to secure the border. His open border policies encourage migrants to risk their lives crossing illegally through the Rio Grande, instead of safely and legally over a bridge.

Texas is stepping up to address this crisis. We will continue to deploy every strategy to protect Texans and Americans — and the migrants risking their lives.

We will see you in court, Mr. President.

Abbott statement via Twitter

Operation Lone Star leaders started the month by adding new border security measures along the banks and in the waters of the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass.

But the images of giant buoys anchored in the water, and concertina wire or razor wire strung along the banks, have gotten the attention of state, federal and international officials.

It started with a report from the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle reported a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper apparently wrote an email to superiors expressing concerns over what they feared was “inhumane” treatment of migrants. The trooper also claimed they have been ordered to push small children and nursing babies back into the river. The report also claimed they have been told not to give water to asylum seekers as the state experiences its current heat wave.

There was fallout almost immediately. Several Texas Democratic lawmakers came together.

“We’re asking the Biden Administration, including the Department of Justice, and the State Department to do everything possible to stop Greg Abbott from carrying out what are brutal and barbaric practices,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, in a virtual news conference. At least a dozen other Texas Democratic lawmakers joined that session.

In response to the allegations, the Texas Office of Inspector General announced it will look into the claims from that Houston Chronicle report. Abbott’s office, the head of Texas DPS, the Texas Adjutant General and other border leaders issued a joint statement.

“No orders or directions have been given under Operation Lone Star that would compromise the lives of those attempting to cross the border illegally. The Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas Military Department continue taking steps to monitor migrants in distress, provide appropriate medical attention when needed, and encourage them to use one of the 29 international bridges along the Texas-Mexico Border where they can safely and legally cross. “

The statement also went on to call for President Joe Biden to secure the border, adding until then, “Texas will continue protecting Texans and Americans from the chaos along the border.”

The International Boundary and Water Commission tells Nexstar the governor’s office did not reach out in advance to get a permit regarding the buoy installation. Mexico also formally filed a complaint over the buoys.

Mexican leaders worry the plan violates the 1944 and 1970 treaties on boundaries and water. Mexican inspection teams plan to deploy to the area to monitor the operations. Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretary Alicia Bárcena said if the buoys impede the flow of water, it will violate the treaties, which require the river to remain unobstructed.

At a news conference this past week in Washington, Republican lawmakers issued support for what Texas is trying to do.

“Some of the tactics that are being used are desperation tactics,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said. “Frankly the Biden Administration is not doing its job. Texas, as you know, has a 1,200-mile common border with Mexico. But it doesn’t stop there.”

These operations impact more than just migrants trying to cross into Texas. An Eagle Pass canoe and kayak business has already filed a lawsuit.

“We look like a community under siege, you know, and it shouldn’t be that way,” said business owner Jessie Fuentes to NBC News.

He explained he’s already seen parties cancel excursions with Epi’s Canoe and Kayak Team. KXAN in Austin spoke with his attorney.

“If you’re a tourist who’s looking to maybe have a nice adventure on the river, I’m not sure you want to feel like you’re floating down a war zone,” Carlos Flores said.

He believes Texas is acting without authority under the Disaster Act.

Ahead of the buoy installation in Eagle Pass, the number of migrant encounters with U.S. Customs and Border Protection along the Southwest border was trending down. More than 144,000 were either stopped or made it to scheduled appointments at Ports of Entry. That’s a decrease of about 30% from the month before. It Is also the lowest since President Biden’s first full month in office in February 2021.

Speaker Phelan talks property tax deals, impeachment trials & looming business

With two special sessions now officially in the books, Republican Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan sat down with State of Texas to reflect and look ahead.

When asked why the deal took so long, he was frank.

“It just became the realization that we were in an impasse,” Phelan said. “And we both needed to give something and take something and governor, lieutenant governor and I just…we just had some very frank discussions about, ‘let’s figure out how to land this plane.’”

The $18 billion tax deal stands as the largest in Texas history. But leaders also wanted to finish it in time for voters to decide a Constitutional amendment in November.

The first special session called by Abbott at the end of the regular session, only saw the House and Senate leaders dig in their heels. In fact, Phelan gaveled out the House almost immediately, while the Senate went the full 30 days.

The second immediate session saw much more dialogue.

“Taxpayers are anxious, they want their, you know, they wanted rebate. They want their money back and we were able to accomplish that,” Phelan said.

Days after our interview with the Speaker, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued a sweeping gag order ahead of the Sept. 5 impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton. Paxton faces 20 articles of impeachment connected with whistleblower allegations of abuse of office.

The House started investigating after Paxton tried to have the state pay a $3.3 million settlement in a resulting lawsuit. Phelan remains unconcerned about previous criticism from Paxton’s defense lawyers, who have claimed the process was rushed.

“I stand behind what happened in the House,” Phelan said. “We have a good team. And it was the right thing to do.”

Looking ahead, Abbott has publicly hinted there will be an additional special session. The topic of a voucher-like program connected to school choice is one of the governor’s priorities. It would make state-funded private school tuition subsidies a reality. The Speaker was non-committal.

“It really is…it’s a tremendously complex issue that I think requires a laser focus,” Phelan said. “I think we will have a very robust discussion and maybe some of these ideas have broad support. We shall see.”

Court hears lawsuit of abortion laws’ impact on women & doctors

A Texas woman denied abortions sought clarity on the state’s law in court this week.

“I just wanted to tell my baby I’m so sorry that I couldn’t help her and release her going to heaven sooner rather than later,” Samantha Caciano said.

At times she needed to pause and throw up into a bin while testifying on the stand.

“I felt so bad. She had no mercy, there was no mercy for her,” she said.

She is one of more than a dozen women in the lawsuit. She wanted her child, but there were complications that would eventually become fatal for the child. Doctors told her she would have to continue her pregnancy even though the baby would die.

The Associated Press (AP) reports that doctors who perform abortions risk life in prison and fines of up to $100,000 under Texas law. Opponents say that that has left some women with providers who are unwilling to even discuss terminating a pregnancy. Although Texas’ ban narrowly allows exceptions when the patient’s life is in danger, opponents say the law is so vaguely worded that doctors remain afraid to perform abortions even under those circumstances.

“I’ve always tried to practice within the standards of care,” said Damla Karsan, an OB-GYN doctor who is part of the lawsuit. “But I also want to be a law-abiding citizen, and I don’t want to risk my freedom, my livelihood, and I don’t want to take a chance that I’m wrong.”

According to the AP, state attorney Amy Pletscher said the lawsuit was brought by women and doctors who “simply do not like Texas’ restrictions on abortion. “

“The purpose of this court is not to legislate,” she said.

It is a position echoed by Texas Right to Life (TRL).

“Terrible situations where these women were suffering, either miscarriages or diagnosis or medical emergencies,” TRL President John Seago said. “And it was absolutely mishandled by the medical professionals that were responsible for her health and her child’s health.”

The suit was filed in March with plaintiffs hoping the legislature might change the law to broaden exceptions. That did not happen.

Summer heatwave sparks call for cooler temperatures in prisons

Amidst Texas cities facing new record high temperatures this summer, families of loved ones want the state to take action on soaring temperatures inside state prisons.

“This is a state of emergency, people. It’s too late for my son. But it’s not too late for change and it needs to happen today,” Tona Naranjo said.

Her son, Jon Anthony Southards, was found unresponsive in his cell late last month. He died at the age of 36. In the last six weeks, at least 52 inmates have died inside Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prisons. Advocates worry many of them succumbed to heat-related illnesses. A group went to the Texas State Capitol this past week, calling for air conditioning to keep cells under a maximum 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

TDCJ declined an interview on this story. In the past, the department has said “core to this department’s mission is protecting the public, our employees, and the inmates in our custody.”

Department officials have also told us in the past they have added about 9,500 more cooled beds since 2018.

“There are some people who have been convicted of crimes and they have a sentence of two years. But we’ve essentially given them a life sentence,” said Rep. Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto.

In the regular legislative session, Sherman tried to mandate air conditioning, but the bill ultimately failed. He’s also pointed out this is becoming a personnel issue for TDCJ staff lacking air conditioning as well.

“It is up to the governor, if he is able to fit this in,” Sherman said. “I know that he has the Texas House, bipartisan support that’s ready for us to respond to this crisis.”

As of the time of this publication, Abbott’s office had not responded to our request for comment.

Federal inmates released during pandemic adjusting to life outside prison

It took a global tragedy to grant Kendrick Fulton the opportunity to live outside prison bars for the first time in over a decade.

“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Fulton said.

KXAN first met Fulton in 2021 while he worked as a truck driver in Round Rock.

He was serving a 33-year federal prison sentence for selling cocaine. But during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was released by the Department of Justice on home confinement. It was part of a program to limit viral transmission in the prison system.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons said more than 13,000 inmates were released to home confinement nationwide since 2020. That includes nearly 2,000 from Texas. A small fraction, just over 500, returned to prison for unspecified violations.

With President Joe Biden officially declaring the pandemic over earlier this year, the DOJ issued a final ruling allowing those released under the CARES Act “to remain in home confinement” for the rest of their sentence as long as they remain “compliant with all conditions of supervision.”

Fulton’s case was given another look due to the First Step Act of 2018. That allows the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduces cocaine sentences, to apply retroactively. A judge reduced his sentence to 25 years. With credit for time served and good behavior, Fulton said he’ll be free at the end of the year.

“Sky’s the limit. I can actually get my own truck, you know, so I’m just excited. It’s been a long time. I’m excited about great big things to come,” Fulton said.

He just turned 50. He also watched his daughter graduate college.

“What you go through or what happens in your life, [it] don’t have to define you. You can always get better by a situation,” Fulton said.

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