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The floating border barrier in the Rio Grande must be removed, a federal judge rules

A barrier to deter migrants from crossing from Mexico into the U.S. floats in the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas.
Guillermo Arias
AFP via Getty Images
A barrier to deter migrants from crossing from Mexico into the U.S. floats in the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas.

A federal judge in Texas has ruled that a controversial floating border barrier in the Rio Grande River violates federal law and must be removed.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra ruled that the 1,000-foot-long string of large buoys and saw blades in Eagle Pass, Texas, was ordered deployed by Gov. Greg Abbott without proper federal authorization.

"Governor Abbott announced that he was not 'asking for permission' for Operation Lone Star, the anti-immigration program under which Texas constructed the floating barrier," Ezra wrote in his order. "Unfortunately for Texas, permission is exactly what federal law requires before installing obstructions in the nation's navigable waters."

Ezra, who was appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan, granted the Biden administration's request for a temporary injunction. He gave Texas until Sept. 15 to move the barrier to shore, and barred the state from placing any additional buoys or other structures in the river.

Abbott ordered deployment of the floating barrier in July as part of Operation Lone Star, his multibillion-dollar effort to fight illegal immigration and smuggling at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lawyers for the state of Texas contend that the state does not need federal permission because the Rio Grande should not be considered a "navigable river" under federal law. They also argued that Texas is justified in constructing the floating barrier as an exercise of self defense in the face of an "invasion" of unauthorized migrants.

But Judge Ezra rejected both of those arguments. Texas's claim that it faces an invasion is a "political question," he wrote, and cannot be decided in federal court.

Abbott, a Republican, quickly pledged to appeal the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"This ruling is incorrect and will be overturned on appeal. Today's court decision merely prolongs President Biden's willful refusal to acknowledge that Texas is rightfully stepping up to do the job he should have been doing all along," Abbott wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. "Texas is prepared to take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court."

But Democrats and immigrant advocates hailed the ruling.

"Abbott knows his actions are illegal. I'm glad the court is forcing him to remove his death traps from the Rio Grande," U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro wrote on X. "He has endangered lives, damaged Texas' working relationship with our largest trading partner and let politics rather than sensible policy dictate his actions."

Cris Ramón, an immigration policy expert at the advocacy group UnidosUS, said the ruling's impact could potentially extend beyond the floating barriers.

"This decision is important," Ramón wrote on X, "because it shows the 'invasion' rhetoric that freely swims in political circles — ones shaping state policies at this moment — will crash against the legal realities Judge Ezra highlights in this decision."

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.