Migrant drownings stoke cross-border tensions, questions on jurisdiction

By David Agren

MEXICO CITY — The drownings of three Mexican migrants in the Rio Grande has deepened a jurisdictional dispute between the U.S. federal and Texas state governments over responding to the wave of migrants and asylum-seekers irregularly crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

But a Dominican brother working on the Mexican side of the border says drownings in the Rio Grande have become disturbingly routine as migrants cross a river that can appear deceptively calm and narrow.

“Some six or seven people have already died (this year) in the Rio Grande,” said Dominican Brother Obed Cuellar, director of the Dignified Border Shelter in Piedras Negras. “The water is very cold at this time so when people enter the water and stay for several minutes, they suffer hypothermia.”

Virterma de la Sancha Cerros, 33, and her two children, Yorlei Rubi, 10, and Jonathan Agustín Briones, 8, drowned in the Rio Grande as they attempted to cross during a cold snap Jan. 12 between Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass, Texas. Their bodies were recovered by Mexican officials, according to the Mexican foreign ministry.

The U.S. Department of Justice has threatened to take legal action against Texas to allow border patrol officers access to a municipal park along the Rio Grande, which was seized by Texas officials in an attempt by the state to thwart migrant crossings and prevent the cutting and removal of concertina wire and barriers along the riverbank.

A local congressman, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, alleged Jan. 13 that Texas security forces did not respond to U.S. Border Patrol agents relaying information on six migrants being in distress. “This is a tragedy, and the State bears responsibility,” Cuellar said.

Texas officials called that claim false. The U.S. Department of Justice later filed a brief with the Supreme Court — for a case involving federal agents cutting concertina wire laid by Texas along the riverbank — saying the request for assistance from Texas officials came after the three migrants had drowned and Mexico had alerted them to two migrants in distress on the U.S. side of the river.

Mexico has backed the U.S. government legal action against Texas — while the Department of Justice has said Texas’ enforcement of migration matters threatens the U.S.-Mexico relations.

The drownings and the discrepancies over responsibility for their rescue underscores the political disputes over responding to the migration crisis at the U.S. southwestern border.

It comes as the administration of President Joe Biden and Republican lawmakers negotiate an increased border response, which could severely limit asylum. Texas, meanwhile, has passed legislation — opposed by the state’s Catholic bishops — allowing police to detain migrants on state-level illegal entry charges. The U.S. government — backed by the Mexican government — has legally challenged the Texas migration measures.

The U.S. and Texas initiatives have disquieted Catholics working with migrants on the Mexican side of the border.

Brother Cuellar said migrants often ignore warnings about the Rio Grande such as information from border officials on river conditions. But, he says, “Nobody listens. They say: ‘We’re going and we’re leaving.’ “

“I think this is a tragedy and at the same time Texas’ fault,” he said of the drownings, blaming “anti-migration” laws and previous measures such as installing buoys between Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass. “(It) made so many people look to cross where the river is deeper or it’s more difficult.”

“They don’t work; they could have a media impact, though,” Father Francisco Gallardo, director of migrant ministries in the Diocese of Matamoros, opposite Brownsville, Texas, said of the Texas measures against migration.

“All these measures that the United States imposes do not stop migration,” he said. “Migrants are going to enter in one way or another. They’re going to look for a thousand ways to enter and they’ll find it, they’ll cross to the United States.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported more than 10,000 encounters with migrants on some days in December. Encounters were especially high in Arizona and at Eagle Pass.

Uncertainty over U.S. migration policy, potential restrictions of claiming asylum and rumors of the CBP One app being discontinued — denied by U.S. officials — also spurred crossings.

“These fears around not having access to protection are driving at least the timing of people’s decisions,” said Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational Catholic project serving migrants in Nogales, Arizona, and the Mexican state of Sonora.

Williams pointed to a drop in the number of migrants passing through the Darién Gap, the thick jungle separating Colombia and Panama, along with large numbers arriving at the border during the Christmas period — when migrants usually stay put — as signs of a migration peak.

The peak “might be due to people who are in situations of instability and violence believing that this is their last chance to seek safety before policies change,” she said. “There is a little bit of an attitude that ‘this is the moment.’ “

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