Reisz: River blockades latest point of state/federal border tension

The Rio Grande is only about 328 feet wide.

But the waterway dividing Texas and northern Mexico is deceptively dangerous. It routinely claims the lives of migrants who try to cross it, but get caught in undetected rip currents.

Now, it’s the site of a legal battle between the federal government and the state of Texas regarding the right to enact blockades in the river.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott rejected a Justice Department appeal to remove the buoys, saying that they were necessary to keep migrants out of Texas. On July 24, the Justice Department responded by announcing the filing of a lawsuit against Texas for illegally placing a floating buoy barrier in a 1,000-foot section of the Rio Grande.

The case raises questions about federal versus state control over the border — as well as whether tactics like buoys are actually effective at deterring migrants. In some cases, in my experience, they actually serve to frustrate immigration enforcement efforts.

A patchwork of private owners and entities own the American bank of the Rio Grande where the buoys are located. The other side is owned by the Mexican government.

The International Boundary Water Commission manages the border itself, which runs down the middle of the river. The commission is a joint creation of the U.S. and Mexico.

Typically, federal authorities regulate border territories. All ports of entry are federal, for example.

In that case, the state would have no authority to interfere with border enforcement. Texas could not claim it owns this land, thus erect whatever structures it wanted. And if it impedes the objective of the federal government’s border-security mission, it violates the law.

The lawsuit alleges Texas is violating the Rivers and Harbors Act, a federal act that says if a state wants to erect any structure in navigable waters of the United States, it has to seek a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That has to do with the federal power over interstate and foreign commerce.

Getting a permit like this would require an investigation of potential humanitarian and environmental consequences to the buoys. I think that in this case, it would be denied.

The bigger picture is hindering federal enforcement efforts.

The U.S. has a strategy for enforcing the border that involves physical border patrol enforcement, augmented by use of heat sensors, drones and other forms of electronic surveillance equipment. So when a state physically blocks off part of the border, it frustrates the entire strategy.

It means that certain identifiable routes where people are being apprehended are now obstructed. This creates new migration routes, so people might not cross at this particular small section, but move to another section more suited to crossing.

And if the buoys create an unsafe situation that results in rescue operations, it adds to the cost of agency operations.

In addition, Mexico’s cooperation is part of U.S. border enforcement strategy, and the buoys affect agreements between U.S. and Mexico over the use of the river.

How often does this kind of conflict over immigration authority happen?

There have been previous legal challenges regarding control of border enforcement in both Texas and Arizona. It those cases, state efforts were found to violate federal law.

In the 2012 case of Arizona v. the United States, for example, Arizona tried to penalize noncitizens for working without federal work authorization. The state authorized law enforcement to arrest people suspected of being in violation of immigration law.

The courts found that Arizona could not do anything within the jurisdiction of the federal government, nor obstruct the federal government’s objectives when it comes to immigration.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.