The United States Supreme Court has ruled that Border Patrol agents may resume cutting a razor wire fence that Texas installed on its border with Mexico to deter migrants and asylum seekers from entering the country.
The 5-4 ruling on Monday was a victory for the administration of US President Joe Biden, issued in the midst of an ongoing legal battle that saw a federal appeals court force agents to stop cutting the fence last month.
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For more than two years, the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has sought to bar migrants and asylum seekers from entering the US, unspooling razor wire that extends over 46km (30 miles) of its border with Mexico along the banks of the Rio Grande river and has left people injured and bloodied.
Border control has historically been the legal domain of the federal government. The US Department of Justice argues that the fence has sown chaos, impeding it from carrying out controls along the border.
“Texas’s political stunts, like placing razor wire near the border, simply make it harder and more dangerous for front-line personnel to do their jobs,” White House spokesperson Angelo Fernandez Hernandez said.
Andrew Mahaleris, Abbott’s spokesperson, said the absence of razor wire and other deterrents encourages people to risk unsafe crossings and makes the job of Texas border personnel more difficult. “This case is ongoing, and Governor Abbott will continue fighting to defend Texas’s property and its constitutional authority to secure the border,” he said.
The fencing at issue in the dispute was installed on private property along the Rio Grande by the Texas National Guard.
Texas sued the Biden administration in October, asserting that US Customs and Border Protection agents had no right to cut fencing that it said had been erected with the permission of landowners.
In November, US District Judge Alia Moses criticised the administration for failing to stem migration but said the federal government enjoyed “sovereign immunity” protecting it from civil lawsuits and criminal prosecution.
A federal appeals court later granted Texas’s request to block federal agents from “damaging, destroying or otherwise interfering with” the razor-wire fencing while the case played out.
Lawyers for the Biden administration this year requested it be lifted, arguing there was no indication the wire had stopped migrants from entering the US. They said the new barriers also prevented border agents from monitoring and responding to emergencies.
The fence has been criticised by Mexican officials as a violation of international law.
Texas’s border with Mexico spans 1,930km (1,200 miles) in total.
Operation Lone Star
The fence is part of a wider state effort to take control of Texas’s borders. Operation Lone Star, launched in 2021 with significant public support, pushes the legal boundaries of what a state can do to control immigration.
The operation, which has cost more than $4.5bn so far, also includes a floating barrier installed in the Rio Grande. Democratic legislators Sylvia Garcia and Joaquin Castro, both members of the US Congress from Texas, last year decried the “barbaric” string of buoys, which are linked with “chainsaw devices” to stop crossings.
Everyone needs to see what I saw in Eagle Pass today.
Clothing stuck on razor wire where families got trapped. Chainsaw devices in the middle of buoys. Land seized from US citizens.
— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) August 8, 2023
As the number of people crossing the US-Mexico border continues to surge, the Texas operation has become a flashpoint in immigration policy with critics decrying the “inhumane” measures. Abbott has used the fentanyl crisis to justify his measures, citing a rise in drug smuggling.
While Republicans have criticised the Biden administration for the rising numbers, there is also pressure from within the Democratic Party. Politicians like New York City Mayor Eric Adams are slamming the president for not doing more to address irregular immigration as his city struggles to provide housing and other services for the new arrivals.
Former President Donald Trump, whom Abbot has backed to be the Republican candidate in November’s presidential election, has made immigration a key plank of his bid to retake the White House.