What we know about the drownings of 3 Mexican migrants near Eagle Pass, Texas

The drowning deaths of a woman and two children from Mexico near the US-Mexico border have magnified the rift between Texas and federal officials over who has jurisdiction in that part of the Rio Grande area and how to tackle the migrant crisis.

The tragedy happened days after state authorities blocked the US Border Patrol from accessing 2.5 miles of the US-Mexico border near Eagle Pass, Texas – which was recently the epicenter of the migrant crisis. The area includes Shelby Park, a city park on the Rio Grande that Texas authorities blocked off with fencing, gates and razor wire – effectively denying access to federal Border Patrol agents.

But whether a lack of access may have played a role in the deaths is in dispute.

Those who died were Victerma de la Sancha Cerros, 33; Yorlei Rubi, 10; and Jonathan Agustín Briones de la Sancha, 8, authorities with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration said Monday.

Yorlei Rubi (left), 10, and Jonathan Agustín Briones de la Sancha, 8, are shown in a 2019 photo. Both children drowned Friday night in the Rio Grande. - Obtained by CNN
Yorlei Rubi (left), 10, and Jonathan Agustín Briones de la Sancha, 8, are shown in a 2019 photo. Both children drowned Friday night in the Rio Grande. - Obtained by CNN

And new details about what happened to them have emerged from a US Supreme Court filing – part of the Biden administration’s ongoing legal battle against Texas to regain access to the border area.

Here’s what we know and what’s still unclear:

What federal officials say happened

Around 9 p.m. Friday, “Mexican officials advised Border Patrol of two migrants in distress on the US side of the river in the area near the Shelby Park boat ramp,” the Biden administration wrote in Monday’s Supreme Court filing. “Mexican officials also informed Border Patrol that three migrants – one woman and two children – had drowned at approximately 8:00 p.m. in the same area.”

The drownings – as well as the rescue of two other migrants on the US side of the Rio Grande by Mexican authorities – “underscore that Texas is firm in its continued efforts to exercise complete control of the border and land” in the area “and to block Border Patrol’s access to the border even in emergency circumstances,” the administration wrote.

“It is impossible to say what might have happened if Border Patrol had had its former access to the area – including through its surveillance trucks that assisted in monitoring the area,” US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in the filing to the Supreme Court.

“At the very least, however, Border Patrol would have had the opportunity to take any available steps to fulfill its responsibilities and assist its counterparts in the Mexican government with undertaking the rescue mission. Texas made that impossible.”

Prelogar urged the Supreme Court to intervene, and the high court could act at any time.

CNN has reached out to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, the Texas Military Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety for responses to Monday’s Supreme Court filing.

Prior to the filing, Democratic US Rep. Henry Cuellar posted on social media that six migrants were reportedly in distress Friday night.

A Border Patrol agent went to an entrance gate at Shelby Park and told Texas National Guard members about a distress call, according to the court filing.

“Speaking through the closed gate, the guardsmen refused to let the (Border Patrol agent) enter because they had been ordered not to allow Border Patrol access to the park,” the filing says.

The Border Patrol agent also spoke with the guardsmen’s supervisor over the phone but was again denied access, according to the filing. The supervisor conveyed that Border Patrol is not permitted to enter the area “even in emergency situations” and guardsmen would be sent to investigate, the filing says.

The next day, Mexican officials confirmed to Border Patrol that they had recovered three drowned bodies and rescued two distressed migrants and another two migrants who had attempted to cross in the night, according to the filing.

The US Department of Homeland Security confirmed the deaths and said Border Patrol agents were stopped from assisting at the border.

“In responding to a distress call from the Mexican government, Border Patrol agents were physically barred by Texas officials from entering the area,” a DHS spokesperson told CNN in a Saturday statement. “The Texas governor’s policies are cruel, dangerous, and inhumane, and Texas’s blatant disregard for federal authority over immigration poses grave risks.”

“Texas officials blocked US Border Patrol agents from doing their job and allowed two children to drown in the Rio Grande,” Democratic US Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas said in a statement Saturday.

What Texas authorities say happened

But the Texas Military Department said by the time Border Patrol agents requested access to the site Friday night, “the drownings had occurred, Mexican authorities were recovering the bodies, and Border Patrol expressed these facts to the TMD personnel on site.”

The Texas Military Department Saturday said it was contacted by Border Patrol at 9 p.m. Friday about a “migrant distress situation” and searched the river with lights and night vision goggles, but “no migrants were observed.”

About 45 minutes later, Mexican authorities were seen responding to an incident on the Mexican side of the riverbank, said the Texas Military Department, which then “reported their observations back to Border Patrol, and they confirmed that the Mexican authorities required no additional assistance,” according to its statement.

“At no time did TMD security personnel along the river observe any distressed migrants, nor did TMD turn back any illegal immigrants from the US during this period,” the Texas Military Department said. “Also, at no point was TMD made aware of any bodies in the area of Shelby Park, nor was TMD made aware of any bodies being discovered on the US side of the border regarding this situation.”

National Guard soldiers stand guard Friday on the banks of the Rio Grande at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas. - Brandon Bell/Getty Images
National Guard soldiers stand guard Friday on the banks of the Rio Grande at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas. - Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Mexico’s foreign ministry speaks out

Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs conveyed its condolences over the deaths of the migrants in a statement released Sunday by the Mexican Consulate in Eagle Pass.

Mexico’s Beta Groups – part of the National Institute of Migration of Mexico dedicated to protecting the human rights of migrants and specializing in rescues and first aid - and the Mexican National Guard recovered the bodies from Mexico, the statement said. Two other Mexicans were rescued.

Apprehensions increase near Eagle Pass

After a significant decrease in migrant encounters earlier this month, migrant apprehensions in the Del Rio Border Patrol Sector have increased since last week, according to a law enforcement source familiar with the operations. Eagle Pass is in the Del Rio Border Patrol Sector.

Smugglers are pushing large groups of migrants to cross the Rio Grande through residential areas and places west of Eagle Pass outside the river area taken over by Texas, the source said. This geographic shift in the flow of migrants creates a new challenge for federal border authorities because there is no infrastructure in these areas, especially as temperatures dip in the overnight hours, the source said.

About 1,000 migrant apprehensions took place Sunday in the Del Rio Sector, compared to between 500 and 600 daily earlier in the week, according to the source.

The number of migrant apprehensions on Friday and Saturday were 659 and 624, respectively, the source said.

The rift between Texas and the feds

Tensions have been high between the state and federal officials as the Biden administration has challenged the policies of Texas’ Republican governor, including the use of razor wire along the border and a new law that makes entering Texas illegally a state crime.

The dispute before the Supreme Court concerns Border Patrol agents’ practice of removing razor wire put in place by Texas along part of the border. The state sued the federal government over the practice, and a lower court ordered the agents to stop removing the wire while legal challenges play out.

The Biden administration appealed this month and is asking the high court to step in on an emergency basis to put a hold on that order.

“Texas’s recent actions vividly illustrate the untenable legal and practical implications of that injunction, which rests on the Fifth Circuit’s holding that Texas may use state-erected barriers and state tort law to prevent federal officials from performing their federally assigned functions at the border,” the US solicitor general wrote to the Supreme Court.

On Friday, the Biden administration complained to the US Supreme Court about the state blocking Border Patrol from the Shelby Park area and asked the high court to quickly intervene. On Saturday, Texas told the high court it was “working promptly” to ensure Border Patrol has access to a boat ramp at Shelby Park.

Following the drowning deaths, Texas on Saturday started allowing Border Patrol limited access to the Shelby Park boat ramp area and another port of entry gate, according to the filing. A Border Patrol agent was also able to enter the restricted area Monday and drive onto an access road, the document notes.

US Customs and Border Protection was “saddened by tragic migrant drownings in Eagle Pass,” an agency spokesperson said.

“We remain gravely concerned by actions that prevent the US Border Patrol from performing their essential missions of arresting individuals who enter the United States unlawfully and providing humanitarian response to individuals in need,” the spokesperson said.

Abbott’s office and the Texas Department of Public Safety both referred CNN to the Texas National Guard for further information. Abbott has defended the state’s action to seize control of land at the US-Mexico border.

“Texas has the legal authority to control ingress and egress into any geographic location in the state of Texas. And that authority is being asserted with regard to that park in Eagle Pass, Texas, to maintain operational control of it,” Abbott said at a news briefing Friday before the drownings.

On Sunday, the White House called the recent migrant deaths “tragic” and characterized Abbott’s directives on the border as “political stunts,” according to Angelo Fernández Hernández, White House assistant press secretary.

“While we continue to gather facts about the circumstances of these tragic deaths, one thing is clear,” Fernández Hernández told CNN in a statement. “Gov. Abbott’s political stunts are cruel, inhumane, and dangerous. US Border Patrol must have access to the border to enforce our laws.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Caroll Alvarado, Sara Weisfeldt, Ashley Killough, Karol Suarez and Jennifer Deaton contributed to this report.

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