Judge orders Texas remove spiked border buoys

The installation of the barriers was the latest move under Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a controversial $10 billion border protection program that started in 2021.

A man and child wade waist deep in the water near orange buoys.
Migrants walk past buoys being used as a floating border barrier on the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Aug. 1. (Eric Gay/AP)

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Texas to remove border buoys the state was using as river barriers to prevent migrants from seeking entry into the U.S. along the Rio Grande.

Issuing a preliminary injunction, senior U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra directed Texas officials to remove the barriers from the Rio Grande by Sept. 15 at the state's own expense and not to put up any additional structures on or in the river until the final outcome of a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice. In doing so, the judge also shot down as “unconvincing” the state’s claim that the barrier was a self-defense mechanism against a migrant “invasion.”

In his decision, Ezra ruled that the buoys prevented free navigation in the Rio Grande and violated a long-standing law governing waterways controlled by the federal government. The state, he concluded, requires a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to place barriers in the river.

"To the extent that further findings are required, the Court also finds that Texas's conduct irreparably harms the public safety, navigation, and the operations of federal agency officials in and around the Rio Grande," Ezra wrote.

In a statement posted to X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said Texas will appeal, adding that the state will “utilize every strategy to secure the border.”

The judge’s decision is an early win for the Biden administration, which sued Texas when Abbott first refused to remove the barriers two months ago.

What are the buoys?

In July, Texas officials installed a string of 4-foot-wide floating orange spheres with spiked disks between them along the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass. The barrier stretches about 1,000 feet, or the equivalent of three football fields, and is anchored to the river bottom with 68 concrete blocks weighing 3,000 pounds apiece. Nets are attached to the underwater structure to prevent people from swimming under the buoys, and the buoys themselves rotate so people cannot climb over them.

A kayaker wearing a cowboy hat floats behind large orange buoys.
A kayaker passes the buoys. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Rio Grande serves the international border between the U.S. and Mexico and hosts various vehicle and pedestrian bridges that are crossed daily.

Why are they being used?

Abbott and his allies say the buoys “help deter illegal immigrants attempting to make the dangerous river crossing into Texas.” Mexican authorities argue that they endanger lives and that their placement is a “violation of our sovereignty.”

“We are concerned about the impact on migrants’ human rights and personal security that these state policies could have, as they go in the opposite direction to close collaboration,” the Mexican Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

From above, string of orange buoys can be seen stretching along center of a river.
The string of buoys used as a border barrier on the Rio Grande on July 13. (Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg)

Late last month, two bodies were recovered in the Rio Grande. One was found stuck in the buoys near Eagle Pass and the other was found 3 miles away from them. The causes of death in both cases remain unclear, and it is not known whether the deaths were related.

Biden administration response

The federal government has ordered Texas to remove the buoys and sued the state when Abbott refused. Federal officials claim the installation of the barriers violates federal law, in addition to posing serious threats to navigation and public safety. Under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the federal government controls navigable waterways.

The Justice Department's nine-page lawsuit said Texas officials were required to obtain permission from the federal government before assembling the barriers, which they did not.

Gov. Abbott is seated near Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who are standing.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at a news conference along the Rio Grande on Monday. Behind him are Govs. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Kristi Noem of South Dakota. (Eric Gay/AP)

Abbott and attorneys for Texas have insisted that the governor acted within his legal authority to protect the state from an unlawful immigrant “invasion” and potential drug trafficking. In 2022, U.S. citizens made up 89% of convicted fentanyl drug traffickers — 12 times greater than convictions of illegal immigrants for the same offense, according to federal sentencing data.

Ahead of last month's hearing, Abbott acknowledged moving some of the barriers out of Mexican waters and closer to American soil “out of an abundance of caution.”

What’s next?

The installation of the barriers is just the latest move under Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a controversial $10 billion border protection program that was launched in March 2021. As part of the program, the state has put up miles of razor wire along the banks of the Rio Grande. It has also installed chain-link fencing and large storage containers between 40 and 60 miles in and around the Eagle Pass stretch of the border to make crossing more difficult. Texas has also reportedly bused tens of thousands of migrants out of Texas to New York City and other cities.