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Justice Department threatens to sue Texas over migrant buoys

The buoys in the Rio Grande River aim to quash migration along Texas' southern border as part of Operation Lone Star, Gov. Greg Abbott's signature immigration initiative.
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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department informed Texas in a letter Thursday that it intends to sue the state over its placement of buoys in the Rio Grande river aimed at deterring migrants unless the state acts to remove them.

"We write to inform you ... that the United States intends to file legal action in relation to the State of Texas’s unlawful construction of a floating barrier in the Rio Grande River," Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim and U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza wrote in the letter obtained by NBC News.

The letter, sent to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Interim Texas Attorney General Angela Colmenero, both Republicans, says the state's actions violate the Rivers and Harbors Act, endanger public safety and could obstruct the federal government's official duties.

Texas began constructing the buoys earlier this month, as part of Abbott's $4 billion effort to counter migration, Operation Lone Star, which also includes busing thousands of migrants to Democratic-led cities and arresting migrants on trespassing charges.

Some migrant advocates have warned that the buoys could cause people to drown. The Justice Department's letter echoes that warning, saying the barriers obstruct the "navigable capacity" of the river and present "humanitarian concerns."

In a tweet on Friday, Abbott said Texas has the "sovereign authority" to defend its border and accused the Biden administration of exacerbating conditions along the southern border.

"We will continue to deploy every strategy to protect Texans and Americans — and the migrants risking their lives," Abbott wrote. "See you in court, Mr. President."

Abbott's office did not immediately respond to NBC News' request for comment.

The letter asks the state to furnish a response indicating that Texas is committed to "expeditiously remove" the buoys by 2:00 p.m. on Monday. Should the state fail to produce such a response, “the United States intends to file legal action,” the letter states.

The letter represents the latest DOJ inquiry into Texas' migration policies. On Thursday, a DOJ spokesperson told NBC News that the department is probing allegations made by a Texas trooper in an email sent to his superiors, in which he described how he and his partner were ordered to push back migrants into the Rio Grande River and deny them water despite the searing heat.

Officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety have denied the existence of any directive, policy or order instructing troops to push migrants back into the river or deny them drinking water.