By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. judge ordered Texas to move floating buoys that were placed in the middle of the Rio Grande to block migrants from illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a tentative win for President Joe Biden, whose administration sued the state.
U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra on Wednesday issued a preliminary injunction in Austin that requires Texas to relocate the buoys, currently near the city of Eagle Pass, to an embankment on the Texas side of the river by Sept. 15. The Biden administration argued in a legal challenge that the 1,000-foot (305-meter) barrier illegally disrupts navigation and was installed without permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The ruling is a setback for Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who contends that Biden, a Democrat, has been too lenient with border security as record numbers of migrants have been caught crossing illegally in recent years.
The floating barrier is one of multiple strategies Abbott has launched to deter migrants, including coils of razor wire placed along the riverbank.
"Governor Abbott announced that he was not 'asking for permission' for Operation Lone Star, the anti-immigration program under which Texas constructed the floating barrier," Ezra wrote in a 42-page order. "Unfortunately for Texas, permission is exactly what federal law requires before installing obstructions in the nation's navigable waters."
Texas immediately appealed the ruling to the conservative-leaning 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Abbott's office said it was willing to take the case to the Supreme Court if needed.
"Our battle to defend Texas' sovereign authority to protect lives from the chaos caused by President Biden's open border policies has only begun," the governor's office said in a statement.
The U.S. Justice Department is pleased with Ezra's ruling, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement.
Mexico's government also issued a statement, saying it remained attentive for the final resolution, reiterating the "urgency of permanently removing the buoys on our shared border" and the need to safeguard migrants' human rights.
Abbott's border operations came under increased scrutiny in July after an internal trooper email surfaced alleging that Texas authorities had been ordered to push migrant children back into the river and deny water to migrants in extreme heat.
Weeks later, a dead body was found stuck in the buoys. The Texas Department of Public Safety said the victim appeared to have drifted into the barrier after drowning.
Ezra, an appointee of Republican former President Ronald Reagan, said more than 140 concrete anchors - some weighing 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) - used to secure the buoys could cause serious damage to boats or other vessels.
"Photographs show these grey concrete anchors standing from the bed of the river, with no markings to identify them as hazards," Ezra wrote. "These concrete obstacles present a serious risk to watercraft of any kind."
The Mexican government sent a diplomatic letter to the U.S. in June opposing the barrier, saying it violates a water treaty between the two nations and may encroach on Mexican territory.
Ezra said the buoys have "already placed tremendous strain on the U.S.-Mexico relationship," citing the tensions as an example of harm the barrier could cause if left in place as litigation proceeds.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; additional reporting by Aida Pelaez-Fernandez; editing by Bill Berkrot and Stephen Coates)