A federal appeals court on Tuesday issued a temporary order limiting the Biden administration’s authority to remove barbed wire erected by Texas along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of the state’s effort to deter migrants from crossing into the United States.
Texas has been sparring with the federal government on several fronts over border control and had appealed a lower-court ruling in November allowing federal agents to cut the wire.
In its order on Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans said that while the court was weighing the appeal by Texas, the federal government could not cut the concertina wire barrier that the state had placed along the Rio Grande.
“Defendants are enjoined during the pendency of this appeal from damaging, destroying or otherwise interfering with Texas’ c-wire fence,” the panel of judges wrote, referring to about 30 miles of concertina wire placed near the border city of Eagle Pass, Texas.
But the order does allow agents from the U.S. Border Patrol to cut the wire in the event of a medical emergency — an exception that addresses the federal government’s concern that the barrier could make it difficult to render first aid to injured or ill migrants.
Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment.
The case is part of a lawsuit filed by the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, who has argued that federal agents have illegally destroyed Texas property and curtailed the state’s effort to block migrants from crossing the border.
The order by the federal appeals court came a day after Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation that gives Texas law enforcement officers the authority to arrest migrants who enter the state from Mexico without legal authorization.
The measure was passed in a special session of the Republican-dominated State Legislature last month despite objections of Democrats, immigrant-rights groups and Hispanic organizations. Opponents said they feared the measure would encourage racial profiling in border communities and asserted that it violated the U.S. Constitution by usurping federal authority over immigration enforcement.
El Paso County and two immigrant rights groups filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in an effort to halt the law, which is scheduled to take effect in March, and some sheriffs along the border have expressed concern that the measure could rapidly overwhelm local jails and courts.
The wrangling over the concertina wire is not the only legal battle between Texas and the Biden administration over the border. Earlier this month, the same federal appeals court ordered the state of Texas to remove a barrier of floating buoys in the Rio Grande installed at the direction of Governor Abbott to block migrants. The state is challenging that ruling.
For more than two years, Mr. Abbott has been testing the legal limits of what a state can do to enforce immigration law.
Part of that strategy was expanding the use of concertina wire along the riverbank. Some migrants have been injured from the sharp wire and drownings in the river’s swift currents have become more common.
The state has argued that the sharp fencing has helped to deter crossings as well as drug smuggling along border towns like Eagle Pass, which has seen recent surges of migrants. According to Mr. Paxton’s suit, border agents cut the wire at least 20 times during the first half of the year “to admit aliens illegally entering Texas through the fence hole created by CBP’s destruction of state property.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.