Along Texas' floating border barrier, migrant children left bloody by razor wire
EAGLE PASS, Texas – By the time Omar Tortua and his family waded into the warm river water at Piedras Negras, they had already survived a treacherous journey through the jungle of the Darién Gap, across six countries and past cartel kidnappers.
But it was only at the end that Tortua saw the danger claw into his own child when a coil of concertina wire – placed at the American shoreline by Texas officials – ensnared the leg of his 5-year-old son.
He scooped up the bleeding child, with officers watching from the bank above.
All along this riverbank, scraps of clothing bear witness to the many migrants who have been snared by razor wire in recent weeks. And as federal and state officials clash over Texas' latest border security initiative, the migrants who reach the United States display its toll, in bruises and broken ankles and glinting rows of surgical staples that hold closed their slice wounds. An internal e-mail from a Texas state trooper, revealed last week, raised the alarm that the state's efforts had become "inhumane." On Friday, USA TODAY observed how that razor wire has slashed not just adults but young children.
Tortua, 27, from Venezuela, had waded into the Rio Grande early Wednesday at Piedras Negras, Mexico. With him were his wife, Yamilet Castillo, 31, and their sons, Jesús and Elias. The boys are twins, the kind of kids who giggle together at each new sight, wide-eyed and curious about the world.
The family had already been trekking for weeks. Turning back now was not an option.
They shuffled, waist-deep, along the river’s edge, maneuvering around coils of lacerating wire in the water and stepping carefully over more that stuck out along the banks.
From the Texas bank of the river, men in vehicles trailed them slowly. Whether the agents were state troopers, National Guard, or Border Patrol, the family didn't know. They were simply policías, and they were calling out instructions: Tortua and his family would have to keep going, downriver to a staging area – or return to Mexico.
As he climbed around one rock in the river, Jesús slipped and stumbled onto a wire coil that jutted out. It slashed into his left calf, leaving a two-inch gash. Blood spilled into the water. Jesús let out a shrieking cry.
The authorities called out, from the other side of the wire, saying they could help. Tortua reached over the coils and handed his son to them.
The authorities wrapped the boy’s cut. But they made the rest of the family continue farther downstream before allowing them up on the banks, Tortua said.
Somewhere along the way, a medic treated the boy’s leg. His family was turned over to U.S. Border Patrol, where they were processed and released until their court date.
“It was horrible,” Tortua said Friday from inside the Mission: Border Hope migrant shelter just outside Eagle Pass. He pulled up Jesús’ pant leg to show the four medical staples it took to seal the gash.
“I don’t understand: If they were just going to arrest us and let us go, why do they have to put all that up?” he said. “It doesn’t seem right.”
“All that” is the miles of razor wire Texas has erected on the banks of the Rio Grande to deter unauthorized crossings.
Attention to them has amplified last week along with controversy over Texas’ other attempt at a border barrier: a 1,000-foot string of floating orange buoys the state deployed at midstream. Purchased from a government security contractor, the “floating wall” is designed to trap swimmers, in a river that often runs knee-deep and warm in the summer sun, but where the tranquil surface hides dark pockets of head-high water.
In the past week, migrants, including many children, have arrived at the Eagle Pass shelter with an array of injuries: lacerations, welts and open wounds. Pregnant women have high blood pressure from stress, said Valeria Wheeler, the shelter’s executive director, and migrants have gashes in their heads and faces. The shelter has also been accepting an unusually high number of migrants recently released from hospitals, she said.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Wheeler said. “They’re putting lives at risk.”
Revelations of those injuries have drawn widespread condemnation from immigrant advocates, Democratic leaders and other agencies. By the end of the week, the Justice Department warned Texas that it planned to file suit over the floating barrier.
“The State of Texas’s actions violate federal law, raise humanitarian concerns, present serious risks to public safety and the environment, and may interfere with the federal government’s ability to carry out its official duties,” the department wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, which was obtained by USA TODAY.
The letter gives Texas until Monday to commit to removing the barrier and warns that, if there is no response, the administration will proceed with a lawsuit.
The coils of wire also restrict U.S. Border Patrol agents from accessing the river and helping migrants in distress.
“We can enforce the law and, at the same time, ensure that we prioritize the wellbeing of those we encounter,” a Border Patrol spokesperson said in a statement. “We are very concerned by reports of actions that not only make it harder for Border Patrol agents to enforce our nation’s immigration laws, but also put lives in danger.”
Abbott’s border actions brought condemnation from the White House.
"The governor’s actions are cruel and putting both migrants and border agents in danger," White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan told USA TODAY Friday. "The Department of Justice made clear that it is prepared to take the governor to court if he doesn’t immediately remove the unlawful structures in the Rio Grande."
A floating border wall in Texas, and a whistleblower's warning
The Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas state guard have been uncoiling miles of concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande since 2021 as part of Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s multibillion-dollar initiative to use state resources to curtail unauthorized border crossings. More than 90 miles of the sharp-edged wire has been unfurled throughout South Texas, according to DPS.
The dangers of the razor wire entered the spotlight, though, when a recent email by a Texas DPS trooper to his superiors was made public. The July 3 email by trooper and paramedic Nicholas Wingate, first reported by the Houston Chronicle, describes how he and fellow troopers came across large groups of men, women and children along the banks of the Rio Grande and were ordered by commanders to push people "back into the water” toward Mexico.
The email, which DPS provided to USA TODAY, also described encountering a male migrant with a “significant laceration” on his left leg while extricating his child from the razor wire and a 19-year-old pregnant woman having a miscarriage while stuck in the wiring. He also alleged troopers were directed not to give water or medical attention to migrants.
“I believe we have stepped over a line into the in humane,” Wingate wrote.
Two weeks later, on July 15, DPS director Steve McCraw dispatched an email to regional directors with the subject line “Incidents Involving Concertina Wire – DPS,” in which he reminded DPS leaders that crossing through “the concertina wire without protective gear is no doubt likely to result in an injury. This is self evident, but we need to ensure that migrants are reminded of this by signage and continued verbal warnings …”
Internal memos show DPS was circulating photos of border crossers wounded by the wire. One shows a migrant with a long gash along the torso that had been medically stapled shut. Others show a bloodied finger and leg injuries. A memo lists seven incidents, between July 4 and July 13, where migrants had been caught in the concertina wire, including a mother and child who had been transported to the hospital with cuts and another migrant who was transported to San Antonio for “treatment with several lacerations that required staples.”
McCraw’s directive says agents would continue to save lives, and notes that a soldier died during a water rescue – an apparent reference to an incident last year.
But the directive also echoes the orders Tortua heard as his children approached the razor wire.
“We will be able to prevent migrants from risking their lives by denying them access between the Ports of Entry,” McCraw wrote, “and encourage them to use one of the 29 Texas international bridges where they can safely cross.”
DPS’ Office of Inspector General is investigating the allegations made in Wingate’s email, agency spokesman Travis Considine said. “If our personnel are doing anything that violates policy, they will be held accountable,” he said in an email. “There are no orders from the top that prohibit Troopers from giving water to women and children or attending to migrants who need medical attention.”
In a joint statement from Abbott’s office, McCraw, Texas Border Czar Mike Banks and the Texas National Guard, state officials said they were taking steps to monitor the safety of migrants and provide medical attention to those in distress. They blamed President Joe Biden’s border policies for the need to ramp up enforcement.
“With migrants from over 150 countries encouraged by open border policies to risk their lives and make this dangerous trek to enter our country illegally, Texas is deploying every tool and strategy to deter and repel illegal crossings between ports of entry,” it said. “The absence of these tools and strategies – including concertina wire that snags clothing – encourages migrants to make potentially life-threatening and illegal crossings.”
But Texas may be overstepping its authority by deploying the buoys, experts said. Placing the buoys without consulting the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission violates the 1944 water treaty and 1970 treaty between the U.S. and Mexico, said Stephen Mumme, a Colorado State University political scientist and author of “Border Water: The Politics of U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Water Management, 1945-2015.”
Last week, high-ranking Mexican officials filed a complaint over the buoys. Considine, the DPS spokesman, would not comment on Mexico’s complaints. Neither would the U.S. State Department.
Mexico did not previously complain when border walls and fences went up on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande without consulting the commission, also a potential violation of the treaties, Mumme said. The fact that they are now raising complaints points to how serious Mexican officials consider the matter, he said.
“The state of Texas has no authority whatsoever to be doing what it’s doing,” Mumme said.
A border grove fenced like a prison
Just behind Heavenly Farms, a 300-acre pecan grove on the banks of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, coils of concertina wire are stacked one atop of the other, stretching for miles in either direction.
Sweaters, swim trunks and strands of T-shirts hang from the wires’ pointed barbs, signs of where migrants were snagged by the wire. Humvees and trucks ferrying National Guard troops from Ohio and Missouri, U.S. Border Patrol trucks and DPS cruisers steadily rumble over dirt roads, kicking up clouds of dust.
Migrants are often caught in wire nearly submerged near two islands in the river, or when they climb over the coils to reach U.S. soil, said Magali Urbina, the farm’s owner. Urbina called the concertina wire “sickening” and she and her husband, Hugo Urbina, have repeatedly asked Texas authorities to remove the wire from their property. They’ve refused, she said.
“It’s horrible,” Magali Urbina said. “I can’t imagine how many people have gotten caught in it.”
The Urbinas bought the land in 2021 as an idyllic retirement location, where they could gaze out at the churning waters of the Rio Grande and occasionally go fishing. Instead, it now more closely resembles a prison camp. Though streams of asylum-seekers stalked through her property last year, those numbers were already dwindling earlier this year before Texas put up the wire, she said.
Magali Urbina questioned if the wire will truly deter migrants.
“If they came from Venezuela, through the Darién Gap" – a roadless crossing at the border of Colombia and Panama – "this is not going to stop them,” she said, looking out at coils of stacked concertina wire at the edge of her property.
DPS officials said troopers should not be jeopardizing the well-being of migrants and have shared pictures on social media of troopers assisting migrants. But asylum-seekers at the Mission: Border Hope shelter, some with small children, described scenes of crossing the river only to be told by authorities on the U.S. side to return across the Rio Grande to Mexico or trek for miles downriver.
Reyna Gloria Domínguez, 42, from Honduras, crossed the river two weeks ago with her husband, Edemecio, and four children, ages 5 to 22. She was nursing a broken ankle she said she had suffered in Monterrey fleeing gunmen on her trip to the border. As the family arrived on the U.S. side and faced coils of razor wire, authorities told her they would take her since she was injured but her family had to return to Mexico, she said.
Domínguez said she stood on the banks, dripping wet, and cried as she watched her family recross the Rio Grande and return to Mexico.
“I said, ‘God, please, where are you?’” she said through tears at the shelter on Friday, as she hugged a battered Bible. “I didn’t know if my children made it back to Mexico or were here or even alive.”
She added: “I never imagined that the United States would be so painful, so heartless.”
Diego Molina, 34, fled Honduras with his family earlier this year to flee criminal gangs who he said had shut down his business and extorted money from him. He needed to reach the U.S., he said, to save money and get a heart-valve operation done for his son, Diego, 10, to fix a heart condition.
As he crossed the Rio Grande earlier last week with Diego, his wife, Heidy Orellano, 33, and their 1-year-old daughter, Camila, he was met with rows of concertina wire. They crossed with a pregnant woman and her husband and a mother with two small children. As they puzzled how to get past the wire, U.S. authorities yelled at them to go further downriver and blared a siren at them, he said.
With water at times coming up to his neck, Molina led his family downriver. The men on the banks told them to keep going but his son was struggling to breathe. With sirens blaring and children crying, he stepped on razor wire protruding from the water and had his family amble on shore. The wire tore at his pants, but everyone made it to land. The authorities immediately called an ambulance for the pregnant woman and for his son.
“We didn’t think it would be like this,” Molina said from the shelter on Friday. “But once you cross from Mexico, you can’t go back.”
Contributing: Michael Collins and Bart Jansen