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Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro on the state's floating barrier in the Rio Grande

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To the U.S.-Mexico border now and the floating border fence that Texas has installed in the Rio Grande to try to deter migrants from crossing. It's a string of bright orange buoys about the length of three soccer fields with webbing underneath to make it hard to swim below. Now, Mexico objects to this barrier. The U.S. Justice Department has sued Texas, arguing that the barrier poses environmental and humanitarian concerns. Texas governor Republican Greg Abbott is standing firm. Well, Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro is there. He's leading a congressional delegation to see the situation firsthand. We have reached him in a bus. He has just wrapped up a visit to the border town of Eagle Pass. Congressman, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOAQUIN CASTRO: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

KELLY: Describe briefly what you saw at the border today.

CASTRO: Well, it's what we suspected. Those devices that Governor Greg Abbott has installed on the banks of the Rio Grande are types of drowning devices, really death traps. You got - we were right near what is razor wire. And you look at this razor wire, and some of it is invisible. It's - you know, the water comes above it, and so people can't see it and get caught up in it. There was items of clothing that were caught up in the razor wire. The buoys are barrel traps, have a chainsaw-type device in the middle of them. And so, you know, there's a right way to treat people and a wrong way, and this is the wrong way. And he's treating these people like animals.

KELLY: Two bodies have been pulled from the Rio Grande in recent days. One of them was caught in the barrier. I do want to note the Texas Department of Public Health says that that person may have drowned upstream and then drifted into the barrier. You say that Governor Abbott has blood on his hands. Why?

CASTRO: I believe that's right because he knows that these devices are going to make it more likely that people will drown or that they will be forced to go to another part of the river that is deeper and tougher to swim and therefore may make it more likely for them to drown. And, you know, the governor is doing this because of politics and because he wants to stoke his primary base.

KELLY: Congressman, as you know, the Rio Grande has been one of the deadliest travel routes for migrants trying to come to the U.S. for many years. Hundreds of people have died trying to cross it, going back way before Texas put this floating barrier in place. And Governor Abbott argues that the barrier is there to try to prevent more deaths, to serve as a visual deterrent and get people to cross safely at a port of entry. Is he wrong?

CASTRO: Oh, he's absolutely wrong. I think he has no expertise in how you control migration, has not studied it, has not worked on it before. It's a political stunt. It's - you're right. Look. People have drowned in the waters trying to reach the United States not only from Mexico - from Haiti, from Cuba, from other places around the world. But that is no reason to make it more dangerous and more likely that they will drown and more inhumane in the treatment that we offer to asylum-seekers. Yet that is what Greg Abbott has done.

KELLY: And just to push you on this point, I was looking at a letter that Governor Abbott wrote to President Biden back on the 24 of July in which he says, look. I share the humanitarian concerns. But, again, he points to the need to push people toward safe and legal entry at a port of entry. And he writes, quote, "nobody drowns on a bridge."

CASTRO: Yeah. Look. I think there's something we can all agree on. We want migration to be as efficient and orderly as possible. But it's also true that throughout the generations, there are people who are so desperate that they try to do anything possible to make it to the safe shores of the United States. The question for us as moral people and as elected officials is how you treat them as human beings. Do you treat them as human beings, or do you treat them as animals the way Greg Abbott is doing?

KELLY: So I guess the basic question - what should Texas do? I mean, we interview people in border towns, and they tell us about the strain that migrants put on resources. I'm guessing you heard some of those same concerns as you visited a border town today. What do you say to local officials who feel like their hands are tied?

CASTRO: Well, first, Texas should commit more resources, more money to cities like Eagle Pass and Del Rio and El Paso and Laredo and McAllen that are on the border and the local officials and the local communities that are actually trying to help process these asylum-seekers and whose infrastructure are being tested when you have an influx of migration. And yet Greg Abbott - rather than doing enough of that, what he's done is created a political stunt and spent billions of dollars also violating people's civil rights. I mean, they are keeping people in jail for months at a time on class B misdemeanors, which would never happen if you were charged with a class B misdemeanor in San Antonio or anywhere else in the state. And so that's why I think Greg Abbott is being disingenuous in his argument.

KELLY: That is Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas speaking with us right after a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. Congressman, thank you. Safe travels.

CASTRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.