Supreme Court allows federal agents to remove razor wire Texas placed at border

In a 5-4 vote, the justices sided with the Biden administration in the dispute.

January 22, 2024, 11:13 PM

A narrowly divided Supreme Court on Monday sided with the Biden administration in a tense, ongoing dispute over the Texas-Mexico border and razor wire fencing installed by the state that had prohibited federal border agents from performing their duties.

The court, by a vote of 5-4, cleared the way for federal agents to remove the wire, which administration officials and immigration advocates had called dangerous and inhumane.

The Department of Homeland Security has also argued that the state's activities interfered with clear federal supremacy in setting border enforcement policy.

The Supreme Court's order did not elaborate on the decision. It means federal border agents can resume full control of the contested border area while litigation continues.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh said they would have denied the administration's request to lift a lower court injunction that was blocking removal of the wire.

PHOTO: Texas National Guard soldiers install additional razor wire lie along the Rio Grande on January 10, 2024 in Eagle Pass, Texas.
Texas National Guard soldiers install additional razor wire lie along the Rio Grande on January 10, 2024 in Eagle Pass, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

Texas officials responded to the decision, including Gov. Greg Abbot, who wrote "this is not over" on X as he vowed to keep preventing the Biden administration from "destroying" the state’s property.

“This is not over. Texas' razor wire is an effective deterrent to the illegal crossings Biden encourages. I will continue to defend Texas' constitutional authority to secure the border and prevent the Biden Admin from destroying our property,” he wrote.

Lt. Chris Olivarez, the spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety. one of the agencies tasked with executing Abbott’s "Operation Lone Star," accused the federal government of impeding Texas from protecting its borders and said the state would “maintain its current posture” by using barriers and wire along the Rio Grande.

“The State of Texas, under Gov. @GregAbbott_TX’s Operation Lone Star, will maintain its current posture in deterring illegal border crossings by utilizing effective border security measures - reinforced concertina wire & anti-climb barriers along the Rio Grande," Olivarez said in a statement on X.

The razor wire fencing was installed along the Rio Grande River by Texas authorities as part of Operation Lone Star, an effort launched by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in 2021 to curb illegal immigration.

The state sued the administration in October 2023 over what they called the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's practice of "cutting, destroying, or otherwise damaging Texas's concertina wire that had been strategically positioned for the purpose of securing the border."

In November, a federal judge ruled that Texas hadn't provided enough evidence in its request for a preliminary injunction that the federal government broke the law in removing razor-wire, but was critical of the Biden administration's execution of immigration policies.

"The immigration system at the heart of it all, dysfunctional and flawed as it is, would work if properly implemented. Instead, the status quo is a harmful mixture of political rancor, ego, and economic and geopolitical realities that serves no one," Judge Alia Moses wrote in the order. "So destructive is its nature that the nation cannot help but be transfixed by, but simultaneously unable to correct, the present condition. What follows here is but another chapter in this unfolding tragedy. The law may be on the side of the Defendants and compel a resolution in their favor today, but it does not excuse their culpable and duplicitous conduct."

The decision was immediately appealed by Abbott. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals then ruled in the state's favor, saying the lower court "legally erred with respect to sovereign immunity" and said the wire could only be cut in the event of a medical emergency.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the Biden administration argued that "if accepted, the court's rationale would leave the United States at the mercy of States that could seek to force the federal government to conform the implementation of federal immigration law to varying state-law regimes."

Biden officials also said it would have "serious on-the-ground consequences" like preventing federal agents from being able to access the area they are charged with patrolling and their ability to quickly respond to emergency situations.

"Balanced against the impairment of federal law enforcement and risk to human life, the court of appeals cited as Texas's harm only the price of wire and the cost of closing a gap created by Border Patrol agents," the administration said.

PHOTO: Razor and concertina wire, installed by the Texas National Guard, is placed in Shelby Park at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas, January 16, 2024.
Razor and concertina wire, installed by the Texas National Guard, is placed in Shelby Park at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas, January 16, 2024.
Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters

The case is one of many ongoing disputes between the Biden administration and Texas when it comes to the southwest border and immigration policy.

The Department of Homeland Security recently threatened to take action against the state for allegedly blocking Customs and Border Protection's access to the Shelby Park area in Eagle Pass, Texas.

DHS accused Texas of refusing access to the border on Jan. 12 when a group of migrants were attempting to cross the border and three individuals drowned. The Texas Military Department responded that the claims they blocked access to federal agents were "wholly inaccurate."

"At the time that Border Patrol requested access, the drownings had occurred, Mexican authorities were recovering the bodies, and Border Patrol expressed these facts to the [Texas Military Department] personnel on site," the department said.

Following the court's decision on Monday, the DHS released a statement saying it was pleased about the decision.

"DHS welcomes today’s Supreme Court order. Enforcement of immigration law is a federal responsibility," the statement began. "Rather than helping to reduce irregular migration, the State of Texas has only made it harder for frontline personnel to do their jobs and to apply consequences under the law. We can enforce our laws and administer them safely, humanely, and in an orderly way."

ABC News' Alexandra Hutzler, Armando Garcia and Luke Barr contributed to this report.