Texas National Guard troops control who enters and exits Shelby Park at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S., January 12, 2024.     REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal
CNN  — 

Three migrants, a woman and two children, drowned in the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas – very recently the epicenter of the migrant crisis – just days after state authorities blocked the US Border Patrol from accessing miles of the US-Mexico border in that area, officials said.

“This is a tragedy, and the State bears responsibility,” US Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas, said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Border Patrol learned six migrants were in distress in the Rio Grande at about 9 p.m. on Friday, the congressman said.

Border Patrol officials called the Texas Military Department, the Texas National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety but “were unsuccessful” in relaying the information by phone, Cuellar said in the social media post. Federal agents then went to the gate at Shelby Park – a city park at the Rio Grande blocked off by state authorities with fencing, gates and razor wire – to provide the information, Cuellar said.

“However, Texas Military Department soldiers stated they would not grant access to the migrants – even in the event of an emergency – and that they would send a soldier to investigate the situation,” Cuellar said on X.

Three migrants’ bodies were recovered by Mexican authorities early Saturday, Cuellar said, though the exact time is unclear.

The US Department of Homeland Security confirmed the deaths and said Border Patrol agents were stopped from assisting at the border.

“In responding to a distress call from the Mexican government, Border Patrol agents were physically barred by Texas officials from entering the area,” a DHS spokesperson told CNN in a Saturday statement. “The Texas governor’s policies are cruel, dangerous, and inhumane, and Texas’s blatant disregard for federal authority over immigration poses grave risks.”

The Texas Military Department said by the time Border Patrol agents requested access to the site Friday night, “the drownings had occurred, Mexican authorities were recovering the bodies, and Border Patrol expressed these facts to the TMD personnel on site.”

Tensions have been high between the state and federal officials as they’ve challenged the policies of Texas’ Republican governor, including the use of razor wire along the border and a new law that makes entering Texas illegally a state crime.

The Biden administration on Friday complained to the US Supreme Court about the state blocking Border Patrol from the Shelby Park area and asked the high court to quickly intervene. The state on Saturday told the high court it was “working promptly” to ensure Border Patrol has access to a boat ramp at Shelby Park.

In the deadly weekend incident, “Border Patrol specifically requested access to the park to secure two additional migrants that were presumed to have traveled with the deceased, though had crossed to the boat ramp,” the agency said in an updated statement Sunday night. “Two migrants were apprehended by (the Texas Military Department), with one turned over to (the state Department of Public Safety) and the other transferred to EMS in response to initial hypothermic conditions.”

The Texas Military Department earlier Saturday said it was contacted by Border Patrol at 9 p.m. Friday about a “migrant distress situation” and searched the river with lights and night vision goggles, but “no migrants were observed.”

About 45 minutes later, Mexican authorities were seen responding to an incident on the Mexican side of the river bank, said the Texas Military Department, which then “reported their observations back to Border Patrol, and they confirmed that the Mexican authorities required no additional assistance,” according to its statement.

“At no time did TMD security personnel along the river observe any distressed migrants, nor did TMD turn back any illegal immigrants from the US during this period,” the Texas Military Department said. “Also, at no point was TMD made aware of any bodies in the area of Shelby Park, nor was TMD made aware of any bodies being discovered on the US side of the border regarding this situation.”

Migrant encounters drop substantially

In Eagle Pass – once a focal point of the migrant crisis – city officials last week reported a significant drop in the number of migrant encounters, down to about 500 apprehensions daily from thousands a few weeks ago.

Still, the Border Patrol has been blocked from Shelby Park since Wednesday night, when Texas authorities put up fencing, gates and razor wire to take custody of it and adjoining areas of the Rio Grande. The state was preparing for future migrant surges and blocking “organizations that perpetuate illegal immigrant crossings,” the Texas Military Department told CNN in a statement.

“We are saddened by tragic migrant drownings in Eagle Pass,” a spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection said in a statement. “We remain gravely concerned by actions that prevent the US Border Patrol from performing their essential missions of arresting individuals who enter the United States unlawfully and providing humanitarian response to individuals in need.”

“Texas officials blocked US Border Patrol agents from doing their job and allowed two children to drown in the Rio Grande,” US Rep. Joaquin Castro, another Texas Democrat, said Saturday in a statement.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and the Texas Department of Public Safety both referred CNN to the Texas National Guard for further information.

The White House on Sunday called the recent migrant deaths “tragic” and characterized Abbott’s directives on the border as “political stunts,” according to Angelo Fernández Hernández, White House assistant press secretary.

“While we continue to gather facts about the circumstances of these tragic deaths, one thing is clear: Gov. Abbott’s political stunts are cruel, inhumane, and dangerous. US Border Patrol must have access to the border to enforce our laws,” Fernández Hernández told CNN in a statement.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Sara Weisfeldt, Priscilla Alvarez and Jay Croft contributed to this report.