WASHINGTON – Tensions between the Biden administration and Gov. Greg Abbott continued to heighten after a mother and two children drowned in the Rio Grande last month as they tried to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S.

The drownings occurred near Eagle Pass’ Shelby Park on Jan. 12, just two days after Texas constructed physical barriers in and around the river, consisting of barbed wire and fences.

As of Feb. 11, Abbott said he would add “more National Guard & razor wire barriers” at the border, according to a tweet and press conference.

The Del Rio region, where Eagle Pass is located, emerged as the center of an ongoing struggle between the federal government and the state. The Biden administration said the state violated the Constitution by constructing barriers and blocking border control agents. But Abbott maintained that constructing the barriers was an act of “self-defense.”

The barriers installed by the state were the most recent example of Abbott ignoring federal border policy in favor of establishing state restrictions. On Jan. 22, the Supreme Court ordered Texas to temporarily remove the barriers while a lower court considered the case.

Congress was also embroiled in partisan border talks. Senate Republicans blocked a bipartisan border deal on Feb. 7 after initially advocating for the plan. In their second attempt, House Republicans succeeded in impeaching Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security, on Feb. 13. The impeachment reflects congressional Republicans’ dissatisfaction with the Biden administration and Mayorkas’ handling of the Southern border.

The drowning deaths of a mother, Victerma de la Sancha Cerros, and her children, 10-year-old Yorlei Rubi and 8-year-old Jonathan Agustín Briones de la Sancha, increased tensions between Republicans and Democrats over the border.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-18, described her initial reaction to the deaths as “appalled, and believing that that is not humane, and that is not the American way of treating anyone. It was completely inhumane and could have been completely avoided if the border patrol had been able to perform their duties.”

Some of the facts of the tragedy were in dispute. Both sides agreed that Mexican officials retrieved the bodies from the water. The rescue efforts that occurred prior to that point were contested, with neither Biden nor Abbott taking responsibility for the deaths, instead choosing to blame the other’s policies.

A Jan. 14 letter from Jonathan Meyer, General Counsel to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, called on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to remove the barriers or prepare for further legal action. The letter stated that, upon learning a group of migrants was crossing, Border Patrol’s attempts to reach the area were blocked by Texas officials. “Texas’s actions are clearly unconstitutional and are actively disrupting the federal government’s operations,” the letter stated.

In his response, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fought back, describing Meyer’s accusations as “vile” and “completely inaccurate.” He went on to say that the Texas Military Department did not block U.S. Border Patrol from assisting and that there was no evidence the migrants actually reached the Texas border before they drowned.

Abbott argued that Texas has a constitutional right to protect the border. In a Jan. 24 statement, he referenced a clause that states that the state’s legislature or executive branch can request help from violence and that Congress is responsible for protecting states from invasion. Abbott argued that he had already asked for assistance on the border and therefore was justified to pursue state-led enforcement.

But according to the federal government, Abbott’s actions crossed the line of the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, which established that, in most cases, federal laws overrule a state’s, Meyer wrote.

“The one thing that states cannot do is enact their own laws that contradict what the federal government is trying to do,” said Julie Novkov, Dean of Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY.

In the larger legal battle over Texas’ barriers on the border, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Biden administration’s emergency petition to allow border patrol to remove the physical barriers while the case was ongoing.

Supreme Court justices were divided on their ruling, with two conservative justices joining three liberals for the 5-4 split. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh dissented.

“I think it’s also a real test for this court— To figure out where they stand on questions of national sovereignty when it comes to immigration policy,” Novkov said.

The choice to list the dissenters, which is not required for this type of order, was calculated and likely a way of signaling that some justices were open to further debate on the issue in the future, Novkov said.

“I was a little surprised that you had four justices saying publicly that they objected to the outcome,” Novkov said. “This was not a full decision, it took place on the court’s so-called ‘shadow docket,’ and very frequently with those kinds of decisions you don’t get any sense of where the individual justices are standing. So there was this very clear, pointed choice on the part of the four dissenters to put it out there that they were dissenting.”

Abbott tweeted two days later, describing the use of razor wire as “an effective deterrent” that the state would “continue to deploy.”

“The authority that is a superseding authority is that of the federal government and the President of the United States, not border states,” Jackson Lee said. “We will work with the border states, but they do not have a superior power over the federal government as relates to immigration.”

But on Jan. 25, 25 Republican governors released a joint statement supporting Abbott’s policies, stating that “because the Biden Administration has abdicated its constitutional compact duties to the states, Texas has every legal justification to protect the sovereignty of our states and our nation.”

Migrant advocates said the tragedies had become a powerful political weapon utilizing migrants as pawns rather than people.

“What we’re seeing is a massive accumulation of bad federal policy, bad state policy. And what we see as the end result, is that people and kids die a horrible death,” said Alexis Bay, a Health Justice Legal Fellow at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

Immigration and border security are a contentious issue for voters in advance of the 2024 elections. A Harvard CAPS-Harris January poll found that voters ranked immigration as one of the most important issues in the upcoming election, beating out inflation for the lead. GOP voters were more likely to prioritize immigration.

“I think a big step is just trying to remind ourselves of who are the folks that are actually coming to seek refuge in our country, and realizing that they’re no different from us,” Bay said. “They shouldn’t be treated like pieces in a game, an ethical game, especially when it comes to the safety of children.”