Small Texas town of Eagle Pass, Texas, plays an outsized role in national debate on border issues

Only have a minute? Listen instead

By Aarón Torres | The Dallas Morning News

Migrants with children walk by razor wire fencing after crossing the Rio Grande River from Mexico into the U.S., close to the Eagle Pass International Bridge II, on May 22, 2022, in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

EAGLE PASS — The park, fenced off from the center of town and patrolled by troops, is inaccessible.

The Rio Grande is, too.

“We can’t even see it,” said Eagle Pass resident Jessie Fuentes. “We can’t even touch it.”

Fuentes has owned a kayak business since 2015, hosting races every summer and river tours throughout the year. Lately, the only people getting on his kayaks are journalists who want to see buoys in the water or razor wire on the banks leading to Shelby Park, which has been under state control for a month.

The 1,000-foot string of buoys and the takeover of the city park were ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott to deter unauthorized border crossings. Although the actions have pleased the governor’s supporters, Fuentes is not a fan.

“He’s abusive, he’s cruel and he doesn’t care,” Fuentes, 63, said of the three-term governor. “He does not care about what’s happening in our community.”

Abbott has turned Eagle Pass into a bold experiment to determine how big a role states can play in immigration enforcement, and this city of 28,500 has mixed feelings about its position as ground zero in a national political fight.

There’s the mayor who wanted help dealing with illegal crossings but didn’t expect to see a popular park guarded by Texas National Guard soldiers and Humvees.

There are the owners of a pecan farm who invited state troops and troopers onto their land along the Rio Grande, but came to regret that decision and can’t get them to leave.

“The community didn’t sign up for this,” Fuentes said, whose business is suffering while others, particularly hotels and restaurants, are thriving.

Self-described patriots have been drawn to Eagle Pass as well, adding their voices of support for Abbott and his get-tough immigration policies.

“It’s what I stand for and I felt called by the Good Lord above us,” said Dennis Yarbery, who drove from the Baltimore area to attend a recent “Take Our Border Back” rally.

Texas took control of the 47-acre Shelby Park on Jan. 10 without notifying city leaders, who suddenly found rifle-toting Texas National Guard soldiers blocking its entrance. The park was closed to adults, children and, most surprisingly, federal Border Patrol agents — a gesture of defiance by Abbott aimed at President Joe Biden’s administration.

Eagle Pass quickly became the backdrop for a series of news conferences featuring politicians from across the country, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. Elon Musk — the billionaire owner of Tesla, SpaceX and social media giant X — was here last year seeking what he called an unfiltered view of immigration’s impact on the border. Reporters from across the nation show up regularly.

Eagle Pass has been invoked in negotiations for a bipartisan immigration bill that was killed Wednesday in the U.S. Senate and as part of this year’s presidential race.
Abbott’s national profile has risen as the governor refuses to yield to the federal government’s demands to remove the buoys and grant Border Patrol agents unfettered access to Shelby Park.

“We’re not going to contain ourselves just to this park,” said Abbott, joined by 13 Republican governors from across the country at a news conference Feb. 4 at Shelby Park. “We are expanding to further areas to make sure that we will expand our level of deterrence and denial of illegal entry into the United States.”

Later, Abbott said he wanted to shift additional National Guard troops to the border, using Eagle Pass as a model, adding that details would be announced in the future.

Life goes on in Eagle Pass, where several residents said weeks passed before they realized Shelby Park was off limits to them.

Fuentes noticed right away.

Shelby Park, named for a Confederate general who fled to Mexico to avoid surrendering after the Civil War, houses the city’s only publicly available boat ramp. Fuentes always enjoyed spending time on the water, either here or in Dallas, where he lived for a little over a decade when he was younger. After moving back to the border, he opened Epi’s Canoe and Kayak Team.

He learned to respect the Rio Grande growing up.

He wishes Abbott would respect it, too.

Full hotels, crowded restaurants

Eagle Pass, with two small international bridges, features relatively gentle Rio Grande currents that invite migrant crossings. It became a focal point of Texas action in December when the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants over multiple weeks overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and city resources.

Hotel parking lots around the city are filled with Texas Department of Public Safety SUVs as part of Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s multibillion-dollar border security crackdown launched almost three years ago. Demand has pushed room rates at the Holiday Inn Express to more than $250 a night, when rooms are available at all.

The town’s only Chick-fil-A restaurant and Starbucks are frequently filled with DPS troopers or National Guard soldiers.

The string of buoys remains on the Rio Grande, a few miles downstream from Shelby Park. An appeals court hundreds of miles away will determine later this year if a federal judge was right when he ordered the buoys removed for violating a law against construction on a navigable waterway.

Some residents see the effort as a waste of taxpayer money. They say dozens of miles of coiled razor wire, sharp enough to leave bloody cuts that require stitches, won’t deter those who have journeyed through jungles, deserts and hundreds or thousands of miles to reach the U.S-Mexico border.

“It’s this idea that being punitive over here is going to stop (migrants from crossing illegally),” said Poncho Nevárez, a former Democratic state representative from Eagle Pass. “They made it.”

Other residents are frustrated when thousands of migrants overwhelm city services, including the hospital emergency room or ambulances that serve the border region.

Maria Moreno migrated from Mexico four years ago. Standing in the city’s center square with her 2-year-old twin daughters — Shelby Park just down the street, Mexico within eyesight — Moreno said that although she disagrees with those who see unauthorized migrants as invaders, she is frustrated by the focus on migrants coming into the city.

“They pay more attention to the migrants than to us,” Moreno, 33, said in Spanish.

Across the street from Moreno is the Thrifty Nest, selling home decor like a pink wardrobe organizer and a sign that says “Happily ever after.”

Claudia Jimenez, 49, opened the store eight years ago.

She was unaware until recently the public had been prohibited from using the park where her two sons, when younger, played soccer matches every summer. It took a visit to a nearby flea market for Jimenez to see the armed soldiers behind metal-wire fencing.

The presence of soldiers was a surprise, she said, because illegal border crossings don’t typically affect the city. When a crush of migrants arrives, most Eagle Pass residents don’t know it until the international bridges shut down so Border Patrol agents can shift to helping process those who crossed the border illegally.

When that happens, wait times to cross the border from Piedras Negras back into Eagle Pass can top 12 hours, Jimenez said. It’s quicker to drive two hours south to Laredo to cross the border there, she said.

‘I want my property back’

About 3 miles east of Shelby Park, the aftermath of numerous border crossings becomes apparent. Piles of damp, dirt-covered clothing are strewn along a highway and behind a dumpster — shirts, shorts, pants and sneakers.

There’s a stuffed teddy bear, an empty can of baby formula next to an empty box of milk.

The clutter sits on the property of a husband and wife who own a pecan orchard along the Rio Grande. Because migrants cross their property regularly, Magali Urbina and her husband, Hugo — supporters of Abbott who vote Republican — invited Operation Lone Star forces onto their land. They’d also like to see the Biden administration do more to enforce immigration laws.

But the couple is having second thoughts, and they believe Operation Lone Star has gone too far, Magali Urbina said.

“It bothers me,” she said while parked on her property. In the distance, Texas National Guard soldiers were busy apprehending two adults and three children on their land.

The Urbinas say border security initiatives have overreached. Magali Urbina said she has been stopped and questioned by Texas National Guard soldiers while on her own land. They also asked DPS to stop putting razor wiring on their property, to no avail.

According to DPS, Abbott’s order last year declaring a disaster along the border gives the agency authority to use a landowner’s property without permission.

Magali Urbina is not pleased with that reasoning. “I want them all off my property,” she said. “I want my property back.”

She said she is not surprised that what’s playing out in her orchard is also happening at Shelby Park.

“They’re taking over because they want to,” Magali Urbina said.

As Urbina spoke, a 71-year-old man approached her car with his cellphone ready to take photos. “Is there anywhere around here where you can see the river?” Dan Schwartz asked.

There was not.

Schwartz arrived in Eagle Pass after a three-day trip from the northwest corner of Oregon. The dairy farmer and supporter of former President Donald Trump wanted to support Abbott in his standoff with the federal government, so he flew into Kansas City, rented a truck and drove 14 hours to Eagle Pass.

Schwartz wanted to meet up with a convoy of truckers and others gathering for a weekend “Take Our Border Back” rally. U.S. Rep. Keith Self, R-McKinney, was in Eagle Pass for the event. There had been rumors Trump would show up, too.

He didn’t.

Divisions over ‘invasion’ language

The idea for the convoy began last month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Texas in a lawsuit challenging the legality of Border Patrol agents cutting or removing razor wire installed by the state.

Republican lawmakers were outraged, and several, including U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin, suggested the state should ignore the Supreme Court’s order.

Officials and ultraconservative media personalities posted memes with the “Come and Take it” slogan — a callback to the flag famous during the Texas Revolution, only this time depictions of razor wire replaced the flag’s cannon.

Convoy organizers said action was needed to protect the country from a “migrant invasion,” drawing condemnation from Democrats and migrant-rights advocates who say such language is dehumanizing and could incite violence. The gunman who killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 said he was responding to a “Hispanic invasion” and hoping to deter border crossings.

Convoy participants defended their choice of words.

“If you don’t use that type of language, they’re not going to do anything about it,” said Doug Dailey, who was among the first truckers to arrive in Eagle Pass after driving seven hours from Ferris, just south of Dallas.

“I feel as if we’re being invaded,” said Yarbery, 45, who runs a YouTube channel as “MasterGrifter.” He wore a ballcap with the “Come and Take it” slogan and razor wire image he got at a convoy rally in Dripping Springs a few days earlier.

“They’re flooding our country with illegals,” he said. “Why wouldn’t it be an invasion?”

Yarbery stood outside of Shelby Park, with his iPhone on a tripod for a live report on YouTube a few hours before Abbott was to give a news conference alongside like-minded Republican governors.

Yarbery said he does not think the Supreme Court is working for the greater good of America — the same with any federal judge who has ruled that migrants crossing the border illegally cannot be categorized as an invasion. Some of those rulings came from judges appointed by Republican presidents.

“Those judges are probably corrupt,” Yarbery said shortly before ending the interview: “Anyway, I’m done. I’m going to start saying stuff I shouldn’t say.”

Unknown future for Shelby Park

How long will the state takeover of Shelby Park last? It’s unclear, but the rhetoric suggests it won’t end soon.

While crossings are significantly down in the area — the Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, reported 16,718 arrests in January, down from 71,095 arrests a month earlier — crossings tend to fluctuate over months.

Abbott was in Eagle Pass on Thursday for his second news conference in less than a week to praise state efforts — razor wire, climbing barriers, lines of shipping containers and more — for forcing migrants to cross elsewhere.

Mexico’s government has also increased enforcement, disrupting bus networks that cartels use to transport migrants to the border and deporting some migrants to their home countries, The New York Times reported last week.

It has led to a 50% decrease in migration flow at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to data that Customs and Border Protection released Jan. 26.

“(Mexico) is being more aggressive in their tactics in keeping people from coming to the border,” said Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas, a Democrat.

Salinas has been critical of the Biden administration’s immigration policies. He has also cooperated with Texas officials on Operation Lone Star priorities, signing agreements with DPS in June authorizing undocumented migrants to be arrested within Shelby Park for trespassing on private property.

After facing a backlash from the public, the Eagle Pass City Council rescinded the agreement in August, but Salinas reinstated it in September after another surge of migrants.

Standing on the balcony of a new administrative building on a cool Tuesday evening, the mayor said it was frustrating to see his city caught in a tug-of-war.

“I’m not happy with the federal government, and when you have thousands of people crossing without consequence, I’m not for that,” Salinas said. “However, the city didn’t come out and say, ‘Hey, please take our park.’”

Eagle Pass has become a photo opportunity for political leaders who fly into town, speak to cameras and leave.

The speaker of the U.S. House, Mike Johnson, and 60 other House Republicans held a news conference in early January at Shelby Park. A month later, Abbott and other Republican governors were at Shelby Park, blasting Biden for how he has handled illegal immigration.

If Eagle Pass residents were hoping for a quick resolution, and the return of their park, the governor has offered little solace.

Shelby Park, Abbott said, will stay under state control “as long as it takes to maintain security and eliminate crossings.”


©2024 The Dallas Morning News. Visit dallasnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.