Texas Border City on Edge as Gov. Abbott Dials up Battle with Biden

REUTERS/Go Nakamura
Texas Governor Greg Abbot attends the event for Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump during his visit at the southern border in Edinburg, Texas, U.S. November 19, 2023.

EAGLE PASS, Tex. – A century and a half ago, Confederate Gen. Joseph Orville Shelby splashed into the wild waters of the Rio Grande off this border city and fled to Mexico, refusing to surrender his battle flag to Union soldiers.

Now the park named in his honor has become a front line in a feud between the state and the federal government – a power struggle over who ultimately has the right to control the border and the tide of humanity trying to cross it.

Texas National Guard Humvees carry rifle-toting troops and patrol newly erected gates to the municipal park previously used for family cookouts and Independence Day festivities. Tents, military trucks, heavy equipment and portable toilets dot the edge of a browning fairway. Along the riverbank, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ordered the state National Guard to deploy coils of razor wire, rusting shipping containers and dirt-filled barrels to declare his state’s sovereignty.

In a Shelby-like act of defiance, the governor is invoking the state’s right to defend itself against what he sees as an invasion. Abbott made national headlines when he seized the park in Eagle Pass this month and shut out U.S. Border Patrol agents who had long used the terrain as a staging point – action the governor’s supporters saw as a take-charge move, while his detractors viewed it as a dangerous overreach of state power.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered Abbott to allow Border Patrol agents to remove or cut wire to reach the river and aid migrants in distress. Abbott’s troops are installing even more wire. Twenty-five Republican governors recently signed a letter expressing their support for Abbott’s rebellion, and former president Donald Trump is calling on states to join the standoff.

The feud between Abbott and the Biden administration is heating up just as the presidential election campaign gets underway. The issue has galvanized Republicans, some of whom are now questioning the merits of a bipartisan border package tied to Ukraine aid after Trump called it “meaningless.” President Biden has been pushed to take a harsher stance – declaring Friday that he would “shut down” the southern border when illegal crossings surge.

“People now know where Eagle Pass is,” said Mike Garcia, a retired insurance salesman and active Chamber of Commerce member. “But are we famous or infamous?”

Caught in the fray are the residents of Eagle Pass – originally known as El Paso del Águila, after the Mexican eagles that flew through nearby woods. The garrison town established in the 1840s was once dominated by outlaws and renegades like gunslinger John King Fisher. Today it is home to an ambitious and growing binational community largely composed of Mexican Americans and members of the traditional Kickapoo tribe of Texas – all eager to get back to normal life.

Eagle Pass is the largest city in Maverick County, with nearly 30,000 residents, but it is isolated from most other U.S. border cities. The nearest municipality is Piedras Negras in Mexico, within eyesight across the river. Their histories and fortunes are tied together. Mexicans who cross legally make up nearly half of Eagle Pass’s workforce; many U.S. residents also cross the river to work. While local government and the school district have been Eagle Pass’s biggest employers historically, residents are increasingly landing jobs with the Border Patrol and large manufacturers. Still, nearly a quarter of the population – about twice the Texas average – lives in poverty.

Unprecedented migration has made this border county’s 74 miles of riverfront the scene of an unfolding human and constitutional drama. The huge number of migrants who have crossed the river and the crackdown designed to stop that flow have attracted the attention of everyone from immigrant rights activists to racist militias curious to see whether the federal supremacy that withstood a civil war will survive once more.

The city’s restaurants are full of out-of-towners and hotel rooms are sold out. The state resurrected Camp Charlie, a base on the city’s outskirts, to house hundreds of Texas National Guard soldiers. Yards away, U.S. Customs and Border Protection erected a tent city in 2022 to relieve overflow at its two stations processing migrants. The local high school’s cross-country team can no longer use Shelby Park trails, but soldiers allowed the golf team to practice recently while two Venezuelan migrants shivered behind wire on the riverbank asking other soldiers for help.

“We didn’t expect any of this,” said migrant Kevin Rolando Gómez, 25, pointing to the wire and barriers. “We just need help.”

It’s been nearly two years since Abbott and other Republican governors began traveling to this Democratic-voting Tejano city for news conferences denouncing “open borders” and unveiling plans to deploy Texas troops and drop river buoys. The state’s border with Mexico is an international boundary under the jurisdiction of federal authorities, but Abbott and his allies contend they have the right to intervene because the Biden administration hasn’t done enough to stanch the record number of migrants trying to enter Texas illegally in recent months.

Abbott did not respond to a request for comment on the situation in Eagle Pass.

“It’s the most expensive political campaign paid for by the taxpayers,” said a chuckling Pepe Aranda, a local real estate agent and former county elected official.

But even as residents criticize Abbott’s push, they grumble about the resources that migration has drained from public coffers. Local fire and police are sometimes so busy handling calls at the river that ambulances and personnel are not available for residents. Patients have had to wait for a bed at the hospital because injured or sick migrants occupy all 18 of them.

“We cannot afford thousands of people coming through our community,” said Maverick’s county attorney, Jaime Iracheta, who signed 40 invoices recently to reimburse local officials who handled the remains of migrants.

As in many communities along the border, locals here hold views on immigration that are as complicated as the stories of how their families became fronterizos, or borderlanders. Both the federal and state governments, said residents and elected leaders, routinely leave them out of the conversation.

“For us, it becomes frustrating,” said Jaime Rodríguez, who runs his family’s nearly 85-year-old grocery store downtown. “Living here on the border, we have people making decisions for us who aren’t from here and don’t know how we live our lives.”

The transformation of the city’s riverbank into a militarized zone is harmful, residents said. Soldiers changed the river’s flow when they bulldozed islands and pushed the land toward Texas to keep migrants from gathering on them. The environmental costs and the amount of erosion are still not known.

“They’re destroying the river and everything I believe in,” said Jessie Fuentes, who owns a kayaking and canoe business but is nervous about taking customers out because of all the razor wire that has slipped beneath the river’s surface. “I can’t believe this is America.”

But the soldiers and state troopers who unspool the ugly razor wire, more often reserved for prisons and battlefields, are welcomed by some as long as they rent, eat and buy into the local economy.

The state takeover of Shelby Park this month was unexpected and unwarranted, city officials have said. But the Eagle Pass City Council – despite the prospect of losing close to $1 million in city revenue if park events are canceled – voted that legal remedies were too expensive. Residents believe that their leaders are reluctant to resist the governor after the state gave the city and county millions in grants through Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s border security initiative. The mayor and City Council members declined requests for interviews.

Despite the fearmongering of some politicians, crime rates have not gone up. But trauma is proliferating.

The militarized response to migration “is damaging everyone it touches,” said Valeria Wheeler, who runs the lone nongovernmental organization in the county assisting migrants after they are released from federal custody. “I can’t believe how far this has gone.”

The vast majority of residents will never encounter a migrant or suffer direct impacts from the voluminous movement of men, women and children across their beloved river. In interviews across the city, some residents said they understand, in some cases intimately, the migrants’ need to leave their countries and why they choose Eagle Pass as a crossing point. They know that Mexico’s Coahuila state, on the other side, is considered one of the safest parts of northern Mexico.

But others, including some who are immigrants, are quietly resentful of the shelter, transportation and protection these migrants receive, while they themselves have spent thousands of dollars and waited years to bring relatives in legally.

Art teacher Francisco Riojas grew up riding his bike to Shelby Park from his home in a residential neighborhood that migrants pass through regularly. It’s part of living on the border, he said. Those interactions are rarely scary or dangerous. But the volume of people in recent years has unnerved his neighbors, who he said have reported some break-ins and stolen items such as tools.

Riojas’s own bicycle went missing from his backyard, but he blamed himself for carelessly leaving it out.

“People are frustrated and angry, but at the same time, those same people feel concern and empathy for these people because we know they are trying to survive,” said Riojas, who has created satirical comics of the scene at the park. “My bicycle was stolen, but of course, it could’ve been anybody. But in my mind, if it was a migrant, at least it could help them with something.”

Whenever U.S. Customs and Border Protection unexpectedly closes the bridge to Piedras Negras so officials can help process migrants, everyone feels it. Some residents rely on the pharmacies and affordable health care Mexico offers. Downtown businesses derive nearly 40 percent of their sales from Mexican shoppers. Much of the imported Mexican beer (think Corona, Modelo and Pacifico) sold in the United States comes through Eagle Pass. The city generates about 55 percent of its revenue from the bridge fees pedestrians and motorists pay to cross.

“It is a significant impact to the projected revenues that the city depends on,” said Homero Balderas, the city’s director of international bridge operations. “Ultimately, it caused the city to put a hiring freeze and some of our projects to be put on hold because we don’t know what the future holds.”

So when the governor came to the city with a pot of Operation Lone Star cash, there wasn’t much hesitation in accepting it. The state has provided more than $8 million to help modernize the county attorney’s office; reimburse costs to law enforcement; and pay for new vehicles, equipment, and personnel to prosecute thousands of state trespassing cases filed against migrants arrested by state troopers.

“We’re grateful for the money,” said Iracheta, the county attorney. “But it’s not fixing it.”

City fire chief Manuel Mello III said he obtained a $400,000 state grant to help cover the overtime hours his firefighters and emergency medical personnel put in responding to a staggering number of migrant medical emergencies at the river, railways and ranchlands. It also paid for repairs for emergency vehicles.

They burned through the money in six months, he said.

Abbott’s initiative also stimulated economic development, residents said. The city was showing steady growth before the migration crisis, data shows, but the short- and long-term rental market has exploded with the deployment of hundreds of Texas soldiers as well as troops from other states sent by their governors.

A three-bedroom rental home went from $1,200 a month to more than $2,000, according to Texas real estate data. A room at the Holiday Inn Express is going for $250 a night, and top-tier hotels are solidly sold out for four-month periods. Restaurants like the Wagon Wheel, known for its brisket sandwich, are favorite lunch spots for Florida law enforcement in town for border assignments.

“Economically speaking, our community has benefited. Migration is good for business,” said Aranda, the former county judge. “Humanitarianly speaking, it’s another story.”

Eagle Pass emergency rescue teams treat every migrant who breaks a leg, has a heart attack or emerges from the river with hypothermia. The work is so heavy that some rescuers have quit, said the fire chief, who spends time talking through the issues with his teams. They feel anger – why would a parent take this risk? They are saddened – how bad must it be for families to have to do this? And they grow incredulous – how could this still be happening?

Mello drove four miles downriver from the park past a pecan orchard to a small clearing where Border Patrol and Texas National Guard troops still play nice. He paused and pointed to the ground, littered with trampled diapers, Bibles, blankets and cough medicine bottles, remembering the spot where two months earlier his crews performed CPR on two Venezuelans who had just been pulled from the river. Neither survived.

“One young man who had just joined the fire department said he didn’t want to do the work anymore and would rather go back to teaching,” Mello recalled. “He said to me, ‘Chief, I’m used to helping kids, but these children I can’t help.’”

While governments duel in court, and the border crisis is reduced to a 2.5-mile stretch of parkland, the people of Eagle Pass wait to see what comes next. Few think anything will change as long as the loudest voices spew views that sound like hate and the rational ones stay quiet, residents said.

Back at the park on a January afternoon, Texas National Guard soldiers escorted journalists onto the grounds. Border Patrol agents could launch their boats from the ramp but didn’t have full access. As vehicle engines hummed and forklifts raised more wire and barriers, two Venezuelan migrants stood on the eroding riverbank, feet away from soldiers. For two days, Gómez and his 21-year-old girlfriend had been walking on U.S. soil just outside the wire, looking for help and an opening, they said.

The couple had run away from criminals and jumped panicked into the river, Gómez recounted, shaking from the cold, his sleeves ripped by the wire. They couldn’t go back, he said, not to Mexico and not to Venezuela. They would have surrendered at the port of entry, he said, but he feared that the more-aggressive Mexican authorities would intercept them and hand them over to criminal organizations.

“It was never my plan to cross illegally,” Gómez said through four rows of razor wire. The couple were hoping to get to Denver, where family was waiting. The young woman’s pants were stained red from the cuts she suffered while trying to navigate through the wire. It had been raining in Eagle Pass, with temperatures falling to the 40s and 50s at night. Neither had eaten, and they had lost all their belongings in the water.

Soldiers would give the couple drinking water but not much else, until the couple’s needs turned more grave.

That moment, Gomez said, would come soon.