Texas and Biden Are Warring Over a Border Town. Its Residents Just Want Their Park Back.

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Throughout January, a right-wing militant group based out of North Carolina called upon supporters to travel to a small Texas border town to “gather” and help “do the work of closing our borders.”

“By Ballot, by choice,” the group’s website promised. “By Bullet if forced. The Republic will be Restored.”

Mike Garcia, a resident of Eagle Pass, Texas—the small town in question—heard about the North Carolina visitors from a reporter who gave him and some other locals a heads-up. “We were freaking out,” Garcia said. He and a group of residents alerted a nearby high school and others in the community. And soon enough, on Jan. 20, Garcia saw what were undeniably a couple of outsiders driving around the local Shelby Park. (“When you’re 98 percent Hispanic, and somebody who’s white with a big beard, looking like they came from Duck Dynasty—they stick out,” he said.) The outsiders drove their pickup trucks slowly by the gate of the park, peering out their windows, looking past the concertina wire and National Guardsmen and state troopers for drama.

But as far as Garcia could tell, the trip was a dud; the visitors expected to see an area overrun with migrants and immigration officials, but they arrived at a time when the area’s migrant processing had been redirected to a different location. “They were disappointed,” Garcia said, “because there were no immigrants.”

The encounter was just one episode exemplifying the absurdity of life right now in Eagle Pass; already, a second, more organized and publicized caravan of anti-immigration protesters is working its way south toward the city. In recent months, the town of 28,000 has transformed from a relatively quiet international commerce waypoint into a destination for conservative livestreaming and speechmaking. As the maneuvering in Washington over border politics heats up—the GOP is moving to impeach the Homeland Security director, and Republicans are working to kill a strict but bipartisan border deal, seemingly in order to preserve their own campaign rallying cry—Eagle Pass has become the site of a turf war between the federal and state government, and a focal point in political posturing around the border.

The mostly Mexican American residents of Eagle Pass—which abuts the town of Piedras Negras in Mexico across the Rio Grande—have long understood bureaucratic snags and political whims to be a part of a border town’s operations. But recently, with a spike in migrant crossings and the Republican Party’s corresponding decision to make immigration a key issue of the 2024 campaign season, the political wrangling has reached a new high.

Over the past few years, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been feuding with the Biden administration, pitting federal Border Patrol against Abbott’s Texas National Guard and state troopers in a conflict for control over the border. Eagle Pass’ mayor, Ronaldo Salinas Jr., said that at some point the town must have developed a reputation as one of the safest crossing points from Mexico; as migrants changed course to come through Eagle Pass, a complex shift in immigration factors left the city overwhelmed and heavily scrutinized this winter. During one week in late December, 12,000 undocumented immigrants crossed into the city’s territory.

Eagle Pass’ 47-acre Shelby Park encompasses much of the city’s access to the river and serves as a natural staging area for immigration agents. As the park became something of a hub for migrant encounters, tensions between the federal and Texas immigration enforcement authorities only grew.

Things came to a head on Jan. 10, when Abbott sent state troopers to take over Shelby Park, claiming that the Biden administration had abdicated its right to manage the area. The troopers blocked federal Border Patrol agents from entering the park, surrounded it with razor wire, and set up armed guards at its entrance. The fight over Shelby Park escalated to the point that the Supreme Court, the Biden administration, almost every Republican governor in the country, and former President Donald Trump all weighed in to voice support for either Texas’ state sovereignty or the federal government’s constitutional right to border management. The area remains the site of a standoff.

In other words, it’s a heated national-level dispute that has escalated into a referendum on states’ rights, with implications for the presidential election. But for locals, it’s a matter of getting their park back.

Before Shelby Park was seized by the state, it was the site of regular community events, such as pickup soccer matches and Little League games. Every spring, the city holds an event called Noches Mexicanas, a public festival with live music, food, and local vendors, at the park. Eagle Pass is set to be in the path of totality for the April 8 total solar eclipse, and the city plans to host a Latin and country music festival to mark the occasion, with Shelby Park serving as parking for the event. According to Garcia, Shelby Park’s parking lot—now fenced off—used to serve the flea market by Main Street every Monday and Friday. That flea market, which Garcia said included as many as 80 to 100 vendors, has essentially collapsed amid the standoff. “Some people, that’s where their living is,” he said.

He noted that the conversion of Shelby Park into a kind of conflict zone is scaring off people from visiting the downtown area. “Anytime there’s something going on down there, people are afraid to go across,” he said of the pedestrian bridge across the river. “The downtown area is suffering.”

The origin of the state’s current drama dates back to March 2021. Abbott launched Operation Lone Star that month, sending state troopers and Texas National Guardsmen to parts of the border to arrest migrants suspected of trespassing. (Ron DeSantis also dispatched some of the Florida National Guard to participate in the operation.) Then, in June 2021, the governor issued a “disaster declaration” that empowered the state to set up barriers and suspend state laws and regulations. At Eagle Pass, the state put up miles of razor wire along the Rio Grande as well as massive buoys in the river itself. The state lined Shelby Park with shipping containers to block the river. For a period this past summer, Salinas closed the park at the request of the Texas Department of Public Safety, allowing the department to arrest migrants there.

Residents complained, and the City Council rescinded the order. Border Patrol later began using the park as a staging area for processing migrants. In the fall, Texas sued the federal government, complaining that Border Patrol agents had cut through some of the razor wire Texas had put up. Customs and Border Protection had said it needed to cut the wire to save migrants in danger of drowning or serious injury.

A group of soldiers in military gear standing by a gate near a river. In the foreground, a dog looks to the side.
National Guard on the banks of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas, Jan. 12. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Then, in January, the state seized the park, fencing it off and blocking Border Patrol agents from accessing it entirely. It was the boldest move the state had yet made in challenging the federal government’s authority at the border. Border Patrol was forced to relocate its processing area to a shoulder along a highway, a move it would argue was dangerous to agents and migrants. The city, meanwhile, was blindsided. Salinas told local reporters that he had not been warned of the state’s plans.

“I voted for Abbott; I think he’s been good for Texas,” Garcia said. “But to tell somebody ‘We’re taking over’ and not giving a good reason—you feel slapped silly. Nobody here is happy with what they did, because of the way they did it.”

Since the park was taken, the public has been allowed in only sparingly. (Mostly, it’s to use the golf course adjacent to the park.) A group that included Garcia was permitted in to put up a memorial to the migrants who drowned in the river. Reporters have been allowed in to take a look. But there have been no more people coming in to play soccer or fish or kayak in the town’s only public river access point.

And that’s been particularly tough for Jessie Fuentes, the town’s only river outfitter, who provides canoes and kayaks for recreation on the Rio Grande. Fuentes, who has lived in Eagle Pass his whole life, grew up with the river and sees it as essential to the community’s culture. Losing Shelby Park and its river access has been hard for him.

“Now the only people I’m putting in are journalists and professors and individuals that want to see the utter destruction,” he said. “What’s been happening has really shut me down.”

For Fuentes, the real problems began not with the closure of Shelby Park but with the state’s interference in the Rio Grande itself. Texas first put out its river buoys as a kind of floating barrier to block wading migrants on July 7; Fuentes filed a lawsuit against the state that same day.

Immediately, he stepped into national politics. “When I first sued the governor, I got calls from all across America,” he said. “Crazy people, saying all kinds of stuff about me.”

His suit, which he later dropped in deference to the federal government’s legal challenge, argued that Abbott was overstepping his power. He was angry, he said in a phone interview recently, not just about his business, but also about the damage all these efforts were doing to the ecosystem.

“They bulldozed the islands, they bulldozed the edges of the river, they put in concrete and concertina wire. They destroyed sanctuaries,” he said. “The river system is being destroyed.”

But as frustrated as some of the town was with the park’s seizure, it isn’t just the river or even the matter of autonomy that bothers the community most. The town of Eagle Pass is dependent on trade with Mexico. Its economy is driven not by manufacturing but by providing infrastructure to support international trade. So many residents see border issues from a less political and more practical perspective: An influx in migrants is a problem because it strains the town’s economic churn, slowing down traffic into the city. But to many, that particular frustration was made even worse by Abbott’s decision, first in the fall and again in December, to enact mandatory inspections of all commercial trucks. The new wait time put particular strain on refrigeration trucks and on their drivers. Facing the prospect of waiting up to 16 hours at Eagle Pass’ one open bridge, truck drivers began to route through other border towns.

For people like Fuentes, it’s hard not to see these inspections as political theater; with his severe overreaction, Abbott seems hellbent on trying to emasculate the Biden administration by casting doubts on the efficacy of the federal Border Patrol. “There’s a [state] trooper every 2 or 3 miles, and it’s 95 miles to get to the interstate,” Fuentes said. “There was even a trooper in my alley, in front of my house. I laugh about it, but I know it’s affecting our economy.”

Even Garcia, an Abbott supporter who voted for Trump, feels that the state is going about things in too heavy-handed a way. “Abbott created a hardship for us,” he said.

Officers outside the gates of a park. A school bus is parked nearby, and an American flag is posted.
Officers at Shelby Park on Jan. 12. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Those without a direct connection to the commercial industry or the activities on the park still have reason to care about the conflict between the state and federal agencies, simply on humanitarian grounds. (Though it would be hard to find anyone without any personal connection to the border at all; many people live on one side of the border and work on the other.)

On Jan. 12, around 9 p.m., CBP learned that two migrants were in distress in the river outside Shelby Park. According to reports from Border Patrol, two CBP agents went to rescue them, only to be rebuffed at the Shelby Park gate by National Guard troops who said they had orders to keep Border Patrol out. A National Guard supervisor was brought in and reportedly told the CBP agent that they weren’t allowed into the park, even in emergencies. The National Guard has said the CBP agents did not convey it was an emergency, but regardless, the bureaucratic spat between federal and state law enforcement may have been fatal. A 33-year-old mother and two of her children, ages 8 and 10, drowned. They had been trying to escape cartel violence in their hometown in Mexico.

“We’re treating these people like they’re an invading army—they’re not here trying to kill people,” Garcia said. “Not the ones with wives and children, and old people.”

Francisco Riojas, a high school art teacher who also grew up in Eagle Pass, has his reasons for wanting greater control of migration. “I live near one of the Border Patrol stations in town, and almost daily, I see immigrants passing through the neighborhoods, hiding, trying to get away from authorities,” he said. “It gets scary sometimes, because we hear about businesses being broken into, homes being robbed. I’ve had bicycles stolen. It’s frustrating. But seeing as we are familiar with their sort of situation, we have empathy for people who are struggling to survive and trying to live.”

He said there’s a general feeling in town that something needs to be done—but to help asylum seekers, not just police them. “The majority of the people here are low-income,” he said. “And so most people here know what it’s like to struggle to live.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court ordered Texas to allow federal border agents access to the river, supporting the federal government’s claim to sole responsibility for border security. The next day, the Biden administration sent a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton demanding that CBP be allowed into Shelby Park. But the state has interpreted the Supreme Court’s ruling narrowly, to mean that CBP had a right only to cut the concertina wire to rescue migrants, not to set up a base in the park. So Texas National Guard and state troopers continued to put out more razor wire, over the protests of humanitarian activists, aware that the wire can shred the skin of children and women trying to cross. And the state forces continued to block CBP from the majority of Shelby Park.

Last Wednesday, Abbott defiantly declared that Texas has a right to keep policing the border, claiming a “constitutional right to self-defense.” The next day, all but one Republican governor went on the record to support Abbott’s stance. States as far away as Idaho have offered to send National Guard or state troopers to help Abbott. And on social media, Trump urged everyone to give Abbott “full support” in his efforts. “Biden is, unbelievably, fighting to tie the hands of Governor Abbott and the State of Texas, so that the Invasion continues unchecked,” he wrote on Thursday.

Residents of Eagle Pass are used to hearing politicians use their city to make a point. Fuentes, the river outfitter, recalled when House Speaker Mike Johnson brought a delegation of 60 House Republicans on Jan. 3. “It’s all these people who come for a photo-op and leave,” he said. “They don’t visit hospitals or schools. They get in a boat, ride around for a bit, take some pictures, and they’re gone. And they’ve got their photo in front of the border. But what about the locals, man? We’re tired.

“Outsiders are coming into our community and taking over everything,” he added, “and we can’t do a dang thing about it.”