How a small Texas city landed in the spotlight during the state-federal clash over border security

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A participant passes flags and signage during a "Take Our Border Back" rally, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in Quemado, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

EAGLE PASS, Texas – There are razor wire fences, a barrier of shipping containers along the Rio Grande and patrols of Texas National Guard. All are familiar sights by now in Eagle Pass, which has been thrust into an extraordinary turf war over immigration enforcement.

But the widening spotlight and record levels of illegal crossings into the U.S. have left a mark on this small Texas border town. More attention came Saturday when protesters gathered on the rural outskirts to rail against President Joe Biden's border policies. On Sunday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was due to arrive alongside more than a dozen other GOP governors who have cheered on his feud with the Biden administration.

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“We've even met people in Texas who have no idea the things that are happening down here at the border,” said Amanda Clark, 46, who was among the crowd at a “Take Back Our Border” rally.

The rally was the latest sign of how an unprecedented migrant surge has shaken Eagle Pass, a sprawling town of warehouses and decaying houses that many big retailers have overlooked. The town of about 30,000 people has become a major corridor for illegal crossings in recent years, making it a target for Abbott’s enforcement.

"Eagle Pass is more than just the immigration crisis that you see in the media," Mayor Rolando Salinas said.

Mission: Border Hope, a group that helps migrants with travel plans after they are released by the Border Patrol with notices to appear in immigration court, has seen daily arrivals plummet to about 20 in recent days from highs of about 1,200, director Valeria Wheeler said.

The group's shelter closed ahead of Saturday's rally out of fears of unrest, even though rally organizers said they had planned a peaceful protest.

Since early January, when Texas seized control of city's Shelby Park on the banks of Rio Grande, Eagle Pass has been at the center of a feud between Texas' Republican governor and the Democratic White House.

The park, made up of playing fields and a boat ramp at the end of the downtown business district and next to a golf course, is closed. U.S. Border Patrol agents are denied entry.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Friday that the governor's actions were “unconscionable.”

“It is unconscionable for a public official to deliberately refuse to communicate, coordinate, collaborate with other public officials in the service of our nation’s interests, and to refuse to do so with the hope of creating disorder for others," Mayorkas said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The community lies in the Border Patrol's Del Rio, Texas, sector, which is often the busiest of the agency's nine divisions on the Mexican border. In a record-high month of nearly 250,000 arrests for illegal crossings in December, Del Rio tallied 71,095 arrests, second only to Tucson, Arizona. San Diego in California was a distant third.

Visitors have struggled to find hotel rooms as the state law enforcement presence surges, with budget chains charging more than $200 per night, said Jorge Barrera, president of the Eagle Pass Chamber of Commerce.

“Obviously everybody likes growth,” Barrera said. “But when it’s a little too fast, it’s little bit hard for the community to be able to keep up.”

On Friday, there were no migrants to be found on the grassy fields of Shelby Park as Texas National Guard members unspooled razor wire atop train containers dotting the riverbanks. About 200 migrants arrived Thursday, according to the mayor, a sharp drop from December.

A divided U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Border Patrol to cut razor wire that Texas installed, for now, but the state continues to erect more. The federal government argued the wire impedes its ability to patrol the border, including aiding migrants in need.

The Biden administration told the Supreme Court that “Texas has effectively prevented Border Patrol from monitoring the border” at Shelby Park. The state has defended the seizure, with Attorney General Ken Paxton saying he “will continue to defend Texas’s efforts to protect its southern border” against the federal government's attempts to undermine it.

At a ranch outside Eagle Pass where Abbott sympathizers gathered ahead of Saturday's rally, vendors sold Donald Trump-inspired MAGA hats and Trump flags. A homemade sign read, "The federal government has lost its way. Their job is to protect the states.”

Julio Vasquez, pastor of Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, said Abbott's campaign is a waste of money because migrants “come with empty hands asking for help.”

Alicia Garcia, a lifelong Eagle Pass resident who avoids Shelby Park but attended an annual rodeo-themed festival at the nearby international bridge on Friday, questioned the value of Abbott's efforts because many asylum-seekers are released by U.S. authorities to argue their cases in immigration court.

“What’s with the show?” said Garcia, 38. "Better to just break everything down if they are still crossing.”


Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed.

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