In Texas border town, locals say military forces, not migrants, are invading

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Arnie Alpert photo

View of the Rio Grande from the International Bridge in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Amerika Garcia Grewal of the Eagle Pass Border Coalition. ARNIE ALPERT photo
Camp Eagle, an 80-acre military base under construction on the outskirts of Eagle Pass. ARNIE ALPERT photo

By ARNIE ALPERT, Active with the Activists

Arnie Alpert spent decades as a community organizer/educator in NH movements for social justice and peace.  Officially retired since 2020, he keeps his hands (and feet) in the activist world while writing about past and present social movements.

EAGLE PASS, Texas—The border between Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras in the Mexican state of Coahuila used to be open, like the one between Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec.  “We used to just go back and forth all the time,” recalls Amerika Garcia Grewal, who grew up in the small city by the Rio Grande. “The same way we drove downtown to get tacos, years ago, we might have driven into Piedras to get tacos and come back.”

Now the border is fortified.  First, there’s the infamous wall, built over several administrations to keep out migrants.  In Eagle Pass, it’s an expanse of fencing with closely spaced vertical metal bars, stretching for miles near the Rio Grande.  But in recent years, the wall has been supplemented with lines of shipping containers and concertina wire along the riverbank.  Armed soldiers are stationed on top of the containers. Fan boats operated by several state and federal agencies speed up and down the river, perhaps looking for or perhaps trying to scare migrants who might wade across the river to ask for asylum in the land of the free.  

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the division of the Department of Homeland Security generally just called the Border Patrol, has responsibility under federal law for enforcing laws controlling travel into the United States.  But in 2021, the state of Texas launched Operation Lone Star, dramatically escalating its own involvement in border enforcement.  Under Lone Star, thousands of Texas National Guard members and state police have been stationed at the border.  Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, Lone Star’s initiator and chief publicist, has labeled the influx of migrants an “invasion.”   

The operation is centered at Shelby Park, a 47-acre expanse lying between the river and the city’s downtown business district, underneath one of the bridges to Piedras Negras.  For years it’s been the place where local residents gathered for picnics, golf, community events, fishing, and watersports. 

Having already declared a State of Emergency due to unauthorized immigration, Abbott booted the Border Patrol out of the park on January 11 and surrounded it with more fencing.  Now, the residents of Eagle Pass have no access to most of their own park, which has become the stage for Abbott’s political performance art.

Recent visitors to Shelby Park have included Speaker of the House Mike Johnson with 64 GOP members of Congress on January 3, and Donald Trump on February 29.  Twelve GOP governors, including Chris Sununu, were there with Abbott on February 4.  “Texas Governor Greg Abbott was clear – they need our help,” Sununu reported afterward. 

Nine days after his Texas trip, Sununu asked the Legislative Fiscal Committee for $850,000 to send fifteen members of the NH National Guard to Texas to join Operation Lone Star, which he said would support “security activities at the southern United States border to protect New Hampshire citizens from harm.” 

“Fentanyl is pouring in, human trafficking is occurring unabated, and individuals on the terrorist watch list are coming in unchecked,” the governor told the legislators, who granted his request on February 16. 

Fifteen New Hampshire soldiers, all volunteers, are in Texas now, winding up a two-month deployment.  According to Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn, the New Hampshire Guard’s Public Affairs Officer, they are based at Camp Alpha, upriver from Eagle Pass in Del Rio. 

When I told Lt. Col. Heilshorn that I’d be traveling to Eagle Pass and would like to see what our Guard members would be doing, he said I’d need to get permission from Todd Lyman, a Public Affairs Officer at the Texas Military Department.  After a few calls and messages, I received an email saying, “We are not able to accommodate your request at this time.”

I arrived in Eagle Pass on May 19 and approached the guarded gate at Shelby Park the next morning.  There, I asked if I could walk to the boat ramp to take some photos.  A courteous soldier told me I would have to call Sgt. Allen. 

Sgt. Allen said I would have to talk to his superior, Major Perry.  Sgt. Allen also said a request to speak with members of the NH National Guard would be handled by Major Perry’s superior, Todd Lyman.  He suggested I speak to the NH Guard’s public affairs officer.    

Major Perry did not return my phone call. 

The following day I drove with another photojournalist to the site of Camp Eagle, an 80-acre military base under construction on the outskirts of Eagle Pass.  A man from a company that rents construction equipment directed us to a white trailer, where I met Chuck Downie of Team Housing Solutions.  After telling me about his family’s place on Moultonborough Neck, Downie told us we could not be there without permission from the Texas Military Department.  One of his colleagues escorted us from the property.

We were also escorted by a Border Patrol agent from a farm adjacent to the Rio Grande where we were photographing fan boats and the buoys which Gov. Abbott had installed as a river barricade.  For the record, I thought we had permission to be there. 

“If there’s an invasion, it’s from the military,” says Jessie Fuentes, a retired communications professor who runs a canoe and kayak rental business. “There’s more military in our community than there are migrants, thousands and thousands of military from 13 different states.”

“How would you feel if all of a sudden, your community was locked up with soldiers and you couldn’t go into your favorite park? Because it has concertina wire around it or shipping containers or armed guards or you can’t access your own river and your green space?” asked Fuentes, a member of the Eagle Pass Border Coalition, a grassroots organization.  “So yeah, the only invasion we got here is from the military and the Texas governor.”

Texas has already spent more than $11 billion on Lone Star, and that money’s going somewhere.  Camp Eagle is being built by Team Housing, which has a $117 million contract.  Storm Services LLC has its logo on Camp Charlie, located next to Maverick County Airport, where Texas National Guard members are based.  Camp Alpha, where the NH Guard members are staying, is according to tax records owned by Basecamp Solutions LLC.  An article in a Del Rio paper from the time the property was purchased, though, said the owner was Team Housing.  Both LLCs are owned by Mandy Cavanaugh, from New Braunfels, so maybe it doesn’t matter.  

The local immigrant detention prison is owned by the GEO Group, which according to a February 20 Newsweek article “reported one of its most profitable years amid the growing demand for immigration detention facilities.”  GEO operates 11 facilities in Texas.

The $11B doesn’t count the money being spent by other states to send troops to Texas.  Missouri has just approved $2.2 million for a deployment.  Louisiana is sending its third rotation of soldiers. There’s “a lot of money being spent,” said Steve Fischer, who I met while he was walking his dog near the gated and guarded entrance to Shelby Park. 

Fischer, who has served as a county attorney and owns a home 2000 feet from the Mexican border in El Paso, came to Eagle Pass to run a public defender program representing people charged with crimes under Operation Lone Star. 

When I told him about Gov. Sununu getting $850,000 for the two-month New Hampshire deployment, Fischer said, “He’s wasting that money.”

As of two weeks ago, Fischer said, “Lone Star has not gotten one single fentanyl case.”  All Lone Star is doing, he said, is charging people with felonies for driving undocumented immigrants to work sites. 

Amrutha Jindal, who runs the larger Lone Star Defenders office, confirmed that most of the Lone Star felony charges are for people pulled over for driving undocumented migrants.  There are very few drug cases, she said.  Most arrests are for criminal trespass, including many cases where migrants seeking asylum were misdirected by law enforcement officers onto property where they could be arrested.    

Jindal said migrants who post bonds to be released from jail and are then deported forfeit the funds, as much as $3000, when they are unable to appear in court for hearings because they are barred from re-entry into the United States.  The money, presumably, is kept by the counties. 

Most migrants “want to seek asylum,” Jindal said.  “They’re not trying to sneak into the country.  They’re being lied to by state law enforcement.”

Fischer thinks people who are willing to go through hell to get here and willing to work hard should be able to.  “Let them come if there’s a job for them,” he told me.

Amerika Garcia Grewal, who like Fuentes is part of the Eagle Pass Border Coalition, believes high levels of migration are being stimulated by Republican rhetoric.  When conservatives attack President Biden for “open borders,” she said, their statements get picked up and circulated on social media by criminal groups that make money off transporting migrants to the border (and extorting them along the way, as well).  “They think they’re talking tough,” she said, but instead they are giving migrants hope that they can make it to the United States and be safer than they were at home.

Along the route, migrants are frequently subject to rape, other assaults, kidnapping, and extortion as they make their way north through Mexico to the U.S. border.  But still they come, in the hopes of gaining asylum in the United States. 

If they do make it to Eagle Pass, they might find a community where compassion outweighs fear. 

With a population of just over 28,000, Eagle Pass is the largest city, really the only city, in Maverick County.  Most people live in small ranch houses, some new and many worse for wear.  Family ties with Mexico are evident, and Spanish was the primary language spoken in most of the stores and restaurants I visited during my four days there. 

The area is poor.  Maverick County ranks 250th out of the state’s 254 counties when it comes to per capita income.  Or consider this as an indicator:  Eagle Pass has a single Starbucks and 7 Dollar Generals, 2 Dollar Trees, and 4 Family Dollars.  EZ Pawn has 4 shops.  Pronto Pawn has 2.  What the town lacks in resources it makes up in the generosity of volunteers and church-based agencies like the food pantry in the Lutheran church where I helped out for an afternoon.  The Methodist church runs a shelter for migrants located near the international bridge, where asylum applicants who have managed to get appointments turn themselves in to the Border Patrol. 

Volunteers also make up the Eagle Pass Border Coalition.  Formed initially out of concern for the border wall’s impact on local communities, Garcia Grewal said greater concern for migrants was sparked when the Trump administration started separating migrant children from their parents.  But it was the governor’s takeover of Shelby Park that really disturbed the community.

“They’ve got our park under siege, and our river just destroyed,” Fuentes said, following a Border Coalition strategy meeting held one evening on his front porch, shaded from the 102-degree heat.  This time the meeting wasn’t about Shelby Park, the presence of soldiers, or the waste of money which could be going to rehab housing and fund better schools.  Like other grassroots community groups, the Border Coalition takes action when its members sense a threat to their community.

The latest threat is a proposed rail and highway transportation corridor which would plow through an ecologically sensitive floodplain and one of the city’s poor neighborhoods.  The front porch meeting I attended was largely about preparing to meet with a State Department representative who would be in town 3 days later for a conference on international trade. 

Amerika Garcia Grewal wasn’t at the meeting.  She had left that morning for New York to attend the International Dialogue on Migration at the United Nations.  Someone had to be there representing the Texas-Mexico border.  

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