Eagle Pass the latest battlefield in the Abbott-Biden war over control of U.S.-Mexico border

The riverside city, sometimes referred to as ‘La Puerta de Mexico’ or ‘Mexico’s Door,’ ‘is at the center of a struggle between the State of Texas and the federal government over shutting that door to illegal immigration.

By David Martin Davies, Texas Public RadioAugust 1, 2023 10:04 am, , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

EAGLE PASS — Before the Department of Justice sued Gov. Greg Abbott over his floating barrier in the Rio Grande, Jesse Fuentes did it first.

Fuentes runs a kayaking business in the border town of Eagle Pass from where he led trips down the Rio Grande.

“You’re gonna see some beautiful sites,” he said. “If you’re a bird watcher, you’re gonna see some amazing, amazing birds out there.”

When the State of Texas deployed a 1,000 foot floating barrier on the border river, Fuentes sued. He claimed it ruined his business and was harmful to the river. That made him a target of hate from across the nation.

“I’m getting phone calls, I’m getting emails. I’m getting texts. I’m getting all kinds of stuff,” Fuentes said.

Critics accused him of working for the cartels and that’s he a smuggler. Others demanded that he move to Mexico. “That this is the U.S. and that I don’t belong here,” he added. “And every type of thing that a Mexican-American can be referred to as derogatory.”

Angela Piazza / Reuters

Eagle Pass native Jessie Fuentes stands in front of a militarized area of the Rio Grande on Thursday, July 20, 2023. He said an area between the shoreline and an island was filled in for vehicular access and covered in razor wire.

Fuentes said he is not a political guy but he felt like he had to take a stand. “I’m just one small business owner that spoke up with for an injustice that’s being done to the river,” he explained.

The section of the Rio Grande that Fuentes has such a close connection with has become a national backdrop for politicians from across the country stepping into the fight over immigration.

Most of them are Republicans, and they visit the border to assess the situation for themselves. But Fuentes said they aren’t interested in the needs of Eagle Pass. They don’t visit the local schools, check in on the food bank or see how health care is being provided in the border community that has a large population living in poverty.

“No, that’s not what they do. They don’t care about that. They just want to take the photo by the river and get on an airboat and ride around and say, ‘yeah, we’re behind Mr. Abbott and what he’s doing,’ ” Fuentes said. “And they leave, and we never see them or hear them anymore. Have they brought anything? No, they haven’t. Have they given any money? No, they haven’t. Are they interested in doing that? No, they’re not.”

Eagle Pass is sometimes referred to as “La Puerta de Mexico,” or “Mexico’s Door.” Now, the community of about 30,000 people is at the center of a national struggle over shutting that door to illegal immigration, Abbott says is an ongoing crisis. Other Republicans have called the area a war zone.

“No, sir. I do not see a war zone,” said Juanita Martinez, a retired schoolteacher and the current Democratic Party chair for Maverick County.

Aaron E. Martinez / Reuters

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, left, joins other Republican governors, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas National Guard leaders, and law enforcement officers at a press conference on the Texas-Mexico border in Mission, Texas, on Oct. 6, 2021.

She said she’s tired of her community being described as overrun by illegal immigration, as Abbott says. Rather, she pointed out, illegal crossings in June plunged to their lowest level in two years.

“It’s so funny because this narrative that Abbott puts out is totally bogus,” she said.

Martinez also objected to the floating barrier.

The large orange balls are anchored in the middle of the river with a net underneath. It’s the latest tactic in Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, which also includes miles of razor wire spooled out along the riverbank and the heavy presence of Texas and out of state troopers.

“As a matter of fact, our whole city has turned into a militarized area,” she said. “And you know, it also gives a bad impression of what Eagle Pass is. That’s not who we are.”

This military presence does connect to the 1840’s historic origin of Eagle Pass. It was the first U.S. settlement on the Rio Grande. Originally known as Camp Eagle Pass, it served as a temporary outpost for the Texas militia, which had been ordered to stop illegal trade with Mexico during the Mexican War.

Adrees Latif / Reuters

A caravan wades past a string of buoys arranged to deter migrants from crossing the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 27, 2023.

Now, Mexico is the United States’ number one trading partner. A new wave of industrial development is underway in Mexico, and trade with the U.S. is expected to get even bigger.

The trade may be so big that officials want new international bridges built along the border. That is something Mexico had supported until recently. After the controversial deployment of the buoys barrier, Mexico announced it was reassessing its plans.

Abbott’s aggressive campaign to limit illegal immigration has cast a shadow over the U.S.-Mexico diplomatic relationship.

The Mexican government has condemned the buoy barrier and shared its concerns with the Biden administration.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice issued an injunction to shut down the buoy barrier operation.

“Texas’s deployment of the Floating Barrier has caused significant and ongoing harm to the United States’ foreign relations with Mexico,” the Justice court filing explained. “Mexico has specifically asserted that Texas’s actions contravene various treaty obligations and has raised humanitarian concerns regarding possible loss of life to persons swimming in the Rio Grande.”

The reality of the need for a mature stable commercial relationship with Mexico and the political talking points that Mexico is not a U.S. ally are on a collision course.

Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle is parked under the bridge connecting Eagle Pass, Texas, with Piedras Negras, Mexico, on Feb. 7, 2019.

Abbott’s comments on Fox News may be the best example to candidates needing a lesson on how to talk about the border.

“The chaos has been caused by the Biden administration and its refusal to enforce the immigration laws of the United States,” Abbott said on the conservative cable channel. “Texas is the only governmental body in the United States of America that’s actually preventing people from entering our country illegally.”

Cal Jilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said it doesn’t matter that it’s not true that Biden is refusing the enforce immigration laws or that the border is wide open.

“That is a language that the Republican base electorate believes they accept, he said. “They’re not willing to listen to facts that they find unacceptable and uncomfortable.”

Jillson said the law is on Biden’s side but that doesn’t matter to Abbott because he’s fighting a battle over public opinion.

“At some point, I think Biden is going to win. But Abbott benefits every day by this fight with Biden, because he looks like — especially to his Republican base — as if he is defending the country and the State of Texas against illegal immigration.

Jillson said the border is a major issue for voters in every election cycle, and 2024 will be no different.

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