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This Texas city is caught in a fight over who controls the southern border

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The border city of Eagle Pass, Texas, is caught in a fight over who controls the southern border. Texas officials are restricting federal Border Patrol agents' access to a riverfront park, accusing the Biden administration of not being tough enough on illegal crossings. Now, Republican Governor Greg Abbott is vowing to expand his aggressive border operations.

As Texas Public Radio's David Martin Davies reports, this standoff is attracting far-right activists and leaving many in Eagle Pass on edge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAXWELL HAYES: It's your job to protect America from criminals. Do it.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES, BYLINE: Maxwell Hayes is unleashing his frustrations on a pair of Eagle Pass police officers who are calmly absorbing the abuse. The police are barricading the streets that lead to Shelby Park. That's where the Texas National Guard has taken over. It fronts 2 1/2 miles of the Rio Grande, but the riverbank now is piled high with row after row of razor wire and a wall built out of steel shipping containers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAYES: I was supposed to be down there right now protesting these people coming across my border.

DAVIES: Hayes, a supporter of far-right militias, traveled to Eagle Pass from Colorado to join the so-called Take Our Border Back convoy - a mix of Trump supporters, migration hawks, election deniers and conspiracy theorists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAYES: We've got billions of dollars going to Ukraine, massacring Russians, and nobody cares about that massacre.

DAVIES: The police tell Hayes the area's closed because of growing concerns about violence, reports of gunfire and a local bank robbery. This all has locals anxious and feeling caught in the middle. They're alarmed at seeing their once-quiet city militarized and becoming a magnet for extremists.

AMBER DUNCAN: There are some people that are being confrontational. Be peaceful.

DAVIES: Amber Duncan and her five children live next door to Shelby Park. They're watching what she calls chaos in front of her home.

DUNCAN: This is where I live. Cops are worried about us 'cause they know us, you know? There's some police, law enforcement familiar with me. They're like, be careful with your kids. It's going to get wild. Make sure you're safe.

DAVIES: Duncan says she's worried about the potential for an outbreak of violence similar to the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting that targeted Mexican Americans. Twenty-three people were murdered by an anti-immigration white nationalist. Now, Eagle Pass is attracting zealots who claim the border is wide open, repeating the language used by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and former President Trump. This past weekend, a few thousand people poured into the border city to show their support for Abbott and his court battle over the Border Patrol's cutting of the razor wire stacked along the Rio Grande.

The Supreme Court recently sided with the Biden administration and lifted a stay, allowing the Border Patrol to cut the barbed wire. But Abbott says the High Court is wrong and isn't backing down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Because Joe Biden has completely abdicated and abandoned his responsibility to enforce the laws of the United States, I have used a clause in the Constitution that empowers states to defend themselves.

DAVIES: It's an open question if Abbott's interpretation of the Constitution will pass with the Supreme Court, but the governor insists Shelby Park is just the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABBOTT: We're not going to contain ourselves just to this park. Now we are expanding to further areas to make sure that we will expand our level of deterrence and denial of illegal entry into the United States.

DAVIES: But residents of Eagle Pass, such as Jesse Fuentes, say he's more worried about the danger stirred up by Abbott than the migrants and blames the governor for using inflammatory border rhetoric.

JESSE FUENTES: I hate the fact that he's put a damn target on my community, and he doesn't care. He just wants to push his political narrative and put us in peril.

DAVIES: But Bob Bagley, a member of the anti-immigration convoy, says Texas taking the park is necessary for national security.

BOB BAGLEY: No country can withstand 10 to 12 million people coming in and invading their country.

DAVIES: Bagley drove from the Houston area. He was at the Capitol during the January 6 insurrection, but he says he didn't go inside. He calls illegal migration a grave threat to the future of America.

BAGLEY: They're destroying our economy, our businesses. People here in this county, in this city here in Eagle Pass, are afraid to come out at night, to be on the streets.

DAVIES: But Eagle Pass residents say the real invasion is from the far-right activists who are being inspired by Abbott. Juanita Martinez is a local Democratic activist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUANITA MARTINEZ: Mr. Abbott, get the hell out of our city. Get the hell out of our park. We want you out.

DAVIES: There are several pending federal legal challenges to Abbott's actions at the border. And if precedent holds, Texas will lose. But given Abbott's refusal to recognize the Supreme Court's ruling on the razor wire, tensions will continue to mount in Shelby Park and all along the Texas-Mexico border.

For NPR News, I'm David Martin Davies in Eagle Pass, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Martin Davies
David Martin Davies is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Texas, the border and Mexico.