EAGLE PASS, Texas (AP) — Wrecking ball-sized buoys on the Rio Grande. Razor wire stretched across private property without permission. Bulldozers changing the very terrain of America’s southern frontier.
For more than two years, Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott has stepped up measures to keep migrants out of the United States, pushing legal boundaries with lonely bravado along the state’s 1,200-mile (1,930 kilometer) border with Mexico. Now the backlash over the tactic is widening, including from Texas.
A state trooper’s account of officers denying water to migrants in temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 Celsius) and barbed wire leaving asylum seekers bloodied has drawn fresh criticism. The Mexican government, the Biden administration and some locals are pushing back.
Abbott, who won a third term in November while promising tougher border crackdowns, has used disaster declarations as a legal basis for some measures.
Critics call it a distorted view.
“There are so many ways that what Texas is doing right now is just plain illegal,” said David Donatti, an attorney for the Texas American Civil Liberties Union.
Abbott did not respond to requests for comment. He has repeatedly attacked President Joe Biden’s border policies, tweeting on Friday that they “encourage migrants to risk their lives crossing the Rio Grande illegally, instead of crossing safely and legally over a bridge.”
The Biden administration has said illegal border crossings have dropped significantly since new immigration rules took effect in May.
Under the international bridge connecting Eagle Pass, Texas, to Piedras Negras, Mexico, protesters gathered in Shelby Park this month, chanting “save the river” and blowing a conch shell in a ceremony. A few yards away, crews unloaded neon orange buoys from trailers parked near a boat launch off the Rio Grande.
Jessie Fuentes stood alongside conservationists, watching state troopers restrict access to the water where he holds an annual kayak race. Shipping containers and layers of concertina wire lined the shore.
The experienced kayaker would often take patrons and race participants out into the water through a shallow channel formed by a border island covered in verdant brush. This was replaced by a bulldozed stretch of barren land connected to the mainland and fortified with barbed wire.
“The river is a federally protected river by so many federal agencies, and I just don’t know how it happened,” Fuentes told Eagle Pass City Council the night before.
Neither does the town hall.
“I feel like the state government has kind of bypassed the local government in different ways. And so I felt helpless at times,” board member Elias Diaz told The Associated Press.
The International Water Boundaries Commission says it was not told when Texas modified several islands or deployed massive buoys to create a barrier spanning 1,000 feet (305 meters) from the middle of the Rio Grande, with anchors in the riverbed.
The Justice Department has warned Texas that the buoy wall is illegal and the Biden administration will sue if the state does not remove the wall. Abbott tweeted Friday that the state “has sovereign authority to defend our border.”
The floating barrier has also caused tension with Mexico, which claims it violates treaties. Mexico’s foreign relations secretary asked the US government to remove the buoys and barbed wire in a June letter.
Fuentes sued the buoys, arguing that the border crossings are not covered by the Texas Disaster Act.
As for the River Islands, the Texas General Land Office gave the state Department of Public Safety access beginning in April “to curb the ongoing border crisis.”
“In addition, the General Land Office will also permit vegetation management, provided compliance with all applicable state and federal regulations is met,” says a letter from office commissioner Dawn Buckingham.
The Texas Military Department has eliminated sugarcane, which Buckingham’s office called an “invasive plant” in its response to AP questions, and altered the landscape, affecting river flow.
Environmental experts are worried.
“As far as I know, if there’s flooding in the river, it’s much worse at Piedras Negras than at Eagle Pass because that’s the lower side of the river. And so the next time the river really rises, it’s going to push a lot of water on the Mexican side, it seems to me,” said Tom Vaughan, a retired professor and co-founder of the Rio Grande International Study Center.
Fuentes recently requested special permission from the city and the DPS to ride his familiar kayak route.
“Since they redirected the water to the island, the water flows differently,” Fuentes said. “I can feel it.”
The state has declined to release documents that could detail the buoys’ environmental impacts or landscape changes.
Victor Escalon, a regional DPS director overseeing Del Rio down to Brownsville, pointed to the governor’s declaration of an emergency disaster. “We are doing everything we can to prevent crime, period. And that’s the job,” he added.
INTRUSION TO STOP INTRUDERS
For one owner, the DPS mission cut him off from his land.
In 2021, as Eagle Pass became the preferred route for migrants entering the United States, Magali and Hugo Urbina purchased a riverside pecan orchard they called Heavenly Farms.
Hugo Urbina worked with the DPS when the agency built a fence on his property and arrested migrants for trespassing. But the relationship turned acrimonious a year later after the DPS demanded to install concertina barbed wire on a waterfront property the Urbinas were leasing to the US Border Patrol to process immigrants.
Hugo Urbina wanted DPS to sign a lease releasing him from liability if the wire caused injury. DPS refused but still installed concertina wire, moved vehicles onto the property, and closed the gates to Urbinas. This cut off the Border Patrol’s access to the river, although they still lease land from Urbina.
“They do whatever they want,” Urbina said this month.
The farmer, a Republican, calls it “poison politics.” Critics speak of deja vu.
“I also really see a very strong correlation with the Trump and post-Trump era in which most of the Trump administration’s immigration policy was aggressive and extreme and very violating of people’s rights, and very focused on political position-making,” said Aron Thorn, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“The design of this is the optics and the amount of stuff they’re sacrificing for these optics now is pretty extraordinary,” Thorn said.
DPS works with 300 landowners, according to Escalon. He said it is unusual for the department to take over property without the landowner’s consent, but the agency says the Disaster Act provides the authority.
Urbina said he supported the governor’s efforts, “but not in this way.”
“You don’t go there and start breaking the law and making your citizens feel like second-hand citizens,” he added.