The Texas town caught in the middle of America’s border battle

Magali Urbina
Image caption,Magali Urbina standing on the edge of her property near the border buoys in the Rio Grande

Under the brutal heat of the midday South Texas sun, pecan farmer Magali Urbina found herself dealing with a sadly familiar scene: a family of dehydrated, injured migrants on her property.

In front of her, Border Patrol officers were putting an IV drip into the arm of the father, a 32-year-old Venezuelan with dark purple bruises and fresh, swollen cuts across his body.

His wife, 22, sat next to him crying while their two children – aged five and eight – watched the situation unfold, alarm visible on their faces.

“This happens every day with that wire,” Mrs Urbina said, gesturing towards imposing and chaotic coils of razor wire glinting in the sun on Heavenly Farms, the property she runs along with her husband Hugo in the small town of Eagle Pass.

“I’ve seen this every day this week,” she added. Just days before, she said, she had helped cut a pregnant woman free from the concertina wire.

Venezuelan family
Image caption,The Venezuelan family was led away by Border Patrol agents after being treated

The Venezuelan family had come face-to-face with the realities of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s unilateral border strategy: floating barriers in the Rio Grande and a fortified riverbank manned by state troopers, local police officers and the Texas National Guard.

Texas officials credit the plan, known as Operation Lone Star, with stopping nearly 400,000 migrants from entering the US illegally, over 30,000 criminal arrests and intercepting hundreds of millions of potentially lethal doses of fentanyl.

“Until President Biden reverses his open border policies and does his job to secure the border, Texas will continue protecting Texans and Americans from the chaos along the border,” the operation’s leaders said in a joint statement on 18 July.

The state-led operation, however, has come under intense criticism from the federal government and the White House. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre recently referred to reports of mistreatment of migrants at the hands of Texas troopers as “abhorrent” and “despicable”.

Mexican authorities recently recovered two unidentified bodies from the Rio Grande, one of which was discovered floating along the buoys and the other found three miles (4.8km) north of the buoys.

One of the victims was reportedly a child from Honduras. The cause of death is not yet known in either case.

Stuck between the two sides in the debate is Eagle Pass, a small town of about 30,000 that sits across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Piedras Negras.

Here, authorities have taken over one of the city’s main parks, built makeshift walls out of shipping containers and unveiled a controversial string of buoys in the river to deter migrants – a move that has already prompted local and federal lawsuits and a diplomatic complaint from Mexico.

Critics of the buoys have characterised them as a political stunt that is unlikely to have any significant impact on the flow of migrants. In recent days, several groups of migrants have reportedly crossed the river in the vicinity of the barrier. caption,

Watch: Border buoys and migrants filmed in Rio Grande river

“They’ve turned Eagle Pass into a war zone,” Jessie Fuentes, the owner of a local kayak company that has sued Texas’ government over the buoys, told the BBC.

“I feel like I’m in a turf war between the federal and state government, and in the middle is our community,” he added.

Mr Fuentes, a retired educator, is among the Eagle Pass residents who say that their lives have been upended by Operation Lone Star. In his case, the border buoys dashed his dream of supplementing his pension by leading kayak tours of the Rio Grande.

“My goal in life was to relax on that river and show people how beautiful it is,” he said. “But that got blown to heck. To me, it’s not political. It’s the other P – it’s personal. I cried when I saw those barriers.”

Nowhere in Eagle Pass is Operation Lone Star’s disruption as visible as Heavenly Farms, the Urbina family’s sprawling 300 acre (121 hectare) pecan farm on the outskirts of Eagle Pass near the river buoys.

The property’s outside edges along the Rio Grande have been taken over by state authorities, who have set up earth berms, concertina wire and locked fencing in a bid to deter migrants.

These steps, the Urbina family claims, have been taken despite their protests and pleas, both over their property and the safety of migrants.

“They’re trespassing on our property and militarising it. We can’t even enter the area,” Hugo Urbina said. “They’ve basically burglarised and destroyed a portion of our property.”

Mr Urbina said that the constant movement of heavy trucks and military vehicles has hit the farm’s production levels, which he believes is due to “constant flow of dirt” in the air.

“It’s been pretty devastating to us,” he said. “And they aren’t even letting Border Patrol do their job properly. It’s become an unsafe situation.”

A migrant family attempts to navigate through concertina wire in Eagle Pass on 27 July
Image caption,A migrant family attempts to navigate through concertina wire in Eagle Pass on 27 July

Eagle Pass has traditionally had a close relationship with Border Patrol. Many residents – from across the political spectrum – say they favour a strong border, even if they disagree with the tactics and strategy of Governor Abbott.

“There’s a lot of different reactions within the community, because of all the [migrants] that have been out there in the streets or released,” said Pepe Aranda, a two-term former Eagle Pass mayor who now runs a real estate brokerage. “It’s pretty split right now”.

Others note that while Operation Lone Star has disrupted some lives in town, it has also brought with it a boon to some parts of the local economy.

“It’s the part nobody wants to say out loud,” said one local businessman, who asked not to be named. “There’s so much money involved in this.”

Local hotels, for example, are filled with National Guardsman and out-of-town state troopers, and restaurants in town see a steady stream of uniformed personnel.

“Complicated, I’d say, is the best word to describe what’s happening,” said Elias Diaz, a member of the Eagle Pass city council. “This is a town that lacks a lot of infrastructure… a lot of people are living in poverty.”

Shelby Park, Eagle Pass
Image caption,Shelby Park, near one of Eagle Pass’ border crossings into Mexico, is now home to makeshift barriers and police vehicles

“We do see a lot of money being pumped into the operation. Some of it gets people jobs and keeps hotels full,” Mr Diaz added. “But at the same time, it’s done nothing other than to create chaos to try to curb immigration patterns.”

Governor Abbott and Texas officials have repeatedly shrugged off criticism of Operation Lone Star. They have refuted claims that migrants are being mistreated and vowed to fight any legal challenges to its authority in court.

The federal government, for its part, has already filed one legal challenge over the river buoys, and is reportedly looking into reports of migrants being mistreated.

On the ground in Eagle Pass, some said they fear their voices will be lost amid the wider debate between politicians far from the border.

“Talk to us,” Mr Fuentes pleaded. “Don’t come and build walls or barriers without really knowing our area. Don’t disrespect us.”

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