Standoff at Eagle Pass

Residents of the small Texas border town have found themselves at the center of the country’s immigration debate. Here’s what they say should be done

EAGLE PASS, Texas — At the end of Main Street, at the river’s edge, lies a dusty baseball diamond that looks like any other you might find in America’s heartland. That is, if you ignore the troops.

Jutting out into the dividing line between the United States and Mexico, Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, has become the epicenter of the country’s immigration crisis, its grass pressed flat under the feet of countless thousands of migrants emerging from the Rio Grande during the surge in border crossings in 2023.

But that was before it was converted overnight into a high-security military outpost by the Texas National Guard in early January.

“They’ve turned it into a fortress,” said one Border Patrol agent stationed in Eagle Pass, who spoke with the Deseret News on condition of anonymity. “There are very few people crossing that area right now.”

Even so, the mostly empty park continues to draw the nation’s eyes for a different reason. Amid dueling demands from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, and President Joe Biden, a Democrat, the razor wire-encircled field now forms the crux of a high stakes constitutional standoff over core questions of sovereignty and self-defense. 

The issue has been taken up by partisans on both sides accusing the other of abdicating responsibility or dooming reforms for the sake of political gain. Others say what needs to be done is simply to enforce existing laws, and claim that negotiated reforms — yet to be debated and approved — would actually make things worse and fail to secure the border.

But the park’s neighbors will tell you the real-life impact of immigration policy transcends the day’s polarized news cycle. Many would just as soon see the two sides come to an agreement, or disappear, if it meant enforcing the rule of law, recognizing human dignity and getting their town back. 

“It’s just a bunch of politics,” Elsa Villalpando, a lifelong resident of Eagle Pass, told the Deseret News. “What I wish they would do is just work together as a nation.”

Elsa Villalpand talks at the Texas-Mexico border.
Elsa Villalpando talks about the immigration issues in her hometown on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas. Villalpando has often volunteered to help migrants crossing the southern border. She says the federal and state governments’ response has hurt people economically in Eagle Pass and that the current standoff between the Texas National Guard and Border Patrol is “political.” She ran for her town’s City Council in 2021. | Brigham Tomco, Deseret News

The competing costs of immigration

The line between state and federal actions are blurred in Villalpando’s telling of how government efforts to secure the border have mostly succeeded in hurting her community’s economy.

At the end of 2023, in an attempt to redirect personnel to help with migrant processing, and crack down on human smuggling in railway cars, U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporarily shut down two international bridges connecting Eagle Pass to Piedras Negras, Mexico.

The closures hit Eagle Pass hard, cutting off revenues from bridge crossings, which fund roughly 50% of the city’s budget, and resulting in $80,000 of lost business and tax revenue each day, according to the Eagle Pass Business Journal.

Hervey and Martin Espinoza, who live in Piedras Negras but often cross over to shop, said long lines on the bridges delayed travel by several hours at a time — an untenable situation for those who work or have medical appointments on the other side of the border.

The brothers, truck drivers by trade, said they’re glad to see that increased border security measures over the past month, by both U.S. and Mexican authorities, have mostly cleared the highways from migrant caravans and decreased the crime perpetrated by those waiting in Mexico to cross the river.

“It is slightly better that they’re controlling it because there were many immigrants just wandering the streets,” Hervey Espinoza told the Deseret News in Spanish. “There are many immigrants that come as a family, seeking a better life. But there are others that come that are dangerous people.”

Brothers Hervey, left, and Martin Espinoza, right, who live in Piedras Negra, Mexico, do some shopping and eat lunch on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas. | Brigham Tomco, Deseret News

One Eagle Pass resident, Luis Krezdorm, a retired police officer, recounted calling law enforcement in the middle of the night when two migrants showed up at his door, one with a backpack, the other with a gun. That was just one of multiple visits his property received from migrants in 2023, he said.

At its peak late last year, Border Patrol agents in the Del Rio Sector, which includes Eagle Pass, were processing up to 5,000 migrants a day, representing the majority of a record-breaking 10,000 daily apprehensions that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded multiple times in December. 

The Border Patrol agent who spoke with the Deseret News used the same word to describe the volume of migrants crossing into the United States and the burden it placed on those tasked with protecting and processing them: “Overwhelming.”

“There’s a lot of frustration on agents’ part,” he said.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox joins 14 other governors in Texas vowing to protect the border

The agent explained that the sustained wave of entrants into Eagle Pass prevented Border Patrol from adequately monitoring other parts of the border where more elusive and, potentially, more dangerous individuals could enter undetected into the interior of the country.

A feeling of frustration extends to city agencies as well. The Eagle Pass fire department has spent $21,000 each day — more than $2 million total — responding to emergency calls concerning migrants crossing the border since September, the New York Post reported. The costs incurred by the department include $150,000 a month for migrant-related ambulance calls, according to The New York Times.

These costs have been coupled with the lost resource of Shelby Park.

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle towing a patrol boat is let through a gate at Shelby Park on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas. | Brigham Tomco, Deseret News

Shelby Park takeover

On Jan. 10, Texas state law enforcement unilaterally took control of Shelby Park under emergency declaration authorities. Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas Jr. said he was not notified before the area was gated off from the public.

“That is not a decision that we agreed to. This is not something that we wanted. This is not something that we asked for as a city,” Salinas said in a video at the time.

Crossing partisan boundaries, the Democratic mayor has called for increased deportations and has criticized Biden for his lack of action to support border towns. But he has also questioned how Abbott justified taking such drastic measures in Eagle Pass when border encounters had already begun to fall dramatically in the new year.

“(Abbott) hasn’t given us a penny to rent for Shelby Park,” Villalpando said. “They just went in and took over. That is not right.”

Texas National Guard members stand in the background before a press conference on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas, with governors from 15 states including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. | Brigham Tomco, Deseret News

The takeover of Shelby Park represents just the latest piece of Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, which began in March 2021. The initiative has since resulted in more than 100,000 undocumented migrants being bused to sanctuary cities around the country; in legislation enabling Texas police to arrest migrants entering illegally; as well as the mobilization of state law enforcement and, most recently, the National Guard to erect miles of Texas border wall, including razor-wire fences and buoys along the Rio Grande outside of Eagle Pass.

During a press conference on Sunday, Abbott, along with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, State Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, and 13 other Republican governors, argued the recent decline in border crossings at Shelby Park and elsewhere were a sign his actions are working.

The Border Patrol agent and others suggested part of the drop may be the result of negotiations between the Biden administration and Mexican leadership. But Abbott insisted that only cartels hold the power to shift patterns of migration. The recent decline, he said, is evidence that Texas’ actions have changed the cartel’s calculations.

These actions have also pushed the Lone Star State into a direct confrontation with the federal government.

A National Guard soldier guards Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. | Jay Janner, Austin American-Statesman via Associated Press

A standoff at Eagle Pass

In the latest rebuttal in a legal tit-for-tat, Abbott, and several of his gubernatorial colleagues, said Sunday they will continue to send national guardsmen to the Texas border to bring a total halt to migrant crossings.

Following the drowning of a woman and two children trying to cross the river outside of Shelby Park on Jan. 12, the Biden administration set a deadline of Jan. 17 for Texas to withdraw from the area and filed an emergency appeal as part of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, alleging the deaths were caused by Texas state law enforcement blocking Border Patrol access.

The Texas Military Department later said the drownings had already occurred by the time Border Patrol agents requested access to Shelby Park and that Border Patrol agents were never turned away.

The Biden administration’s request for Texas law enforcement to cease and desist was rejected by state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who received the support of 25 Republican attorneys general, including Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, in a signed letter.

On Jan. 22, the Supreme Court ruled that federal officials could cut razor wire installed by Texas along the U.S.-Mexico border if it interfered with their ability to carry out immigration proceedings. But a National Guardsman and Border Patrol agent, both stationed at Shelby Park, confirmed separately to the Deseret News that Abbott had instructed state law enforcement to refuse entry to the federally controlled Border Patrol except in the case of life threatening border crossings of the Rio Grande.

“(The park) is going to stay under state control as long as it takes to maintain security and eliminate crossings,” Abbott told reporters Sunday.

While the National Guardsman and Border Patrol agent respond to different authorities, the agent said that state law enforcement, the National Guard and Border Patrol are “on the same team” and are “pretty supportive” of Abbott’s approach.

Disagreeing over the problem

With the the 2024 presidential election rapidly approaching, the standoff at Eagle Pass also gets to a core disagreement over how to address the country’s immigration woes.

Abbott, and many Republican lawmakers, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, have argued that allowing migrants to enter and stay in the country while awaiting a distant court date is a deliberate policy choice by the Biden administration and one that has incentivized historic surges in illegal immigration, including 3.2 million border encounters in fiscal year 2023 and 302,000 in the month of December alone

“If we could just enforce the current immigration law they don’t even need to make (reforms),” the Border Patrol agent told the Deseret News.

Migrants cross the Rio Grande into the U.S. from Mexico behind concertina wire and a sign warning that it’s dangerous and illegal to cross, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas. According to U.S. officials, a Mexican enforcement surge has contributed to a sharp drop in illegal entries to the U.S. in recent weeks. | Eric Gay, Associated Press

Currently, the Biden administration does not enforce deportation procedures codified in Title 8, the agent said. In addition to following the law as written, the agent said Biden should reinstate Trump-era border security measures, like finishing the border wall and implementing the Migrant Protection Protocols, or the “Remain in Mexico” program, which partnered with Mexico to keep migrants on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border during the entirety of their immigration proceedings.

“He could change this, one executive order and this could end, this could all end. That’s all it would take, is one executive order,” the agent said of Biden. The agent said he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

But in addition to pointing out the humanitarian concerns of detaining thousands of people on the Mexican side of the border, others, including many Democrats, argue that the root of the problem isn’t lack of executive action but an outdated asylum process from 44 years ago.

Designed for limited numbers of people who faced state-sponsored violence upon returning to their home country, the Refugee Act of 1980 allows anyone who claims to have a “well-founded fear” of persecution based on their identity characteristics or opinions to enter a path to become eligible to work in the U.S. and apply for citizenship.

But under Biden administration policy, and amid a massive shortage of asylum judges and officers, migrants who have entered the country have told reporters they don’t fear deportation; they believe if they claim asylum they will almost certainly be allowed to stay in the country, even if they miss an asylum hearing scheduled years into the future.

“There’s no punishment for crossing the border illegally and being in the United States,” the agent said. “It’s totally legal right now.”

Supporters of a bipartisan immigration package released by Senate negotiators Sunday night say it would seek to address some of the shortfalls of U.S. immigration law by making it harder to claim asylum, expanding ICE detention capacity, prohibiting the release of most migrants on parole and funding additional border security and asylum officers and deportation flights.

But the bill has faced forceful opposition from GOP lawmakers in both chambers, who say it has too many loopholes and does not go far enough to secure the border.

Ivan Rodriguez and his wife, Vanessa, talk about immigration issues while their daughter, Carol, and son, Ivan Jr., play together on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas. Rodriguez works at oil wells in Maverick County, Texas, and said the company has had to change its safety practices since immigration has spiked in the last few years because employees will encounter migrants in the oil field. He says there needs to be rigorous law enforcement but combined with humane treatment of those who cross the border. | Brigham Tomco, Deseret News

A Utah Way forward?

Ivan Rodriguez, an oil field mechanic and a young father of two, with one on the way, says something needs to be done.

“There definitely needs to be a change. There needs to be order. And I think there’s already laws set in place for there to be order. Obviously, it’s not being followed,” he said. “They’re just letting them come in, letting them come in, and not returning them back.”

Rodriguez has seen the security concerns of unchecked immigration firsthand, with his company starting to require a buddy system for employees working outside of Eagle Pass. But the indefinite transformation of the border into a razor-wire-lined, no-man’s land patrolled by armed soldiers is equally unsatisfactory, he said.

“You can be your brother’s keeper, love others like Heavenly Father loves them, and then treat others like you should be treated,” he said.

Rodriguez said Christian values like self-reliance should be encouraged so that individuals are less likely to feel the need to leave their home countries. But when they arrive at America’s door, he believes, migrants deserve a humane welcome.

Utah’s governor likewise believes there’s no contradiction between having a policy that shows compassion toward migrants while also enforcing procedures and limiting the numbers of people who want to leave their country and call America home.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox listens during a press conference on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Eagle Pass, Texas, with governors from 14 other states concerned about the immigration issues at the southern border. | Brigham Tomco, Deseret News

“This is the false narrative that people want us to employ, that if we’re securing the border that means we hate immigrants,” Cox told the Deseret News while he stood in Shelby Park on Sunday. “That’s not true at all.”

In 2010, hundreds of Utah leaders signed the Utah Compact on immigration, a statement laying out a commitment to the rule of law, a recognition of federal authority on the issue, an opposition to policies that separate families and an aspiration to integrate migrants into the economy. It was followed a year later by a historic package of state laws under the same name that included a guest worker program for undocumented migrants.

“The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors. Utah should always be a place that welcomes people of goodwill,” the compact concluded.

Thirteen years later, Utah is still awaiting federal approval to implement migrant work permits. In the meantime, Utah lawmakers have expanded in-state tuition for refugees and asylum-seekers and removed obstacles for immigrants to earn professional certificates.

“What you’ll hear from me isn’t just secure the border — though it’s absolutely securing the border — I also talk about how we need to fix legal immigration so that we’re not forcing people to do it the wrong way,” Cox said.

When night falls in Eagle Pass, the barks of K9 units float up from the river, and blinding spotlights illuminate a faded baseball diamond, previously the site of the town’s biweekly flea market, sports practices and the planned location for a public festival scheduled in April to coincide with a total solar eclipse.

By then, residents from this border town hope the gates will be open, and a pathway to a lasting immigration solution will be one step closer.