Eagle Pass, Texas—Residents of the border town at the center of an ongoing feud between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Biden administration made it clear over the weekend that the only people they see as “invaders” in their community are 14 Republican governors and a convoy of Christian nationalists calling themselves “God’s Army.”
“There has been an invasion, but I’m not talking about the immigrants. The invasion is from Governor Abbott and his political rhetoric,” said Juanita Martinez, an Eagle Pass resident and chair of the Maverick County Democratic Party, on Friday outside the Maverick County Courthouse.
The state and federal government continue to face off over the town’s 47-acre municipal park, where Texas has for months been laying razor wire along the Rio Grande to prevent asylum seekers from crossing as part of Operation Lone Star. Late last month, the Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration in allowing Border Patrol agents to cut the wire to apprehend people crossing the river. The 5-4 decision didn’t specify that the state had to stop laying new wire, creating a legal loophole Abbott has exploited in the standoff.
On January 24, Abbott moved to block Border Patrol agents from accessing Shelby Park in defiance of a separate federal court order, characterizing his defiance as based on the state’s right to self-defense against a “foreign invasion.” Twenty-five Republican governors, House Speaker Mike Johnson and former President Donald Trump have expressed support for Abbott’s rebellion.
While local residents with the Eagle Pass Border Coalition told reporters and supporters that they of course welcome all visitors to the community who respect their culture and diversity in a civil manner, they believe the recent arrival of Republican governors and a trucker convoy of Christian nationalists in support of Abbott’s violent rhetoric helped to spread “hate and dissension” in their community over the weekend.
Some of the residents are also organizers with the Border Vigil, who regularly memorialize the hundreds of asylum seekers who have died trying to cross Rio Grande, including a mother with two children who drowned in Shelby Park in January about an hour before the Texas National Guard denied Border Patrol access to render aid to two other struggling migrants. Between October and November 20, 2023, Border Patrol recovered 15 bodies in its Del Rio sector along the Rio Grande.
Residents say they were forced to reschedule a planned rally and vigil event near the gated-off park on Saturday so that police could better guarantee their safety after supporters of Trump and Governor Abbott arrived in town over the weekend. On Sunday, several unarmed organizers with the Carnalismo National Brown Berets and the No Border Wall Laredo Coalition joined the locked-out Eagle Pass locals for a rally in San Juan Park. Truthout previously reported on the Laredo coalition’s successful campaign to fend off contracts for a new segment of border wall along its own Rio Grande waterfront in 2020.
The group of about 25 area residents marched toward Shelby Park on Sunday afternoon, peacefully confronting a small number of MAGA supporters gathered on the corners of Main and Commercial Streets with signs and chants declaring, “Faith Doesn’t Hate.” As locals called for the return of their municipal park, Abbott used the same city property to stage a news conference doubling down on the state’s vicious anti-migrant tactics alongside a coalition of Republican governors, further escalating his standoff with the federal government by railing against the Biden administration’s handling of the border.
For Jessie Fuentes, whose canoe and kayak business along the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass has taken a hit since the state of Texas revoked the business’s access to the only publicly available boat ramp for miles, what was once a community park has transformed into something else entirely. “It’s not a park. It’s a staging area for hate, a false narrative and something that we want back. I’ll tell you personally, I want my river back. I want my park back. I want control in our community. I want to say in our community,” he told reporters Friday.
Fuentes is suing the state of Texas, the Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard not only over the access issues, but also over the state’s placement of floating buoys linked together with razor-sharp sawblades to deter asylum seekers from crossing the river.
He saw the arrival of far right militia groups, Texas secessionists, Christian nationalists, and the delegation of GOP governors and state legislators as an effort to put the town’s culture and community down. “This is not the type of attention that we were looking for, to be the resurrection of a secession of a state. We do not, in no way stand for that,” he said outside the courthouse.
Christian Nationalist Convoy
The “God’s Army” trucker convoy was organized by conservative radio hosts Scotty Saks and Kim Yeater, the latter of whom is affiliated with the Awaken megachurch in San Diego, California. The church hosted former national security adviser and retired Army Gen. Mike Flynn’s Reawaken America Tour, a political tour fusing Christian revivalism and far right conspiracy theories. Another main organizer is former Army Lt. Col. Pete Chambers, who promoted the convoy on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s “InfoWars” and former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson’s podcast. Saks, Yeater, Chambers and three other patriot movement influencers began organizing the convoy weeks before Abbott’s standoff with Biden, which further emboldened the movement.
The MAGA caravan, which began its multistate journey in Virginia Beach last week, initially signaled mixed intentions. Some organizers advertised it as a prayerful caravan ending in a “revival” event and rally at a 10-acre private ranch in Quemado, Texas, and two other locations along the border in Arizona and California, while others said they were responding to a call from Carlson to defend the border. The event officially encouraged “active and retired law enforcement and military” to join the cause. At least one organizer initially said they planned to help sympathetic members of law enforcement hunt down migrants along the border before the group backpedaled.
While convoy leaders and official messaging declared the rolling protest was not affiliated with or attempting to form a militia, its links to militia and other far right actors have nonetheless been documented. Those ties include the participation of the Nebraska Constitutional Militia and links to extremist and anti-government actors like Ammon Bundy, Exiled Patriots leader Mike Forzano, National Patriots Coalition founder AJ Andrews, and former Marines reservist and white nationalist Ryan Sanchez, according to VICE and Wired. Admins of a walkie talkie app the convoy used to communicate on the road reportedly said that it was fine for the militias to attend Saturday’s rally in Quemado, but only if they remained peaceful.
The convoy’s Telegram and Discord chats revealed rampant paranoia around the potential of federal infiltration of the Quemado rally and a “false flag” entrapment incident or psyop occurring. Moreover, members discussed armed preparation for the rally, the potential for civil war, comparisons to 1776, an interest in vigilante defense of “gaps” along the border wall and discussion of “exterminating” migrants.
Related Telegram chats reviewed by Truthout also reveal use of the n-word and discussion of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, a belief that immigration is being deliberately stoked to weaken white political and racialized power, and the so-called necessity of renewed “racial consciousness” among white people. It’s this white supremacist belief and rhetoric that Abbott’s recent moves have emboldened not only among the convoy’s participants but across the transnational fascist right, according to a recent report by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE). The theory has been tied to multiple mass shootings in the United States, including the shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart that left 23 people dead in 2019.
“‘Great replacement’ is first of all, a straight-up white supremacist idea. It’s the main white supremacist talking point around the world, and it is directly connected to violence,” GPAHE Cofounder Heidi Beirich told Truthout. “What’s astounding about this situation is that we’re hearing so many people use ‘great replacement,’ from political figures, from Donald Trump all the way down, and mainstreaming an idea that is directly connected to [fascist violence].”
Beirich tells Truthout that white supremacist and far right groups including the Proud Boys, neo-Nazi active clubs and the Aryan Freedom Network have all taken advantage of the border standoff to push far right propaganda and recruit new members. Far right and neo-Nazi actors abroad are following suit, with social media accounts, media outlets and influencers in Austria, France, Germany, Lithuania, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom parroting Abbott’s rhetoric and calling on the state to “secure its borders.”
While convoy organizers initially said at least 700,000 people would join the caravan, only about 50 cars, trucks and RVs drove into Dripping Springs, Texas, on Thursday after experiencing problems, including lost cars, turnarounds, arguments and slashed tires. The convoy, however, picked up dozens more cars and trucks as it headed toward its main rallying point in Quemado, 20 minutes outside Eagle Pass, finally rolling into the tiny town with as many as 300 vehicles nearly eight hours after it initially indicated it would arrive.
Outside the private ranch on Friday, the presence MAGA wares and QAnon and “Trump Won” bumper stickers were apparent as supporters tailgated in anticipation of the caravan’s arrival. According to The New York Times, the convoy’s Saturday rally and “revival” event attracted a modest crowd and remained peaceful.
Caught in the Crossfire
The residents of Eagle Pass, however, say they’re being caught in the crossfire between the state, federal government, secessionists and Christian nationalists — none of whom actually care about the city’s issues or community.
Border Vigil organizer and Eagle Pass resident Amerika García Grewal called on the Republican governors visiting Shelby Park on Sunday to directly lend aid and assistance to the city of nearly 30,000 so that it might better support its own residents as well the asylum seekers crossing the border. Nearly a quarter of the population of Eagle Pass lives in poverty, a rate about twice the Texas average. Blighted homes are apparent throughout town.
“We need so many things. We need education and support for our schools. We need support for our hospitals. You probably noticed you can’t get a very good [cellphone] signal here. We need a lot more help with our electronic infrastructure, our roads, everything. We have a third [international crossing] we want to go up,” García Grewal said. “We’re asking [the governors] to stop making up fairy tales and get some work done.”
Residents are also calling on city officials to push both the state and the federal government to return their municipal property. Outside the newly erected gates to the municipal park, tents, military equipment and portable toilets line what was once an area used for community gatherings and cookouts. Shipping containers and barrels intermingle with Texas National Guard’s “no man’s land” of razor wire along the riverbank.
As Fuentes puts it, “If you were to go out on [the Rio Grande] today, it’s a disaster zone…. They’ve taken over a publicly funded park — our park, our history, our culture. That is where we convene. That is our green space. That is where we are connected to the river, and we don’t have access to it. And if you really take a walk and look down there, you can see that it’s becoming a military base, you will see tons of different types of equipment, new structures, new platting out. They’re digging in.”
For García Grewal, what’s unfolding at Shelby Park is a continuation of a blood-soaked history that is in some ways repeating itself in Abbott’s defiance of federal courts: A century and a half ago, Confederate Gen. Joseph Orville Shelby and his forces, refusing to surrender his stars-and-bars battle flag to Union soldiers, instead sank it in the waters of the Rio Grande here while fleeing to Mexico. The fact that park remains named for him is something that García Grewal and others have been pushing to change since at least 2020.
“Now more than ever, we need to change the name so that it no longer reflects a bygone era and an era of hate. And we need to name it to something that’s more reflective of this town, the town that I love. I’m personally holding out for the Mike García Friendship Park,” she said, referring to her father, a retired insurance salesman and active Chamber of Commerce member. “But I’ll leave that up to our community decide what they want to do.”
Now in addition to state and federal law enforcement presence in the park, residents have to also contend with MAGA movement supporters of all stripes. Outside Shelby Park on Friday and Sunday, no asylum seekers were visible from the gated barrier — just groups of Trump supporters milling about. To make matters worse, longtime leaders of Texas’s secessionist movement are using Abbott’s rhetoric around Shelby Park to reinforce calls for a popular vote to once again leave the union, reigniting the same conflict that led to General Shelby and his forces to cross the river in 1865.
But García Grewal doesn’t just envision a future in which a renamed city park is returned to the residents of Eagle Pass and river access is restored. She envisions a future in which real policy change paves way for both wider acceptance of migrants and asylum seekers as a key solution and necessary adaptation to the unfolding climate crisis, which, in conjunction with the U.S.’s own foreign policies, is helping to drive refugees to flee Central American countries.
“What we’re seeing is the first wave of what is going to be the largest movement of humanity this planet has ever experienced because … we’re failing to stop climate change,” she told Truthout. “We’re failing to stop this heating of the world and people cannot stay where they are. I can’t stay where I am. That river is drying up, and there’s no other source of water in Eagle Pass.”
She points out that while the Biden administration has temporarily “paroled” 2.3 million migrants and asylum seekers, the administration has also denied entry to or deported nearly 4 million. Most who are paroled are in active removal proceedings, and only 125,000 cases per year actually win asylum.
The current border security package slated for a vote in the Senate, which makes it tougher for people to enter the asylum system and denies them the ability to apply if authorities can’t manage crossings, does almost nothing to actually address any of this, García Grewal says. In fact, she says, its provision mandating an automatic shutdown of border crossings when average daily migrant encounters exceed 5,000 people would hurt Eagle Pass’s local economy, which depends on the crossings being open. Human Rights groups are urging Congress to reject the deal.
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