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Eagle Pass says no to Abbott's border actions, takes park back

David Martin Davies
The shores of Eagle Pass' Shelby Park are lined with razor wire installed by the Texas Department of Public Safety as part of Gov. Abbott's escalating border actions.

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Eagle Pass’ Shelby Park has become ground zero for Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star. But last Fourth of July, it was the site of the city’s Independence Day festival and fireworks show. Just like in other communities across the United States, bursts of color exploded in the night sky as “God Bless the USA” played.

But, uniquely, in Eagle Pass, after the celebration, the Texas Department of Public Safety moved in.

Agents declared the 47 acre public park closed to the public. The baseball and soccer fields, walking trails and a boat ramp that accesses the Rio Grande were now off limits. Spools of razor wire were stacked on the river bank. Days later, orange buoy balls were delivered to the park to be deployed in the international river.

A second body was found about three miles upriver. DPS claimed the barrier was not to blame for the deaths. The buoys were installed in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass last month to deter migrant crossings.

The park was being used exclusively as a base for Operation Lone Star because the mayor of Eagle Pass, Rolando Salinas, had signed an affidavit declaring the park his private property.

But on Tuesday night, the people of Eagle Pass made it clear they wanted their park back.

They held a protest on the steps of city hall, objecting to the loss of Shelby Park and also to what many called the cruelty they’ve witnessed DPS personnel inflict on migrants.

Those complaints continued inside the city council meeting where they wanted the council to rescind the affidavit.

Protests outside Eagle Pass City Council on Tuesday August 1, 2023.
David Martin Davies
Texas Public Radio
Protests outside Eagle Pass City Council on Tuesday August 1, 2023.

But some, including Victor Escalon, the DPS South Texas director, told the council without Shelby Park the city could be overrun with migrants.

“If we’re not careful, our concern is today it’s a thousand, tomorrow it’s four thousand five thousand so on and so forth – and we have a crisis here in the community." Escalon said. "We want to avoid that.”

Escalon said Eagle Pass is the number one migrant crossing point in Texas and second in the nation after Tucson.

The riverside city, sometimes referred to as 'La Puerta de Mexico' or 'Mexico’s Door,' 'is at the center of a struggle between the State of Texas and the federal government over shutting that door to illegal immigration.

Nelson Barnes, director of the Operation Lone Star Prosecution Unit, echoed those concerns to the council.

“I equate what you have happening here to [this]: would you rather arrest a criminal when he’s in your house, or would you rather arrest him in your front yard?” he asked.

Declaring Shelby Park private property allowed the DPS to arrest the migrants on a state criminal trespassing charge. They were then prosecuted by Barnes and his team. But if it’s a public park – making that trespassing charge stick becomes complicated, according to Amrutha Jindal, chief defender of Operation Lone Star Indigent Defense.

“If it were not for this affidavit, we wouldn’t be seeing these arrests occurring,” she said.

Jindal said since the Fourth of July celebration, there have been more than 500 migrant arrests in Shelby Park alone. She also took issue with Barnes' metaphor and added that mass prosecutions isn’t a solution to the immigration problem.

“He’s assuming that people who come into the county are going to be committing crimes. That's not what we are seeing," she said. "These are economic refugees and asylum seekers looking for a better life and safety in the United States.”

After more than an hour of public testimony, the council deliberated behind closed doors and returned late in the night to vote unanimously to rescind the affidavit.

Eagle Pass City Council meets on August 1, 2023.
David Martin Davies
Texas Public Radio
Eagle Pass City Council meets on August 1, 2023.

Salinas said it became clear to him that DPS was out of control at Shelby Park.

“They called me and asked me, 'Mayor, do you mind if we install a gate at the boat ramp? And I said, "Yes I do mind. Don’t install that gate. And they installed it.”

Salinas said the concern is that unless council acted now, DPS would never leave Shelby Park.

Salinas added that he thought it was unfair that his community was caught in the middle between Abbott and Biden administration in a political struggle over immigration. He wants President Biden to get directly involved.

“I think the federal government needs to step in," he said. "Biden needs to say something.”

It was unknown at this point how Abbott and Operation Lone Star will react to the loss of this critical real estate — and if the razor wire and boat ramp gate will remain.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi