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Commentary: Migrants in the shadow of the eclipse

Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, TX
Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, TX

Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas will be one of the first cities in the United States to experience the totality of the solar eclipse on Monday, April 8.

It is also the epicenter of the border crisis and the pitched battle between Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott and the Democratic White House.

The imminent gathering of eclipse-chasers at Shelby Park was to be something grand and teeming on April 8, but because of the occupation by Operation Lone Star there, plans for viewing events have changed, and crowds will now be dispersed to other areas, including the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino.

The first time I visited Eagle Pass was to interview then mayor, the late Chad Foster in 2007. He was legendary–a true Texas type and remarkable border ambassador. The three-term mayor who could have been understudy to the Marlboro Man in cowboy hat and boots could carry on a conversation with just about anyone—in English or Spanish. I was there to talk to him about the rumblings from Homeland Security about a border wall that was to be erected not far from where we stood.

He talked animatedly as he drove my colleague and me in his pickup truck through the quaint town and to the river. At Shelby Park that early afternoon two men in a small boat had just portaged to a dock with their catch of the day. We were the only people there. As Foster chatted with the men, I saw the wide swaths of carrizo; herons and all manner of birds alighted on the branches of mesquite trees. It seemed idyllic.

Since that initial visit to Chad Foster’s Eagle Pass, the story at the border has changed with surges of migrants from Central America and many other parts of the world—and with contentious and confounding perennial stalemates about what do to about the border.

In 2023, there were 2.5 million encounters of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border—a historic high. Up to now all efforts for the U.S. to implement its own policies to manage migration there have been dampened by partisan politics. Not even the ongoing humanitarian crisis there will move the powers that be back to the table to consider short- and long-term solutions.

I was born on the Texas-Mexico border and have traveled to many border cities and towns, mostly for research for my reporting and to inform the short stories I write that are set in a fictional bordertown.

In recent years, I’ve interviewed forensic scientists who painstakingly unearthed bodies of migrants in unmarked graves in a cemetery in Falfurrias and observed the building of water stations in the border deserts. I’ve written about the drowning deaths of an immigrant man and his little daughter. I’ve reported on cases of unaccompanied minors at immigration court. I’ve been a translator for other border journalists, including at bus stations where immigrants, having escaped harrowing conditions in their home countries, told of having survived inhumane treatment in detention, before boarding buses for parts north.

On April 8, while Operation Lone Star monitors the razor wire partition on riverbanks where native plants have been eradicated, and wildlife has already been negatively impacted, they will keep at bay the crowds of immigrants caught in the brinkmanship of a deeply divided country, motivated less by humane solutions and much more by partisan politics.

But on that day, there won’t be a lone star out there. There will be two stars. And one will not be able to stop the other. The moon will move between the earth and the sun, creating the eclipse that will migrate along the path of totality, from Mexico through Eagle Pass and on its ways to the northeastern part of the United States, a celestial traversing perhaps of a well-worn terrestrial path often trod by immigrants. It will be an assured unencumbered journey—away from this broken border.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.