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An update from Eagle Pass in Texas, a city at the center of the border fight

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Who controls the southern border? The state of Texas and the federal government are in a battle over that very question. Governor Greg Abbott ordered the installation of a floating barrier in one section of the Rio Grande near the southwest Texas city of Eagle Pass to try and stop migrants from crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. The Biden administration this week filed suit demanding the buoys' removal, citing humanitarian and environmental concerns. Texas Public Radio's David Martin Davies takes us to the border city now at the center of this fight.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES, BYLINE: Eagle Pass, Texas, is sometimes referred to as la puerta de Mexico, or Mexico's door. Now the community of about 30,000 people is in the center of a national struggle over shutting that door to illegal immigration, which Texas' governor calls an invasion and an ongoing crisis.

JUANITA MARTINEZ: No, sir. I do not see a war zone.

DAVIES: Juanita Martinez is a retired schoolteacher and the current local Democratic Party chair. She says she's tired of her community being described as overrun by illegal migrants, as Governor Greg Abbott claims. In fact, Martinez points out that illegal crossings in June plunged to their lowest level in two years.

MARTINEZ: It's so funny because this narrative that Abbott puts out is totally bogus.

DAVIES: Martinez objects to the floating barrier. It's 1,000 feet of large orange buoys anchored in the middle of the international river with a net underneath. It's the latest tactic in Abbott's Operation Lone Star, which also includes miles of razor wire spooled out along the riverbank and the heavy presence of Texas and out-of-state troopers stationed here.

MARTINEZ: Our whole city has turned into a militarized area and, you know, it also gives a bad impression of what Eagle Pass is. That's not who we are.

DAVIES: Critics have long questioned the need for the multibillion-dollar operation and its tactics. One Texas state trooper this month turned whistleblower with an email calling their orders inhumane. He said migrants, including young children, were being pushed back into the river and denied medical care and drinking water. Abbott's office denies this. And speaking recently on Fox News, the governor defended his operation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Texas is the only governmental body in the United States of America that's actually preventing people from entering our country illegally.

DAVIES: But Jesse Fuentes, an Eagle Pass resident, says that's simply not true. He filed a lawsuit challenging Abbott's barrier before the Department of Justice did, arguing that Abbott's buoys destroyed his kayaking business.

JESSE FUENTES: I'm just one small business owner that spoke up for an injustice that's being done to the river, right? Even their own troopers are complaining about the inhumanity and that we've stepped over the boundaries of humanity.

DAVIES: Fuentes' lawsuit is waiting for a hearing, but the Department of Justice is pushing for a preliminary hearing to quickly remove the floating barrier. Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, says the law favors the Biden administration.

CAL JILLSON: At some point, I think Biden is going to win. But Abbott benefits every day by this fight with Biden because he looks like, especially to his Republican base, as if he is defending the country and the state of Texas against illegal immigration.

DAVIES: Jillson says every election cycle, the border is a major issue and that Biden is seen as vulnerable on stopping illegal immigration. The buoys could once again float the border question to the top of voters' minds this election cycle.

For NPR News, I'm David Martin Davies in Eagle Pass.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIR POPLIKER'S "NOSTALGIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Martin Davies is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Texas, the border and Mexico.
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