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‘A change of heart’: sympathies shift over migrants in Texas border town | US-Mexico border

Hector Guerrero tries to make it to the Eagle Pass public golf course once a week.

By virtue of its location along the Rio Grande, the scenic but all too often deadly river that delineates the border between Texas and Mexico, the course is surrounded by different iterations of boundary fences and international bridges.

And inevitably, Guerrero’s weekly round doubles as a front-row seat to watch people crossing the international line.

“You just see them and wonder what their life is like. You know?” he said.

Migrants arrive in Eagle Pass by wading across the Rio Grande, often carrying their children or a backpack filled with their worldly possessions. Sometimes they stray on to the golf greens.

But eventually, US border patrol agents catch up to them wherever they are, and Guerrero described how sometimes he sees them being dumped in the middle of the international bridge, expelled back to the Mexican side.

To him, the whole thing is sad. On the one hand, he recognizes that “these people are struggling”, probably trying to escape harm and suffering at home. On the other, he remarked: “There are so many of them.

“Every time I’ve been here, there’s somebody,” Guerrero told the Guardian from his golf cart. “There are large groups. There might be smaller groups. But there’s always somebody.”

In recent months, Eagle Pass has become a city of strangers. One group has traveled far to get here, and it’s not unusual to see migrants walking along the road until a government vehicle pulls up. Ask them where they’re from, and many will say Honduras, or Cuba, their goal to surrender themselves to authorities and ask for asylum as soon as they reach US soil.

Then there is a second group of outsiders, deployed in uniform to Eagle Pass by Texas’s hardline Republican governor, Greg Abbott, who states their mission as “securing” an “overrun” border.

Ahead of the midterm elections, in which Abbott is being challenged by Democrat Beto O’Rourke, local hotel parking lots are filled with state trooper and other law enforcement vehicles as Texas has poured a staggering $4bn into a border crackdown. By the numbers alone, however, Abbott’s infamous Operation Lone Star has done little to consistently curb border crossings.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to expel would-be asylum seekers to Mexico now including Venezuelans trying to enter without documents, in a recent change of policy seemingly in violation of domestic and international law, while perpetuating its longtime practices of deterrence and surveillance.

Caught between all these external competing interests are the roughly 29,000 people who actually live in Eagle Pass, who feel decidedly mixed about the migrants whose arrival in their own back yards is spurring a national immigration debate.

“There’s been, I guess, a change of heart,” said one, Manuel Mello III, chief of the Eagle Pass fire department. “At first, we didn’t mind. You know, it was just migrants. We’ve had them all our lives. But after a while, it did become a burden.”

For his department, the border-related emergencies never seem to end.

First, he explained, there is a drowning. Then someone’s in critical condition, believed to have jumped off a speeding trailer that was being chased by the border patrol. Shortly after, a young woman’s legs have been severed in a railroad accident.

Some of the calls involve children. Firefighters find babies and toddlers at the river’s edge, already drowned or fighting for breath.

“Sick leave has increased, and it’s very understandable. [The firefighters] are stressed out. Some of them have been seeing this too long, so I guess part of it is PTSD,” Mello said.

“It’s overwhelming to see a child of that age on the river’s edge pass away, and then go back home and relate that with your children.”

The wider community is also living under this constant specter of migrant deaths, and some residents feel conflicted about how law enforcement officials are handling the situation.

For instance, Rosalinda Medrano recalls hearing a radio news story about a border patrol agent who reportedly saw someone drowning close by, but didn’t help.

“That brought me a sadness in regards to being a human. You know, what type of a person has that job?” she said.

Medrano worked for several years as a clinician for unaccompanied migrant children, and she developed a deeper understanding of how families are running from unlivable conditions in their home countries to the US, looking for safety.

“I wish it was just much easier, if they’re seeking asylum, for them just to cross over,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s an incredible amount of individuals that are crossing.”

Research suggests that hardline deterrence policies don’t end migration. Instead, they funnel vulnerable migrants who will come anyway into far more dangerous places, like the Rio Grande or the desert beyond.

But over at the fire station, Mello still believes the federal government could “step it up a little bit more” and “put a stop” to “this madness”.

Eagle Pass has long been a way station for non-citizens to reach other parts of the US, and the community has traditionally been mostly accepting.

Pepe Aranda, Eagle Pass’s former mayor who also served as county judge, has memories of migrants from when he was just three or four years old. People would run in front of his house after crossing the river, but his mom would tell him not to worry. They were just passing through, looking for work.

And when Medrano was a child, her mother would bring tacos and water to people hiding in the tall grass near their home.

A group of people rest under a makeshift shelter in the desert.
Migrants rest after crossing the Rio Grande as they wait to get apprehended by border patrol agents in Eagle Pass, Texas. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

But in recent years, as more people have started transiting through the small city, public sentiment has shifted.

The regional border patrol sector that includes Eagle Pass has now reported that it has surpassed the Rio Grande Valley sector further south-east for the most apprehensions of those crossing the border unlawfully so far during the 2022 fiscal year, sometimes more than 1,000 people a day.

Aranda said: “People don’t really have a clear idea that they’re [often] asking for asylum, OK? They’re all looking at ‘Everybody coming over are “bad hombres”, bad people. They’re here to do all the wrong stuff.’”

Rightwing media airs and publishes clickbait coverage that appeals to an anti-immigration stance, and on social media, Aranda’s friends post dehumanizing images alerting their community to groups of migrants who have just arrived, as if they are dangerous and need to be watched, vigilante-style.

Some of this vitriol is a new trend, which Aranda attributes to the rise of Trumpism. But discrimination more broadly has always been a factor in the lives of brown people in Texas.

“Why do we treat ’em differently?” Aranda asked. “Well, it has to go back [a long way]. We have always been treated differently.”

Much of the loudest anti-immigrant rhetoric comes from younger generations, many of whom work in law enforcement or whose friends or spouses are part of the border patrol. For them, immigration is not just a political issue – it’s what pays the bills.

Meanwhile, a brand-new Texas department of public safety (DPS) facility in Eagle Pass is bright, shiny and large, dwarfing the former DPS outpost just down the road.

Since March 2021, the DPS has been managing Abbott’s highly controversial Operation Lone Star alongside the Texas military department. For migrants, that has meant de facto immigration enforcement by the state rather than the federal government, using the mechanism of arrests and jail time for trespassing on private property that comes under departmental jurisdiction – in a state where around 95% of the land is private.

However, for local workers, contractors and business owners, the fraught Operation Lone Star and border enforcement more generally have represented an economic opportunity. That new DPS building required materials and labor for construction, and at the budget hotels where troopers spend the night, single rooms are now going for hundreds of dollars.

In a small city where over a quarter of the residents live in poverty, this influx of money matters.

Even the fire department is receiving $400,000 from Abbott to pay personnel for overtime and buy a new ambulance exclusively for immigration-related calls, Mello said. In his view, the state government “has been doing a lot to help with the immigration problem”.

Aranda is more skeptical.

“As a former elected official, I see too much money that’s being spent for what I would call politically motivated actions that are being done in our community,” he said.

Abbott has also been spending on herding asylum seekers on to buses and dispatching them to New York City and Washington DC without any liaison with the authorities in those Democratic-led cities.

With the midterm elections just days away, Aranda can’t help but see political machinations at play.

“This is probably the most expensive campaign Texas taxpayers have [ever] had for the office of governor,” he said.

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