May 30, 2024

Strong-arm strategies by Texas along the US-Mexico border have eroded more than human rights for migrants seeking asylum in the US; they have degraded the environment – and now the destruction is escalating.

In the hotspot of Eagle Pass, environmental damage from years of expansion of anti-migration security measures can be seen everywhere.

From the bald banks of the Rio Grande, cleared of lush vegetation to make roads for patrol vehicles, to the empty, rusty shipping containers blocking the river and all the razor wire, the militarized scene contrasts starkly with the Mexican side of the river.

Now a new construction project is under way after the rightwing Texas governor, Greg Abbott, announced a $170m, 80-acre facility dubbed Camp Eagle along the river to support up to 2,300 Texas national guards, signifying a more permanent presence of such troops in the area since the state deployed them in 2021, despite immigration enforcement being a federal jurisdiction. Land is being cleared apace.

Changes to the environment as a direct result of border enforcement is nothing new in Eagle Pass, but under Abbott’s Operation Lone Star initiative since 2021, which has thus far cost Texas taxpayers more than $11bn, the area is being ravaged.

The north bank of the Rio Grande is denuded of vegetation. Photograph: Michael Gonzalez/The Guardian

Sitting under the shade of a tree on a mild spring day in downtown Eagle Pass, retired teacher and kayaking business owner Jessie Fuentes was frustrated about the obvious damage – and what’s harder to see.

“I’m genuinely concerned because this slow degradation of the beautiful ecosystem that has existed for thousands of years is all under the false pretext of security,” he said. “The ecosystem needs to be preserved, taken care of and respected because it is the only water supply for Texas all the way downriver.”

Fuentes waved his hand in the direction of the Rio Grande, the iconic river that also marks the border with Mexico as it flows east to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The governor has overstepped his bounds by disregarding federal protections to the ecosystem. He started tearing up islands, bulldozing riverbanks, and placing barriers that have altered the flow of the river and created an incredible amount of erosion. The river will try to defend itself any way that it can and I’m just speaking up for the river,” he said.

Years before Donald Trump campaigned for a “wall”, then president George W Bush ordered hundreds of miles of controversial fencing along the US-Mexico border, all of which had already destroyed delicate habitats and rare animals and plants, and proved lethal to humans.

Fencing borders the Eagle Pass golf course and the city’s municipal Shelby Park as well as neighborhood homes and businesses.

But Abbott continues adding obstacles to the riverfront aimed at deterring migrants.

A Texas national guardsman watches over the US-Mexico border atop shipping containers. Photograph: Michael Gonzalez/The Guardian

The Guardian observed several migrants – women, children and men – who had crossed the river from Mexico, weaving through overgrown grass intertwined with the treacherous coils of razor wire along the riverbank.

They were looking for somewhere to cross into Shelby Park to ask for asylum via a federal immigration official – something that Texas officials legally cannot facilitate according to federal law. But Texas national guard soldiers standing atop a line of dilapidated shipping containers motioned at them to go away, so they continued upriver in hopes of finding a spot to enter.

From an aerial view, the contrast between the US and Mexican sides of the river is jarring. In Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, there aren’t any barriers or razor wire preventing access to the river alongside the Paseo del Río, a tranquil park beside the water. On any given day, families can be seen strolling or fishing on the bank.

On the US side, alongside the stationary obstacles, Abbott also has Texas department of public safety (DPS) troopers buzzing up and down the river in fan boats day and night, along with personnel from the Florida fish and wildlife conservation commission, among many resources sent by sympathetic Republican states to bolster Operation Lone Star.

Last year, the city worked with the state authorities to bulldoze and add dirt to extend Shelby Park, effectively destroying a large island in the river, one of many factors that environmentalists say have altered the flow of the river and raised concerns about erosion, including other small islands removed or cleared of greenery and flattened.

The US side of the border has been stripped of greenery, while the Mexican side is lush with vegetation. Photograph: Michael Gonzalez/The Guardian

Farther downstream in Laredo, Martin Castro, the watershed science director at the Rio Grande International Study Center, said: “What I’ve seen in Laredo is that fine river silt that washes into the main channel due to erosion is making the channel shallower and causing the river depth to decrease [and that] causes more surface water in the river to be exposed to evaporation losses.”

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He believes alteration of the flow has the effect of decreasing water quality for Eagle Pass and all communities downstream. He referenced findings from a colleague, Dr Adriana Martinez, who is a fluvial geomorphologist studying impacts to rivers from islands being bulldozed and the need for the state to invest in restoring what they have destroyed of the region’s environment.

Castro said he believes it would take hundreds of years for nature to repair itself after the damage of Operation Lone Star.

“Governor Abbott is not subject to the same regulations as the federal government to install infrastructure on international boundaries like the Rio Grande,” Castro said. “He has been able to sidestep federal agencies in their jurisdiction and therefore not conduct any environmental impact assessments from the installation of all this infrastructure.”

Despite several legal challenges regarding Texas’s audacious SB4 immigration law and whether or not the state will be allowed to permanently leave the 1,000ft buoy barrier it installed in the river last summer, Abbott continues to defy federal law, citing an “invasion” by migrants to justify what the Biden administration argues is unconstitutional, all while spending billions of taxpayer dollars.

The battle has been playing out on the ground in Eagle Pass, especially in Shelby Park, where state troops and vehicles have not only shut out town residents from the public park but also, as of recently, the federal authorities, even amid tragedy.

Now Abbott is building Camp Eagle as a forward operating base for troops assigned to his security operation, instead of staying in local accommodations. Last month, at the construction site that was formerly agricultural land, several bulldozers could be seen removing enormous amounts of soil and digging trenches in preparation for laying pipes in the ground. Semitrucks left the property with the loaded dirt to dump at an unknown location before returning back empty, to rinse and repeat.

Farther downstream from the massive construction area lies the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas reservation. The Kickapoo used to live by International Bridge 1 that links with Mexico, on the land now known as Shelby Park.

In downtown Eagle Pass, Kickapoo member Santos Polendo has an art studio where he offers various art classes to the community, and he is disturbed by what Operation Lone Star has wreaked.

“I don’t like the idea of [Texas] clearing the island in the river because to us, water is life,” Polendo said, sitting in his studio. “Everything they’re doing in the river by disrupting it is going to affect us one way or another. Especially with the military camp that they’re building, it doesn’t seem right to destroy the environment just because you can’t figure out the border issue.”

The Rio Grande is prone to flooding in parts, and Polendo spoke of floods that used to sweep away Kickapoo homes built with bamboo that grew on the riverside, where the park is now. (Polendo’s maternal grandmother used to live with other Kickapoo on the land that became Shelby Park.)

The park now houses a makeshift command center for the Texas military department, complete with shipping containers, razor wire, national guards and Texas troopers.

And several barriers now bar Jessie Fuentes from accessing the river in one of Eagle Pass’s few public green spaces, where he used to freely put in with his kayaks before it became militarized. He said the community’s strong connection to the river goes way back.

“The environment has always existed untouched here, and over the last three years, it’s been destroyed,” he said, then asked: “Why doesn’t anybody care about the environmental damage being done here?”

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