Death and Detention on the Texas Border 

Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images

Immigrants walking by the “floating barrier” in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas, July 16, 2023

It began as a small group: a few dozen travelers drifting towards the border, full of fear and hope, united in the belief that they could change their fates. Well-wishers along the route gathered to bid them good luck, to pray for them, to remind them that they were on a righteous path. The group’s ranks swelled as they inched towards the invisible line that divides the United States and Mexico. Authorities kept an eye on the procession from afar and likely from within, gathering intelligence on its members, some of whom were rumored to be criminals. Locals who lived near the border whispered about the threat of violence. The newcomers seemed hostile. 

Six years ago, President Donald Trump and the Department of Homeland Security used similar language to describe a caravan of asylum seekers, most of whom had walked from Central America through Mexico. This February, however, it was not migrants heading toward the border but the so-called Take Back Our Border convoy, made up of truckers, militia members, and “patriots” who mobilized to repel a perceived migrant invasion. The travelers, some of whom called themselves the Army of God, stopped in several places before making a spectacular arrival at the tiny town of Quemado, Texas. Pastors in cowboy hats preached against welcoming the stranger; congregants were baptized in tin tubs; Ted Nugent performed. 

“The eyes of the world are on Texas right now,” Sarah Palin declared at a convoy rally in Dripping Springs, two hundred or so miles northeast of Quemado. “It’s required of us to stand up and fight for what’s right, because it’s unconscionable, it’s treasonous, what our federal government is doing to us in actually sanctioning an invasion.” The United Patriot Party of North Carolina, one of many groups that made journeys from other states, pledged to protect the border “by Ballot, by choice,” or “by Bullet, if forced.” The FBI later arrested a man who told undercover agents that his paramilitary outfit planned to kill migrants.

After the threats and fanfare, the convoy dispersed. Some of its members headed to Arizona and California, where they livestreamed themselves harassing migrants and humanitarian aid volunteers. Others returned home, glad to have done their part for the movement. In the end, the convoy was nothing more than a remarkable display of hate—the latest instance of a long tradition of far-right border vigilantism. But the project it was part of has proven less short-lived. Like prior nativist convoys and militias, the Army of God mobilized not only in opposition to migrants but also in support of governmental efforts to police the border—led, in this case, by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.


Over the past three years, Abbott has repeatedly accused President Joe Biden of allowing a migrant takeover. He and his supporters claim that the president opened the border to people who have no right crossing it, transformed Border Patrol from an immigration enforcement agency to a sort of welcoming committee, and left it to the Texas Department of Public Safety and the state National Guard to pick up the slack. In February, thirteen other Republican governors flocked to the border to pledge their support for Abbott; some have sent their own National Guard troops there. Republican members of Congress, too, have praised Abbot for what he describes as “holding the line.”

In truth federal border policies have for the most part been extraordinarily harsh under President Biden. He extended Title 42, a policy that Trump invoked in March of 2020 under the pretext of addressing the pandemic, which allowed Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Border Patrol’s parent agency, to “expel” migrants who crossed the border back to Mexico. (CBP made 1.4 million expulsions in the period after Biden came to office and before April 2022, when he tried to lift Title 42 but was prevented from doing so by a federal court.) Unlike deportations, the expulsions were nearly immediate: people were sent back within minutes or hours of entering the US, without a hearing before an immigration judge. From a legal perspective, they were never admitted into the US. 

All told, there were more than 2.8 million expulsions under Title 42. Yet the policy didn’t stop other migrants from crossing the border; it’s just that those who tried were almost always sent back. Attempted crossings also occurred under Trump, but for Biden’s conservative critics they are proof of a new era of lawlessness. 

Sergio Flores/AFP/Getty Images

Attendees listening to a speech at the Take Back Our Border convoy rally, Cornerstone Children’s Ranch, Texas, February 3, 2024

In March 2021, though little had effectively changed at the border since Biden took office, Abbott formally launched his crusade against federal immigration authorities. At first he vaguely described Operation Lone Star as a plan to “secure the border” by deploying state police and Texas’s National Guard to several counties with high rates of migrant crossings. Soon enough officers were arresting migrants, though not for reasons related to immigration—at least not on paper. Abbott has claimed that nearly 60 percent of Operation Lone Star arrests are for drug smuggling or acts of violence, but many of those infractions happen far from the border and involve US citizens. Migrants arrested for criminal trespassing make up the remaining 40 percent. (The trespassing charges are possible because nearly three quarters of the land along Texas’s southern border is privately owned.) That May, in response to a rise in migrant encounters, Abbott issued a disaster declaration which gave him the right to build fencing along the state’s southern border. 


So far Abbott’s forces have apprehended more than 507,000 people under Operation Lone Star, resulting in more than 41,500 criminal arrests. He presents these figures as proof that his administration has taken action while the federal government flails. Yet by arresting migrants for trespassing and holding them in local jails, the Texas National Guard circumvented the federal expulsion process. Migrants who would have otherwise been shunted across the border could now apply for asylum. 

In May 2023, when Biden declared the pandemic over, Title 42 expired, shifting the Border Patrol’s directive. After three years of expelling migrants en masse, the agency was once again required to process anyone who showed up at the border under Title 8, the immigration statute that triggers deportation proceedings for so-called inadmissibles. In fact, under Biden, Title 42 expulsions and Title 8 admissions had occurred simultaneously: while some migrants were expelled, others were granted “humanitarian exemptions” that allowed them to apply for asylum. It was a haphazard system that confused asylum seekers and the American public alike. But after the expulsion order was lifted, migrants could no longer be thrown across the border and left to fend for themselves. Now, at least in theory, they would have their day in court. 

The asylum process itself is forbidding. Once they turn themselves over to CBP, migrants undergo a “credible fear” interview, in which officers determine whether they’re at risk of persecution in their home country. Applicants who pass the initial screening are issued notices to appear in court, months or years in the future. The threat of deportation looms throughout; those who aren’t granted asylum are removed to the places from where they fled.

Instead of restoring this imperfect process, the Biden administration made it harder to apply for asylum at official border crossings and imposed new punishments on those who don’t. Applicants must now schedule an appointment through an app called CBP One before they can present themselves at a port of entry. Interview slots are limited to just 1,450 per day, and they go fast. As a result, migrants are forced to wait in Mexico for an average of two months before asking for asylum. 

Their other option is to brave the desert or, in Texas, the river, both of which harm their chance of making a permanent home in the US. As Title 42 was sunsetting, the Biden administration issued a regulation barring most people who cross between ports of entry from obtaining asylum unless they had applied in Mexico or another country first. The regulation also expanded “expedited removal,” a process through which DHS deports people from the US with limited due process. The administration claimed the rule punished migrants for “circumventing legal pathways” into the country, by which it meant not using the glitchy app.

In sum, the process the Biden administration established after Title 42 expired, which was supposed to be “safe, orderly, and humane,” has in fact caused greater dysfunction, chaos, and death. If it was an attempt to appease conservative critics, it has clearly backfired: they still fault him for not being harsh enough. Migrants are caught in the middle of this political standoff, stranded in Mexico by Biden’s policies, forced to take routes made still more perilous by Abbott’s, and punished again for doing so by Biden. But if they determine that the risks of staying at home are greater than those at the border, they will take their chances no matter what measures are put in place.


For decades, Border Patrol and CBP have been tasked with not only tracking, apprehending, and arresting unauthorized migrants but also with rescuing them from the harsh terrain of the borderlands. Those who find themselves lost in the Sonoran Desert or carried away by the strong currents of the Rio Grande may regard a Border Patrol agent as a perverse kind of savior: Border Patrol are at once responsible for pushing migrants onto perilous routes and for rescuing them from the dangers they encounter there. Operation Lone Star changed this dynamic, making the border deadlier than ever before. 


Raquel Natalicchio/Houston Chronicle/Getty Images

Texas National Guard standing behind Governor Greg Abbott at a press conference, Eagle Pass, Texas, February 4, 2024

In early 2022 the Texas Military Department, which oversees the state’s National Guard, installed concertina wire along parts of the border. The show of force was concentrated in the seat of Maverick County, Eagle Pass, a town of about 28,000 people that lies less than twenty miles from Quemado. Texas’s director of public safety later justified the decision by calling the city “the center of gravity for smuggling.” 

The border has long been porous in this part of Texas. The Rio Grande and a “pedestrian fence” are all that divides Eagle Pass from the Mexican city of Piedras Negras. Even before Biden took office, it was a waystation for migrants, a place to swim across the river and seek asylum. In 2019, amid a 200 percent increase in crossings in the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector compared to the previous year, the agency erected tents in Eagle Pass to process applications. This January the Del Rio sector reported the second-highest number of apprehensions, after Tucson, Arizona.

Since 2023 Abbott has largely focused enforcement efforts on a small stretch of Eagle Pass, Shelby Park, which CBP had been using as a “staging area” for migrant processing. The park, one of Eagle Pass’s largest public recreation areas, is named after a Confederate general who, in 1865, fled to Mexico to start a colony of Confederate exiles who pledged their fealty to Emperor Maximilian, installed in the country by the French. Last June, without input or approval from the city council, Eagle Pass’s mayor, Rolando Salinas, issued an affidavit turning the forty-seven-acre park into private property under his authority, which allowed Abbott’s forces to arrest migrants for trespassing there. The following month a thousand-foot “floating barrier” appeared in the middle of the river. It was designed to prevent migrants from climbing over and swimming under: its bright orange buoys were separated by metal saw blades, with a mesh anti-dive net beneath. 

The buoy “wall” made the Rio Grande all but unnavigable. In August Eagle Pass resident Jessie Fuentes told the Texas Tribune that it was “making us look like a third-world country.” A retired teacher who was born and raised in the city, Fuentes was among the first to resist Abbott’s occupation of Shelby Park. In July he filed a lawsuit against the governor, the state, and the Department of Public Safety claiming that the barrier had caused “imminent and irreparable harm” to his kayak rental business.

In early August Mexican officials recovered two bodies from the river. The deaths were a turning point for many Eagle Pass residents, some of whom had previously supported Abbott’s initiatives but now began to change their minds. In a complaint filed to the public safety department, one of the troopers dispatched to the border claimed he had been ordered to deny migrants water and “push [them] back into the water to go to Mexico.” He describes intercepting an injured man, who “stated that he had a child who was stuck on a trap in the water…He extricated his kid and while doing so the barrel trap lacerated his leg.” Two married farmers, Magali and Hugo Urbina, asked the public safety department to remove the razor wire from their property after they saw a pregnant woman emerge from the river with blood running down her arms. 

Two days before the bodies were found, Salinas—the mayor who had initially signed the park over to Abbott—and the city council unanimously voted to make the park public property again. “Obviously if it’s inhumane, I’m not going to say, ‘Yes, I’m totally for people getting cut,’” he said before the vote. But two weeks later, the city voted to “continue negotiations” with the state government over using the park. Since then, more lives have been lost. Maverick County is storing bodies, fished out of the river, in massive freezers that initially held victims of Covid-19.


Abbott’s stated quest to restore law and order is likely illegal. Last July the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit that claimed Texas’s buoys violated the Rivers and Harbors Act, which prohibits obstructing navigable waters without permission from the Army Corps of Engineers. The federal government asked a federal court to order Abbott to remove the buoys. A few months later, after Border Patrol agents cut wire that the state had installed on the banks of the Rio Grande, Texas sued the Biden administration for illegally destroying state property. Thus far the legal challenges have brought Abbott tentative victories. Last October, in response to Texas’s lawsuit, a federal judge ordered immigration agents to stop taking down the concertina wire installed in Eagle Pass; three months later, the fifth circuit appeals court, considered the most conservative in the country, said the buoys could stay while the government’s case against Abbott is determined.

John Moore/Getty Images

Immigrants wading across the Rio Grande, near Eagle Pass, Texas, January 07, 2024

This January Abbott raised the stakes further when the Texas National Guard seized control of Shelby Park and blocked Border Patrol agents from accessing the river. Two weeks later, after the Supreme Court said Border Patrol could cut down the razor wire, he wrote a letter accusing the federal government of flinging the gates of the border wall wide open. Abbott invoked both Article IV of the Constitution, which “promises that the federal government ‘shall protect each [State] against invasion,’” and Section 10, Clause 3 of Article I, “which acknowledges ‘the States’ sovereign interest in protecting their borders.’” Mayor Salinas said the Texas Department of Public Safety informed him that the governor had issued another emergency declaration giving him “full control and custody of Shelby Park,” effective immediately. 

That Thursday the National Guard had blocked Border Patrol from entering Shelby Park to respond to a call about migrants who had drowned. The following morning bodies of a mother and her two children were found in the Rio Grande nearby. In his letter, Abbott blamed the drownings on the White House’s “lawless border policies,” which he claims have “enticed illegal immigrants away from the 28 legal entry points along this State’s southern border—bridges where nobody drowns—and into the dangerous waters of the Rio Grande.” (In fact Biden’s policies—punishing illegal crossings and limiting the number of people who can ask for asylum at legal ones—have not “enticed” migrants into danger so much as pushed them there.) In late March, after hundreds of migrants broke through a concertina wire barrier in El Paso, conservative media framed the situation as further proof that Biden had lost control of the border. But the migrants were almost certainly turning themselves over to Border Patrol. 

The Biden administration, for its part, has argued that Texas has repeatedly violated the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which gives the federal government supreme authority over immigration. This is why the Texas National Guard was initially instructed, in 2021, to arrest migrants for trespassing, not for immigration violations. Over the next three years Abbott expanded Operation Lone Star until Texas was undeniably impeding the federal government’s ability to control migration at the southern border. Texas’s most glaring violation of the supremacy clause came in the form of SB4, a law Abbott signed in December but which is not in effect due to a federal court order. SB4 makes illegal immigration a state crime and allows Texas police to question anyone they believe to be in the country without legal authorization. But aside from suing Texas over some of Abbott’s policies, the Biden administration has had little to say about the issue. 

Abbott, on the other hand, has been vocal in his opposition to Biden, whom he has accused of using migrants as “political pawns.” “We’re not going to contain ourselves just to this park,” the governor said in February, just days after the convoy left Quemado. “We are expanding to further areas to make sure that we will expand our level of deterrence and denial of illegal entry into the United States.” His occupation of Shelby Park is ongoing, though largely as a performance: a state government cannot legally enforce federal immigration law. Even if it could, little in the historical record suggests that deterrence will stop unauthorized migration. 

Meanwhile, Abbott’s policies are causing problems closer to home. For a mob of newcomers, with arms and badges, has indeed taken over a once-peaceful area, making locals feel unsafe. There is indeed chaos and dysfunction at the border, all of which has resulted in the loss of innocent lives. The real trouble, though, isn’t caused by the migrants but by the people going to extreme lengths to keep them out.

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