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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

At rally for border security in Texas, fears of ‘invasion’ and ‘civil war’

A vehicle convoy of people who drove to the southern border to demonstrate their frustration, fear and anger over what they see as a broken immigration system, is welcomed to their final destination — a ranch just steps from the Rio Grande River in the rural town of Quemado, Texas, Feb. 2, 2024. The location was chosen for its proximity to the city of Eagle Pass, a flashpoint in the pitched confrontation over border security and immigration between the Biden administration and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

By J. David Goodman

A line of trucks and campers, cars and vans — from South Dakota and North Carolina, Washington and Pennsylvania — snaked over farm roads before gathering on the winter-brown grass of a ranch, steps from the Rio Grande, in the rural community of Quemado.

The gathering Saturday marked the final stop of a dayslong journey: a convoy of conservative Americans who drove to the border to demonstrate their frustration, fear and anger over what they saw as a broken immigration system.

The location in Quemado had been chosen for its proximity to the city of Eagle Pass, a flashpoint in the pitched confrontation over border security and immigration between the Biden administration and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas. Other convoys this past week reached the border in Yuma, Arizona, and San Ysidro, California, all with the goal of spurring tighter controls on migrants crossing the border.

Concerns over potential violence followed the convoys as the federal government and Republican state leaders appeared to be on an increasingly imminent collision course. In December, the federal government recorded 302,000 encounters with unauthorized migrants, the record for one month.

In the end, the rally in Texas — part political protest, part Christian revival — attracted a modest crowd to the ranch and no outbreaks of violence. Many in attendance were retired and had decided to make the trip almost spontaneously after having heard about it on social media or the local news.

“We slept in the car,” said George Barton, 73, who chose to join the caravan as it passed through his hometown, Dripping Springs, Texas. He came with his wife, Terrie, 71, who wrote along the side of their white SUV: “Immigration is good! Invasion is bad!” Their 9-year-old dog, Rudy, also came.

“I do know that there are laws and they are not being upheld,” Terrie Barton said.

“I appreciate them coming here,” said Elias Mata, 70, a resident of Eagle Pass, as he walked through the rally. “I think Greg Abbott is doing the right thing.” He said that his wife, who declined to give her name, had emigrated from Mexico. She said she agreed, adding, “I love the USA.”

The rally, across a farm road from the Rio Grande and the border with Mexico, took place against the backdrop of an intensifying legal fight between Texas and the federal government over the unfurling of miles of concertina wire in Eagle Pass and the takeover of a riverside municipal park by state law enforcement officers.

The courtroom battle has attracted heated rhetoric, with Abbott and others describing the record number of migrants entering the country as an “invasion.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Texas, saying that federal border agents could continue cutting or removing concertina wire while the case proceeds, many Republican state leaders publicly expressed defiance in terms that echoed armed conflicts.

“Come and take it,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote on social media, borrowing the slogan from a flag flown during the Texas war of independence, in this case replacing an image of a cannon with concertina wire. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton posted a similar image, adding a silhouette of the Alamo.

Amid the conflict with the federal government last month, an original version of the flag, dating to 1835, flew over the headquarters of the Texas Military Department.

At the gathering Saturday, several people wore T-shirts with versions of the same slogan and imagery.

Responding to reports of threats of violence against migrants or federal Border Patrol processing centers in Texas, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Saturday that the agency was taking “appropriate and necessary actions to keep our employees and migrants in our custody safe.”

Some attendees at the Texas rally spoke of their concern that political divisions in the country could lead to a civil war, including one of the organizers, Rod Parker, a revivalist pastor.

“I hope I’m wrong,” Parker said. “We’re here to pray against that.” He then excused himself to help baptize a woman near the stage.

The Republican governors of 25 states said they would stand alongside Texas in its confrontation with the federal government. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said this past week that he would send hundreds of his state’s National Guard troops “to assist Texas in its efforts to stop the invasion at the southern border.”

More than a dozen Republican governors were expected to join Abbott on Sunday in Shelby Park, the Eagle Pass park that has become a flashpoint in the conflict.

Democrats as well as immigration and civil rights groups have accused Abbott and other Republicans of inflaming a heated issue.

“This moment reminds us of what happened on Jan. 6,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group, referring to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

In the past two years, Abbott has steadily expanded his program of state-level enforcement at the border, known as Operation Lone Star. Much of that effort has concentrated on Eagle Pass, a city of about 28,000 that has become, during the Biden administration, a popular crossing point for large groups of migrants. Most have arrived looking to surrender to federal agents for processing and possible release into the country.

Later this month, Abbott will be back in court to defend his latest expansion of the program: a new law, set to go into effect in March, that will allow law enforcement officers across Texas to arrest migrants who cross without permission from Mexico. The Biden administration has sued, arguing that the act violates the federal government’s authority over immigration law.

The Texas portion of Saturday’s rallies had initially been aimed at Eagle Pass. But organizers decided instead to hold it on the Cornerstone Children’s Ranch, about 20 miles north of the city, and urged those participating not to travel to the city, to avoid any potential confrontations there.

“We are flat-out telling people: Do not go to Eagle Pass,” said Anson Bills, operations manager at the Cornerstone Children’s Ranch.

On Saturday, few people seemed interested in making that trip. Many sat in folding chairs and listened to Christian music and speeches. “It’s like a Trump rally without Trump,” said Tom Welch, 25, who had traveled with his mother from St. Louis.

The overtly religious nature of the gathering was not what some had expected, and some appeared a bit disappointed. “I was looking for the heathens, but there are none,” said Wayne Harris, 75, who had traveled from costal Rockport, Texas. “I’m at the wrong place. I believe, and I pray. But I thought this was going to be a Trump rally.”

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