EAGLE PASS, Texas— From the fairway, golfers concentrating on their swings can hear voices coming from the other side of the river.
The golf course, along with the two soccer fields and baseball diamond that make up Shelby Park, is wedged between the Rio Grande and a Mexican border wall that was built against the town’s will eight years ago.
The black metallic border fence, which is 14 feet high and 1.8 miles long, cost the U.S. government $11 million. It’s part of the 653 miles of boundaries and fences built over the last ten years by the U.S. government along the 19,989 miles of border separating the United States and Mexico. It’s part of the United States' broad border security push that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Eagle Pass was the first American settlement established on the banks of the Rio Grande. General Joseph O. Shelby first arrived here in 1848 and settled in the exact location where Shelby Park is located today. There are some 3,000 people living within the town’s limits, and 57,000 people in Maverick County, where the town is located. Ninety-eight percent of the people living there are of Mexican origin, and many have businesses or family on the other side of the river.
When the project to build the fence was first proposed in 2008, Eagle Pass filed a lawsuit against the federal government in an effort to stop the project. The city ultimately lost the lawsuit and thousands of dollars in the process.
“The federal government was going to come in and get rid of a park that is very important for the city; it’s a recreational space for the community,” says Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantu.
But the two parties came to an agreement: Shelby Park could stay, but it would be bisected by a border fence. And the golf course had to widen its cart paths so that border patrol vehicles can drive through. So far the only utility that the wall has for the city is to serve as a secure entrance to the park during the festivities and celebrations, such as the Fourth of July.
The majority of border residents on both sides are opposed to the construction of fences,
according to a survey conducted last April across 14 cities by Cronkite News of Arizona State University, Univision, and Dallas Morning News.
“The money that was spent on the wall could have been used to hire more border patrol agents, which would’ve been a bigger contribution to the development of the border. The wall did not eliminate the situation we are in,” says the mayor.
Public safety is the main source of employment in Eagle Pass. The Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) employ around 500 agents here. Cattle and commerce are other major sources of employment, but largely depend on business dealings with the town’s Mexican sister city of Piedras Negras and its surroundings.
A big portion of the engineers and qualified personnel who work at the Constellation Brand beer facility live in Eagle Pass and cross the border to Mexico on a daily basis. The beer facility is the largest in the hemisphere, and home to popular brands such as Corona, Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, and Pacifico.
The crossing restrictions implemented after 9/11 have slowed the natural border flow that has defined life in these frontier towns for years. Crossing in and out of the United States across the international bridges that connect Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras now requires up to four hours, a journey that used to take no more than 30 minutes prior to 9/11. Similar delays are typical at all 48 ports of entry that connect the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There are people who simply decide not to cross because it is too complicated and they have no idea how long it will take for them to go and come back,” says Christopher Wilson, a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center.
Wilson says that since 9/11 it has been a challenge for the United States to reconcile national security with the needs of border town citizens. The government has opened new ports of entry and modernized many of the existing ones, but they haven’t found a way to guarantee the interconnectivity that the border towns’ economic and social relations depend on.
“We have to figure out how we can improve risk management and identify which investments make better use of each dollar the federal government spends towards border security, without more fencing, ports of entry and agents. An investment that makes better use of the federal government’s money in terms of border security and that makes economic sense, and over these calculations create a federal border policy that’s very robust,” Wilson says.
The Border Patrol office in the Del Rio sector, which is charged with securing 50 miles of border in Maverick County, defends the construction of the fence. Border officials claim the fence is a deterrent to those who are trying to cross the border illegally, and allows law enforcement to do their job more efficiently.
“Before the construction of the 1.8 miles of security fencing in Eagle Pass, near the international bridges, the area was among the busiest for border-related illegal activities in the Del Rio Sector. Prior to fencing, illicit traffic was able to quickly blend into downtown and adjoining neighborhoods. Fencing has substantially narrowed this corridor allowing Border Patrol agents to respond faster and more effectively,” the CBP said in a statement to Univision.
Most of the people of Eagle Pass believe that the wall that crosses Shelby Park and the post-9/11 measures adopted by the government have been a useless and counterproductive investment for the city’s economy.
“Many Mexicans want to come just to buy a loaf of bread and some American candy they like. They don’t come to steal, they don’t come to kill, they don’t come to do anything wrong. Now fewer and fewer people come because, to begin with, the cost of a U.S. visa has risen significantly. How is a poor family going to get a visa that costs $600-700 for their children, if they make $15 a day? And after 9/11 the border agents became very strict, they don’t know how to treat people,” says Benjamin “Bennie” Rodriguez, owner of the store La Tienda de los Venados.
Rodriguez, who was born in Eagle Pass, was elected by the people of his town as “Mr. Amigo 2016” in the Hug of Friendship ceremony, which celebrates ties between the residents of Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass. Rodriguez’s father is a Mexican from Piedras Niegras, as are most of his clients.
“People with money will go to San Antonio, San Marcos, Los Sauces, or Austin to buy stuff. But here? Who wants to spend four hours in a car just to go to Piedras Negras? In four hours you make it to Houston,” says Rodriguez.
And without neighbors who can visit, Eagle Pass is slowly becoming a ghost town with a pristine golf course that’s split by a wall.