This past Saturday, a ranch in a tiny Texas border town became the temporary capital of Trumpism. Hundreds of white men and women, carrying U.S. and Texas flags, as well as posters against gay rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, chanted slogans about “taking back America” or “taking back the border,” all in support of former President Donald Trump. They gathered at the Cornerstone Children’s Ranch, in Quemado. It was the last stop of a convoy that traveled halfway across the United States over the course of a week to reach this area bordering Mexico.
The purpose of this caravan, which describes itself as “God’s Army,” has been to show support for Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who has deployed the National Guard to try to wrest immigration control away from federal authorities. Despite fears of possible incidents, the assembly — surrounded by police surveillance — took place peacefully. But extremism experts warn that the dispute is giving rise to conspiracy theories, white supremacy and the same rhetoric that inspired the violence on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021.
“We’re here to demand that our country be returned to us,” says Sandy, a 71-year-old retired teacher, originally from New York. She now lives in Florida. A former Obama voter, she’s now a passionate supporter of Trump and claims she has traveled from her home specifically to support his agenda. “It’s not enough to talk: we must also act. And here we are. These border states are being overwhelmed by all the illegals coming. And they do it because they know that the current government is going to give them all kinds of [support]. But soon, this country is going to be great again,” she vows, referring to the November elections.
Just a few miles beyond the ranch where the assembly is held, the atmosphere is much more volatile. Eagle Pass — a city with a population of 28,000 people — has become the epicenter of a confrontation between Governor Abbott and the U.S. federal government over control of the border. Things have heated up in the past few weeks.
Abbott, from the most hardline wing of the Republican Party, has declared the entry of migrants to be an “invasion.” He has taken what he calls “unprecedented measures” against a flow of irregular migrants that, in 2023, accounted for 2.4 million entries, 14% more with respect to 2022. More than 300,000 entries took place this past December. In the Del Río sector, which includes Eagle Pass, there were 15,833 interceptions in 2018, compared to more than 152,000 in the last three months of 2023.
After President Biden took office in 2021, Abbott launched Operation Lone Star to combat irregular immigration, using troops from the Texas National Guard, as well as the Florida National Guard, who were sent by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who recently dropped out of the Republican presidential primaries. Abbot and DeSantis have also sent buses carrying irregular migrants to Democratic-controlled cities. Last year, Abbot placed enormous buoys in the Rio Grande, marking the border to prevent crossings. This past January, he had the Texas National Guard take control of Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, on the edge of the river. They subsequently prevented the passage of the federal Border Patrol, which, until then, used those lands as one of its operations centers.
Since then, the federal and Texan governments have been locked in a legal battle. The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Washington, noting that border control is its responsibility. But Abbott has chosen to allege that his state has the right to self-defense. Instead of removing the barbed wire, he assures the public that he will install more, despite his critics denouncing that it puts lives in danger and violates the U.S. Constitution.
In Eagle Pass, along Main Street, which leads to the bridges that connect the city with Mexico, ambulances frequently pass by to help migrants who are injured by buoys or wire fences. What was a place where residents went to fish, organize picnics, or listen to concerts has now become a militarized post where soldiers with machine guns control access. Golf players have to dodge military trucks; the baseball field has been converted into a heliport.
This past Saturday, the fear that extremists — attracted by the concentration in Quemado — would approach Shelby Park and cause disturbances led the local police to block access. A veteran who identifies himself as Max expressed his frustration to EL PAÍS about not being able to enter. “They’re violating my civil rights! Shame on them for protecting illegals instead of patriots!”
As many as 25 Republican governors have sided with Abbott. As has former President Trump, who has written on his social media site Truth Social that Texas “must receive full support to repel the invasion.”
Republicans aspire to make the border the big campaign issue this election year. A bill being negotiated by Republicans and Democrats in Congress that tightens control measures is on the verge of failing due to the far-right saying it doesn’t go far enough. The legislation provides Biden with the option to shut down the border when an average of 5,000 illegal crossings are detected daily over the course of a week.
This anti-immigrant rhetoric and Abbott’s rebellion have only aggravated the split in an already deeply divided society. Violent language and ideas have been normalized, including the “great replacement theory,” which believes there’s a grand plot to replace the white American population with racial minorities. Extremism experts note that such concepts — which were marginal just a few years ago — have now entered the mainstream. “The confrontation between Texas and the federal government has become a magnet for far-right vigilantism [a movement that advocates self-defense when the state fails]. A perfect example of this troubling problem is the Take Our Border Back convoy that arrived in Eagle Pass this weekend,” says Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR).
“From the organizers of the caravan on down, the same dangerous elements who participated in the January 6 insurrection [took part in the border protests],” Burghart affirms. “[There were] members of militias, election deniers, QAnon [and Covid] conspiracy theorists and other extreme right-wingers.”
Groups such as the Proud Boys — who played an important role in the January 6 riots — have been very forceful in their support for Abbott and his positions. They haven’t hesitated to use violent language. A member of that militia in South Texas urged his followers on Telegram to “grab their weapons.” Supporters of the neo-Nazi group Aryan Freedom Network called for “resistance” from white males.
“So it’s unanimous: everyone in power, from the White House, to the hedge fund managers, to the Supreme Court of the United States has decided to destroy the country by allowing it to be invaded. That leaves the population to defend itself. Where are the men of Texas? Why aren’t they protecting their state and the nation?” former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson tweeted last week.
Democratic Congresswoman Verónica Escobar recalls that this type of rhetoric led to the El Paso massacre — which occurred in her Texas electoral district — in 2019, when a white supremacist opened fire in a Walmart. He killed 23 people and injured another 22, in retaliation for what he considered to be a “Hispanic invasion.”
“We cannot accept the status quo and we cannot accept the normalization of this language… we have to stop it,” Escobar warned, in a telephone press conference last Thursday.
Regarding the “God’s Army” convoy, Burghart says that, despite everything, he’s “less concerned about this particular episode and more about the implications of that type of rhetoric becoming a reality.”
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