Communities are wary as an appeals court weighs legality of Texas immigration law

A Spanish-language bible — now on display at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas — is believed to have been carried by a migrant when the person was washed away by the river.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán/NPR

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A Spanish-language bible — now on display at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas — is believed to have been carried by a migrant when the person was washed away by the river.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán/NPR

EAGLE PASS, Texas — Near the altar of the Iglesia Luterana San Lucas, a crumpled blue and white Bible sits in a place of honor, protected by a plastic display case.

“A group of immigrants had it and they told us that the person who carried it lost their life in the river,” Pastor Julio Vasquez explains. Flipping through the book, it falls open to a psalm titled ‘Un grito de angustia,’ – a cry of anguish.

“This is the reflection of the suffering of the immigrants and at the same time the reflection of the hope of the immigrants,” Vasquez says.

On this Sunday morning in April, he has prepared a Spanish language service for worshipers convened in the small Lutheran church just three miles from the U.S.-Mexican border.

“Let’s pray for our migrant brothers and sisters,” Vasquez says in his opening prayer. “[For] those who have fled their countries due to war, delinquency, poverty, governments who are not doing the work.”

Vasquez says many in this congregation come from Mexico and know people who have migrated to the U. S.– some on valid visas, and others without authorization.

Pastor Julio Vasquez reads from the altar of the Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas during a Sunday service on April 7, 2024.

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Pastor Julio Vasquez reads from the altar of the Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas during a Sunday service on April 7, 2024.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán/NPR

Living in a binational community is part of the identity of residents here. Eagle Pass shares three international border crossings with Piedras Negras, Mexico. About 95% of its population is Hispanic of Mexican descent.

Lately, the Del Rio sector of the border, which includes the city of Eagle Pass, has been the epicenter of Texas’s fight with the federal government over immigration. Last year, this area saw the highest number of migrant crossings along the Southern border.

The number of unauthorized crossings has drastically decreased since its peak in December 2023, according to data released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But on the streets of Eagle Pass, there’s still an oversized presence of Border Patrol, state troopers, National Guard and local police.

Border communities like this one now await the fate of a state law that allows police to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. If found guilty, a magistrate judge could expel that person to Mexico— even if they are not Mexican.

The Biden Administration sued the state of Texas over the law, known as SB4, arguing that only the federal government can create immigration law. While the case is pending, SB4 hasn’t been enforced. But a ruling is expected soon, and that’s making immigrant communities in Texas uneasy – especially coupled with another measure passed by the Texas legislature that would punish anyone found to have been aiding someone who is in the U.S. illegally.

During Sunday’s homily, Vazquez confronts these anxieties with a lesson about how God wants to bring peace to people’s minds and souls.

“All of these immigration problems and how they want to detain us just for having a Hispanic face,” he tells the congregation.

The sermon hit home for 85-year-old Carlota Riojas, an 85-year-old retired shoemaker who says she used to give rides to women with little children walking through downtown.

That’s what neighbors do, but she’s afraid to do it anymore.

“You would get punished for giving a ride to someone who is undocumented,” Riojas explains in Spanish.

She says her community is used to interacting with border patrol agents and law enforcement from other federal agencies — many of whom live in Eagle Pass. But the heavy presence of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the National Guard creates a different environment.

Rashaan Soto, 19, poses in front of a section of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas on April 6,. 2024.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán

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Rashaan Soto, 19, poses in front of a section of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas on April 6,. 2024.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán

Rashaan Soto, a 19-year–old community college student, has seen his hometown changed in the last few years. He now prepares anytime he leaves home.

“Everywhere I go, I always carry my state ID with me,” Soto said. “I was born and raised here in Eagle Pass and, why would I need to prove my residency if I was born and raised here?”

Immigration is a hot-button issue in Texas

Curbing illegal immigration has been a centerpiece of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s political platform.

Three years ago he launched Operation Lone Star, which deployed the state’s National Guard to patrol the border and authorized physical barriers including buoys in the Rio Grande. To date, the state has spent $11 billion dollars on the effort.

Several pro-immigrant and civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue the state law could lead to racial profiling.

Abbott declined to comment for this story, but at a bill-signing ceremony in Brownsville, he dismissed concerns of potential racial profiling, saying “one thing that officers understand [is] that it’s wrong to profile.”

He said the measure is needed to deter illegal migration – and some residents along the U.S.-Mexican border agree.

“There’s nothing disincentivizing this mass illegal immigration, [yet] there’s hundreds of things incentivizing it,” said Selene Rodriguez, a native from Del Rio, another border community about 55 miles from Eagle Pass.

Rodriguez works for the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, and says her family and friends at Del Rio and Eagle Pass feel unsafe because of the number of migrants crossing.

“So, when you have a bill like SB4 or other type of legislation that is meant to disincentivize that, that’s exactly what we want,” she says.

Once used by federal officials to process migrants crossing into the U.S. illegally, Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas was blocked by the state as part of its fight with the Biden administration over immigration.

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Once used by federal officials to process migrants crossing into the U.S. illegally, Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas was blocked by the state as part of its fight with the Biden administration over immigration.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán/NPR

She’s not alone in supporting Abbott’s policies.

Immigration policy extends beyond the border

About 62% of state voters support making it a state crime for an undocumented immigrant to be in Texas in most instances, according to a recent survey by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

“There is bipartisan support for the provisions of SB4,” said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project. “That [support is] made up overwhelmingly by Republicans — 87% who support it, but also 55% of independents and 39% of Democrats.”

Although much of the focus of immigration enforcement has been in border communities, laws like SB4 will have a much wider reach across the large and diverse state of Texas.

Nabila Mansoor, executive director of Rise AAPI, a Texas- based organization that advocates for Asian American communities, says many in the state are nervous about potentially being racially profiled by law enforcement.

“There is just right now this initial kind of bewilderment that such a law could even exist,” says Mansoor. “[It]just viscerally goes against so much of what we’ve been taught about being a free American citizen, here in this country.”

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