EAGLE PASS, Texas (AP) — As more than a dozen Republican governors gathered Sunday on the Texas border, Kyle Willis was across the river in Mexico considering his next move to enter the U.S.
The 23-year-old Jamaican, who said he left his country after facing attacks and discrimination due to his sexuality, had followed the path of a historic number of migrants over the past two years and tried crossing the Rio Grande at the border city of Eagle Pass. But he waded back across the river after spending hours, in soaking clothes, failing to persuade Texas National Guard soldiers behind a razor wire fence to let him through.
“It’s not just something they’re saying to deter persons from coming in. It’s actually real,” said Willis, who for now is staying at a shelter in Piedras Negras.
His experience would be considered a victory for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who returned to Eagle Pass on Sunday surrounded by GOP governors who have cheered on his extraordinary showdown with President Joe Biden‘s administration over immigration enforcement. But declines in crossings are part of a complex mix of developments along the U.S. border, including heightened enforcement in Mexico. Meanwhile, migrants are moving further down the river and crossing elsewhere.
The issue was also at the forefront in Washington, where senators on Sunday raced to release a highly-anticipated bill that pairs border enforcement policy with wartime aid for Ukraine.
Abbott said he would continue expanding operations along the Texas border but did not provide details. For nearly a month, Texas has restricted U.S. Border Patrol’s access to an area along the river known as Shelby Park, accusing the Biden administration of not being tough enough on crossings.
“We are here to send a loud and clear message that we are banding together to fight to ensure that we will be able to maintain our constitutional guarantee that states will be able to defend against any type of imminent danger,” Abbott said.
The record number of border crossings is a political liability for President Joe Biden and an issue that Republicans are eager to put front and center to voters in an election year. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last week committed to send more National Guard troops to Texas and other governors are also weighing new deployments.
Although DeSantis wasn’t present Sunday in Eagle Pass, Abbott was joined by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkanas and Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee, among other Republicans.
Eagle Pass is where Texas has been locked in a power struggle with the Biden administration for the past month after the state began denying access to U.S. Border Patrol agents at Shelby Park.
Crossings in recent weeks are down overall along the entire U.S. border, including areas without such a heavy security presence.
Tucson, Arizona, which has been the busiest of nine Border Patrol sectors on the Mexican border, tallied 13,800 arrests in the weeklong period that ended Friday. That is down 29% from a peak of 19,400 in week ended Dec. 22, according to John Modlin, the sector chief.
Just a day after Biden expressed “his appreciation for Mexico’s operational support and for taking concrete steps to deter irregular migration” in a call with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican immigration agency said Sunday that in the last week, they had rescued 71 immigrants – 22 of them minors— in two groups stranded on sand bars of the Rio Grande, between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. They were from Mexico, Central America, Ecuador and Peru.
A Honduran woman and her 1-year-old baby were also rescued from the water and the emergency team also found three corpses, apparently migrants who died trying to cross into the U.S.
Biden, now sounding increasingly like former President Donald Trump, is pressing Congress for asylum restrictions that would have been unthinkable when he took office. Immigration remains a major worry for voters in the 2024 election: An AP-NORC poll earlier this month found that voters voicing concerns about immigration climbed to 35% from 27% last year.
The arrival of GOP governors to Eagle Pass rounds out a weekend that has kept the small border city of roughly 30,000 residents in an unwitting spotlight. Hundreds protesting Biden’s immigration policies held a “Take Back Our Border” rally on the outskirts of the city on Saturday where vendors sold Donald Trump-inspired MAGA hats and Trump flags.
The number of crossings in Eagle Pass has recently fallen to a few hundred a day. Texas closed access to federal agents at Shelby Park after the number of crossings decreased sharply at the end of December. Mike Banks, who Abbott appointed last year to oversee Texas’ border operations, described the park as a “magnet” for migrants trying to enter the country.
“So we’ve taken that pull factor away,” Banks said.
Mexico has bolstered immigration efforts that include adding more checkpoints and sending people from the northern border to southern Mexico. The country has also deported some Venezuelan migrants back home.
Melissa Ruiz, 30, arrived at the Piedras Negras shelter, across the river from Eagle Pass, along with her four children. The Honduran mother said gang members back home had tried to recruit her 15-year-old son, her oldest, prompting her to reluctantly flee.
Ruiz said she had little awareness of the tightening security on the Texas side, having heard of many people crossing into the U.S. since she arrived at the shelter. The main deterrence for her, she said, is the cold weather and the river’s increased flow after recent rainfall. Drownings in the river are tragically common.
“What they say that one suffers so much on this road, it’s true,” Ruiz said.
___ Associated Press reporters Maria Verza in Mexico City anf Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.