The Urbinas blame the clouds of dust kicked up by Texas officials in trucks and ATVs after the state government in recent months put fencing and roads along the riverbanks in a contentious effort to deter migration from Mexico, just across the river.
People walk near buoys placed by Texas authorities in the Rio Grande to stop crossings from the Mexican side.
‘Like traps meant for animals’: death no deterrent at the Rio Grande river barrier
Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s latest salvo has extended to a barrier of giant orange buoys in the river.
The Urbinas suspect the flurry of activity interfered with pollination on their orchard, Heavenly Farms, where the Texas state tree has flourished for decades.
“They’re choking,” Magali said. The sense of an invasion on their property has left the couple, Texas natives of Mexican descent who voted for Abbott, feeling blindsided by what they see as his agenda to publicize a crackdown on the border in the face of what the governor argues is a soft approach by Joe Biden, the US president and a Democrat.
“It’s about money and votes, nothing else,” Hugo added. “We’re just collateral damage and they don’t care.“
It also risks further environmental damage to the delicate borderlands, where scientists say deserts, hills and wetlands along the nearly 2,000-mile frontier have been plagued by walls, shipping containers, helicopters and stadium lighting.
Migrants for years have forged the river from Mexico to Eagle Pass, part of increasingly higher numbers of people crossing illegally in recent years.
Abbott in 2021 launched a program he dubbed “Operation Lone Star” aimed at curbing illegal migration, including a campaign to bus migrants to Democratic-led cities further north and the deployment of thousands of national guard troops.
Yet migrants continue to enter Texas in large numbers. Over four days in late July, Reuters observed dozens of people cross daily near the Urbinas’ farm, including a group of some 50 people, only to be confronted with razor wire and Texas officials on the steep riverbank – property the Urbinas say is theirs.
Magali Urbina stands next to a state-built fence and razor wire on her property along the Rio Grande. Photograph: Adrees Latif/Reuters
In one instance, a Venezuelan woman breastfed her 10-month baby while wading through the river, searching for a spot where she could get past the razor wire.
Abbott’s office referred Reuters to previous statements from the governor. He has accused Biden of failing to enforce migration laws and said he has the authority to “defend” Texas’ border.
The Urbinas’ frustration has put them in an unlikely alliance with environmental advocates who are concerned Abbott’s measures will harm wildlife along the Rio Grande.
“This is about big government trying to come in and steam-rolling a small town,” said Martin Castro, the watershed science director at the Rio Grande International Study Center. “They didn’t think anyone was going to stand up and speak out.”
Immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility, with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tasked with securing the border. States are legally restricted in what they can do without coordinating with the federal government.
The Department of Justice has sued Texas over the buoys, arguing Texas installed them without proper federal approvals and studies of their impact on public safety and the environment. Mexico’s government says the buoys violate a water treaty and put migrants’ lives at risk.
In Eagle Pass, sediment falling into the river from the installation of fences and buoys is already altering the water’s flow, according to environmentalists.
That could damage habitats for local wildlife, including the endangered Texas hornshell mussel and the least tern, a small bird that nests along rivers, and affect the Monarch butterfly that migrates through the area.