(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The State Says Shelby Park Is Open. Some Locals Beg to Differ.

The experiences of Eagle Pass residents and a journalist contradict government statements, which themselves are inconsistent, about access to a public park.


In a January 13 filing to the U.S. Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other attorneys from his office stated that Shelby Park, the central public recreation space in the border town of Eagle Pass, was open for the public to enjoy. 

Earlier that week, the Texas National Guard “used roadblocks to temporarily close the Park to local residents while they secured the facility,” but it has “since been reopened for recreational use,” the state attorneys wrote. These claims were cited to a sworn declaration by Texas Military Department (TMD) Colonel Christopher Fletcher, who wrote in his attached statement—under penalty of perjury—that after the brief closure “the park has since reopened.” 

But local residents disagree with this characterization.

“That’s bullshit,” said Juanita Martinez, a third-generation Eagle Passan and the chair of the Maverick County Democratic Party. “Whoever wrote that is a fucking liar.”

In January, the 47-acre Shelby Park, which is owned by the City of Eagle Pass, became the site of a standoff between the state and federal governments. In the months leading up to the state’s takeover, border crossings in the area were high: In December, Border Patrol agents logged more than 71,000 apprehensions of migrants in the Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass. Seeing this, the state decided to seize the park, initially blocking access even to federal Border Patrol agents, which outraged the federal government. Since the state took over, apprehensions there have plummeted to only 11,000 in March. Overall, border arrests have also declined precipitously because of a crackdown in Mexico.

When the National Guard took over Shelby Park in January, the federal Department of Justice introduced the matter into ongoing litigation over a separate matter—whether federal agents could remove concertina wire that the state had placed in the same area—which had reached the Supreme Court. That led to a series of dueling court filings between the state and the feds. Meanwhile, a series of testy letters was also exchanged between the Department of Homeland Security and Paxton, in which the former demanded unfettered access to the park and the latter refused. The imbroglio shoved Eagle Pass into the international spotlight.

Ultimately, Supreme Court justices issued a ruling related to the concertina wire that did not address the status of the park. Since then, the state National Guard has continued to occupy the park, which remains fenced off, and while the federal government has gone relatively quiet on the subject, Eagle Pass has been left with dubious access to a crucial public amenity. 

A screenshot from a video taken by Eagle Pass resident Amerika Garcia Grewal of being turned away from Shelby Park (Courtesy/Amerika Garcia Grewal)

The TMD—which includes the Texas National Guard—insists the park is open for use: “The community continues to have access to the park, as does the media,” a spokesperson told the Texas Observer in an emailed statement on February 22. But that claim baffles some locals.

Martinez, the county Democratic Party chair, told the Observer that she passes by the park several times a week and, since January, she’s attempted to enter dozens of times but has been blocked each time by guardsmen, who did not allow her in.

Another resident born and raised in Eagle Pass, Amerika Garcia Grewal, was threatened with a criminal trespass charge by a Department of Public Safety (DPS) sergeant when she tried to enter the park on February 18, in an incident captured on video and shared with the Observer. That day, she’d marched through town with other Eagle Passans and activists in protest of Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a sprawling border operation that has included mass criminal trespass arrests as pseudo-immigration enforcement, and Senate Bill 4, the state’s judicially blocked state deportations law. When Grewal’s group arrived at Shelby Park, they were met by several members of the National Guard, lined up behind a chain-link fence, some of whom were armed with long guns. A few DPS troopers stood beside them. The officers and guardsmen refused the group entry.

When one of the protestors asked why the group could not enter the park, DPS sergeant Jefcoat replied: “I don’t have to give you a why.” 

“This is a community park! I pay taxes here!” Grewal replied as she tried to open the gate and enter the park.

“You will be arrested if you come in further,” Jefcoat said.

¡Queremos nuestro parque!” protestors chanted.

Grewal said that the state had recently allowed out-of-state governors and Congress members into the park. “Why can’t I come to my park?”

“You are in a criminal trespass zone right now,” Jefcoat said. “There is a criminal [trespass] affidavit for this property as we speak.”

DPS did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. In an email, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. 

Through an open records request to DPS, the Observer obtained a January 17 criminal trespass affidavit signed by DPS Major Arturo de la Garza that declares that de la Garza has “control over Shelby Park” and, “subject to an emergency declaration made on behalf of the citizens of Eagle Pass,” the park is “restricted from access to those who would enter directly from the riverbanks of this property or who did not enter the property from designated entry points.”  

On April 1, I traveled to Eagle Pass to cover a monthly border vigil held by local activists and faith leaders to mourn migrants who’ve perished crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The event’s organizers, including Grewal, told me that since January they’ve had to get permission from TMD to hold their event.

In a March 28 email to Grewal obtained by the Observer, Texas National Guard chaplain David Fish wrote of the April vigil: “One stipulation is that no media are permitted, and soldiers will remain on site with you at the ramp until the conclusion of your ceremony.”

That same day, Fish followed up, saying he had obtained permission for me and another outlet to cover the event. “But NO OTHER media,” his email sternly stated.

“I got the distinct impression from Command that even granting access to Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer was a significant accommodation,” he wrote in a separate email to Grewal, explaining why he would not seek permission for any additional media members. “If I go back with an additional request I think we might burn a bridge; and I’d rather not even try. Sorry,” the email concluded. 

A couple hours before the April 1 ceremony, I walked down to the park’s main gated entrance, which was shut. “Is the park closed today?” I asked three Texas National Guard members, with a camera at my side. “It is,” one replied. 

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I then identified myself as a member of the press and said I had permission to be there later that evening. Still, the guardsman didn’t open the gate. “I can give you the person that you need [permission from] to get in today,” he said, then turned around to open a binder full of papers.

I asked if the park is generally open to the public: “So, if someone wants to come to the park— like if a kid wants to play soccer here, is that off-limits?” 

“Well, I wouldn’t want to be recorded, but I can give this information,” he said, gesturing to a golf course adjacent to the park. “This right here is not part of the park. This is the golf course. People come on and off the golf course as they please.”

I tried to clarify: “Which parts are off-limits?” 

The guardsman did not answer, instead giving me a phone number to call a public information officer for TMD. “They will give you all the information you need, when you can come in here and everything like that,” he said. 

Later that evening, I was let into the vigil without hassle.

“If it’s selective, then the park is not really open, is it?”

A week after the vigil, I tried to clarify with TMD if the park was open and for whom. A spokesperson simply reiterated via an April 9 email: “The community continues to have access to the park, as does the media.” 

On April 18, I cold-called the TMD number the guardsmen gave me outside the park gates and wound up getting a call back from Eagle Pass-based Sergeant Eric Allen, who made matters even murkier. “It’s open to the public, but we do have people that are reporters and that have alternative motives that come in and try to act like they’re the public,” Allen said. “So we have to vet that stuff. Does that make sense?”

In late January, two right-wing bloggers from San Antonio had been allowed into Shelby Park to film, as reported by the Border Chronicle. On the same day, the bloggers also gave a tour of Eagle Pass to the United Patriot Party of North Carolina, which DPS and the FBI have called a militia. (The same bloggers were also arrested later that day on drug and weapons charges.)

I told Allen that I had been turned away at the park gate a couple weeks before our call. Eventually, I told him, I was allowed entrance into the park—but only at the specific time slot preapproved by TMD. “But you’re also a reporter,” he said. 

“There seems to be a contradiction there,” I told Allen, who had just told me the park was open to the public for recreation.

“I don’t have a comment to give you,” he said.

Amy Sanders, a free speech expert and journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Observer that the “First Amendment’s protections for freedom of speech apply equally to journalists. … As a general rule, it would be very difficult for police to justify excluding journalists but permitting other members of the public to access a public place.”

On the same day that I spoke with Allen, Martinez—the Eagle Pass Democratic chair—called me to say she’d been turned away from the park again without an explanation.

Last summer, Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas signed a criminal trespass affidavit—without public input—declaring Shelby Park to be private property and granting the state permission to charge people who entered Shelby Park without authorization with criminal trespass. In August, the city council voted to rescind that affidavit. Through an open records request, the Observer obtained a September 20 trespass affidavit signed by Salinas that—while no longer declaring the park private property—restricted access to anyone entering from the river or outside of designated entry points and allowed law enforcement to arrest violators. (This affidavit contains much of the same language as the subsequent January DPS affidavit.) The day prior, the mayor had declared a state of emergency due to migrant crossings. 

When the state took over and occupied the park in January, the mayor decried the move: “That is not a decision that we agreed to. This is not something that we wanted. This is not something that we asked for as a city,” Mayor Salinas said in a Facebook video that is now deleted. He did not answer Observer questions about why he deleted the video. Texas has justified seizing the municipal park saying it did so for “for law-enforcement and disaster-relief purposes.”

National Guard members stand at the gated entrance to Shelby Park in February. Reporters were allowed in to cover a press conference convened by Governor Greg Abbott. (Francesca D’Annunzio)

Ana Sophia Berain-Garcia, the city attorney, told the Observer in mid-April that TMD had recently told Eagle Pass representatives that residents could enter the park if they showed their ID and could prove they lived in the area—an unusual requirement for a public city park. 

The same day, Mayor Salinas told the Observer that TMD also told him the park was open for recreation to Maverick County residents. When informed that multiple residents had been turned away, Salinas—who did not respond to additional requests for comment—replied: “I’m telling you what they told me, and that’s it. I don’t know what else I can say.” 

Poncho Nevárez, a local attorney and former state legislator representing Eagle Pass, told the Observer that he doesn’t buy the state’s claims. “If it’s selective, then the park is not really open, is it?” he said.

Nevárez partly blames city leaders for the state’s continued occupation of Shelby Park—because of the mayor’s prior agreements with the state allowing trespass enforcement and, now, because of a lack of bravery. 

“At some point, a citizen is going to have to challenge that because our local government doesn’t have the balls to do it,” he said. “I think they’re ashamed, and sheepish, because they had a hand in this. They allowed it to happen.”