A row of huge buoys on the Rio Grande. Barbed wire crossing private property without the permission of the owners. Bulldozers constantly altering the landscape on the southern border of the United States.
For more than two years, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has stepped up measures to prevent migrants from entering the United States, testing legal limits with defiance and individualism along the 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) border the state shares with Mexico. Now rejection of his tactics is on the rise, even within Texas.
The recounting of officers denying migrants water in temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius), and the injuring of asylum seekers trying to get past a barbed wire fence, has sparked renewed criticism by a state police officer. The government of Mexico, some Texans along the border, and the Joe Biden presidency are fighting back. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit Monday against Abbott over the buoy barrier, which he says raises environmental and humanitarian concerns, asking a federal court to force the state to dismantle it.
Abbott, who won a third term by a wide margin during the November elections with the promise of stricter border measures, has used emergency declarations to legally support some of his actions.
Critics say it's a distorted view.
“In many ways, what Texas is doing now is flagrantly illegal,” said David Donatti, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Texas.
Abbott did not respond to requests for comment. He has repeatedly attacked Biden's immigration policies, tweeting Friday that they "encourage migrants to risk their lives to illegally cross the Rio Grande, rather than safely and legally across a bridge."
The federal government has said that the number of illegal border crossings has dropped significantly since May, when new immigration measures were implemented.
Protesters gathered this month in Shelby Park, under the international bridge that connects Eagle Pass, Texas, with Piedras Negras, Mexico, chanting “save the river” and holding a ceremony in which they used a seashell to generate sound. A few yards away, crews were unloading the bright orange buoys from tractor-trailers parked next to a boat ramp on the Rio Grande.
Jessie Fuentes stood with environmental activists, watching as state agents restricted access to the water where he holds an annual kayak competition. Shipping containers and barbed wire stretched along the riverbank.
The experienced canoeist often led his clients and racing competitors into the water through a shallow channel that forms a scrubby border island. Now, there is an artificial trench of barren land created by bulldozers that connects to the mainland and is protected by barbed wire.
“The river is a river with federal protections from so many federal agencies, and I just don't know how it happened,” Fuentes told Eagle Pass City Council the night before.
The city council did not know either.
“I feel like state government has bypassed local government in many ways. And for the same reason sometimes I feel helpless,” said Elias Diaz, a member of the city council, in statements to The Associated Press.
The International Boundary and Water Commission says Texas failed to notify it about the modification of several islands or the deployment of the huge buoys to create a 1,000-foot (305-meter) barrier in the middle of the Rio Grande, which is anchored to the river bed.
Abbott sent Biden a letter on Monday defending Texas' right to install the barrier. He accused the president of putting the lives of migrants at risk by not doing more to discourage them from making the trip to the United States.
The floating barrier has also sparked tensions with Mexico, which it claims violates international treaties. The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter in June asking the federal government to remove the buoys and barbed wire.
Fuentes filed a lawsuit regarding the buoys, arguing that the Texas Disaster Law does not cover border crossings.
As for the islands in the river, the Texas General Land Office has granted access to the state Department of Public Safety since April "to curb the ongoing border crisis."
"In addition, the General Land Office will also allow vegetation management, as long as all applicable state and federal regulations are followed," agency head Dawn Buckingham said in a letter.
The Texas Military Department removed the reed beds, which Buckingham's office called an "invasive plant" in its response to questions from the AP, and altered the landscape, affecting the flow of the river.
Environmental experts are worried.
“As far as I know, if the river overflows, the flooding is much more severe in Piedras Negras than in Eagle Pass because that is the lowest part of the river. So the next time the river rises significantly, I think it's going to carry too much water to the Mexican side," said Tom Vaughan, a retired professor and co-founder of the Rio Grande International Study Center, an organization focused on preserving the river.
Fuentes recently applied for a permit from the city and the Department of Public Safety to kayak his usual route.
“Because they changed the trajectory of the water on the island, the water now flows in a different way,” Fuentes said. "I can sense it."
The state refused to release any records that could detail the environmental impact of the buoys or the alterations to the landscape.
Victor Escalon, a regional director for the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) who is in charge of overseeing the Del Rio region to Brownsville, referred to the governor's declaration of emergency.
“We do everything we can to prevent crime, period. And that's the job,” she added.
INVADE TO STOP THE INVADERS
The DPS mission performs actions on a piece of land against the wishes of its owner.
In 2021, as Eagle Pass became the preferred route for migrants to enter the United States, Magali and Hugo Urbina purchased a riverside walnut orchard, which they named Heavenly Farms.
Hugo Urbina collaborated with DPS when the agency erected a fence on his property and detained migrants for trespassing. But the relationship turned acrimonious a year later, after the agency called for barbed wire to be installed on the property the Urbinas leased from Border Patrol to process migrants.
Hugo Urbina wanted the DPS to sign a contract that would exempt him from liability in case someone was injured by the barbed wire. The agency refused, but installed the wire anyway, brought vehicles onto the property and locked the Urbinas' gates. That left Border Patrol without access to the river, though it still rents land from Urbina.
"They do what they want," Urbina declared a few weeks ago.
The farmer, a supporter of the Republicans, calls it a "poisoned policy." Others just say it's something they've seen before.
“I also really see a very strong correlation to the (President Donald) Trump era and the post-Trump era, where most of the Trump administration's immigration policies were aggressive and extreme and very infringing on people's rights, and (were) very focused on establishing their political position,” said Aron Thorn, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit advocacy group. "The design of this is based on optics, and it's quite extraordinary how much they sacrifice to maintain that optic."
DPS works with about 300 landowners, according to Escalon. He said it's unusual for the agency to take control of a property without the owner's consent, but the department also says the Disaster Law gives them such powers.
Urbina said he was in favor of the governor's initiatives, "but not in this way."
"You don't go out there and start breaking laws and start making your citizens feel like second-class citizens," he added.