© Reuters. A participant of ‘Take Back Our Border’ rally against migrants crossing from Mexico, rides a motorcycle before the event starts at Cornerstone Children’s Ranch in Quemado, Texas, U.S., February 2, 2024. REUTERS/Go Nakamura
By Ted Hesson and Maria Alejandra Cardona
QUEMADO, Texas (Reuters) -Hundreds of protesters from around the country flocked to a small Texas border town on Saturday to vent frustration over illegal immigration and show support for former President Donald Trump, who loomed large on T-shirts, banners and signs.
The “Take Our Border Back” protest began with a vehicle convoy from Virginia that rolled into a ranch in the remote town of Quemado on Friday night to a soundtrack of honking horns and cheers.
While participants stressed the peaceful nature of the event, critics warn it could feed into anti-immigrant sentiment.
U.S. border officials in recent days moved migrants out of a processing center in nearby Eagle Pass after the FBI identified a threat to the facility and officers, two sources familiar with the matter said, requesting anonymity to discuss internal information.
“Any threat like that is a significant concern,” a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official told Reuters.
The agency was able to relocate the migrants with relative ease since border apprehensions have fallen sharply in the area over the past month, the official said.
The FBI declined to comment, referring the matter to CBP.
Immigration has become a potent political issue in an election year likely to see a rematch between Trump, a Republican, and his Democratic successor, President Joe Biden.
Trump has motivated his base voters with calls for more restrictive border practices, while critics worry such policies and events like the convoy could stoke tensions.
Eagle Pass has achieved national prominence in recent months as Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott has clashed with Biden over the state’s aggressive tactics to deter crossers, including troops, concertina wire and a floating buoy barrier in the Rio Grande.
Abbott and 14 other Republican governors plan to hold a press conference in Eagle Pass on Sunday to defend the approach.
Reuters witnesses saw small groups of migrants on Friday and Saturday who crossed the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass trapped by concertina wire on the riverbank as they waited for help.
Anna Gabriela Derbez, a 56-year-old Eagle Pass resident at the border event, said immigration was one of several issues – including COVID-19 vaccines, artificial intelligence and LGBTQ education – that were part of “a fight of good versus evil.”
“We’re for immigration,” said Derbez, whose grandparents came to the U.S. from Mexico. “Legal immigration, you know, good immigration, people that are coming and want to work and better a place.”
Rob Brace, a 79-year-old retired podiatrist, rode his motorcycle alone eight hours from McAllen, Texas, to greet the convoy, saying he felt compelled to come as migrant crossings rose in recent years.
“People just seem to ignore the fact that our country is in a very bad situation,” he said.
Smaller events were planned in Yuma, Arizona, and San Ysidro, California.
U.S. Representative Keith Self, a conservative Republican who represents a district in northeast Texas, plans to speak at Saturday’s rally. Whether other lawmakers or national figures might appear remained unclear.
Conservative personalities Sarah Palin, a former Republican vice presidential candidate, and Ted Nugent, a rock musician and outspoken gun rights proponent, joined the protest on Thursday as the convoy overnighted further north in Dripping Springs, Texas.
While some at Thursday’s event spoke of religious values, Nugent called Biden a “devil-scum snake” in a caustic speech before performing the U.S. national anthem on guitar.
The event’s religious theme overlapped with the political message as Christian rock musicians performed before rows of attendees on camping chairs. With music playing, a young woman in wearing an American flag T-shirt was baptized to the side of the stage in a metal tub.
On Friday, Minnesota-based pastor Doug Pagitt tried to enter the rally site after stopping in the area as part of a tour to combat what he calls “Christian nationalism,” but was denied entry as participants told him “you’re not wanted.”
“We want to engage,” Pagitt said afterward.
The number of migrants arrested trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has climbed to record highs since Biden took office in 2021. Migrant arrests have dropped off in the past month after a spike in December.
Internal CBP statistics reviewed by Reuters showed 216 migrant arrests on Tuesday across the entire Del Rio Sector, which covers a 245-mile (400-km) stretch of the Rio Grande and encompasses Eagle Pass. In mid-December, that figure at times topped 4,000 per day, internal figures show.
U.S. officials have cautioned the slowdown could be seasonal although the Mexican government also increased enforcement.