Residents of Del Rio Feel the Migrant Crisis's Impact.
Thousands of refugees have resulted in squalor beneath a bridge and a depressed town beyond.
On Friday afternoon, Jose Rodriguez stood near a fence steps from the Rio Grande, attempting to make sense of what was happening in his small border city: a steady stream of flashing red and blue lights speeding down a side road, each vehicle carrying heavily armed officers to guard thousands of desperate migrants huddled in a shantytown near and beneath Del Rio's international bridge.
Among a sea of smashed plastic bottles, discarded diapers, chicken bones, and food containers, some migrants, the majority of whom are Haitian refugees, put cardboard to serve as beds. Weary youngsters lay in their mothers' and fathers' arms.
“Before this, there wasn't much to Del Rio,” Mr. Rodriguez, a 40-year-old warehouse worker, explained. “At the moment, it feels as though the world is coming to an end.”
Del Rio, a bicultural community of 36,000, is accustomed to and benefits from cross-border activity, with employees and residents crossing the bridge everyday. However, the throngs of humanity that have startled and upset anyone watching them on their phones and televisions over the last week have been particularly taxing on the city and the people who live just beyond that bridge.
While the majority of migrants who remained near the bridge have been transferred to other border locations for processing or are being flown back to Haiti on deportation flights that began on Sunday, local police and jails have been swamped with cases of migrants venturing into town and sometimes onto private property in recent weeks.
The United States Customs and Border Protection blocked the bridge connecting Del Rio to Mexico over the weekend, causing additional disturbance to daily life by preventing local residents from making cross-border trips for shopping, work, or family visits.
All of these tensions have transformed the town into a battleground for politics, with locals opposing the Biden administration, the governor dispatching state troopers, and residents like Mr. Rodriguez mourning the status of their city.
“No one anticipated this,” Mr. Rodriguez explained. “We will never be the same after this.”
Thousands of migrants have been able to enter the country, placing a burden on border agents and causing state police to obstruct the border on Sunday with their cars.
Authorities are making an average of 20 to 40 arrests each day, which has overburdened local police and resulted in overcrowded jails, according to Victor Escalon, regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety for South Texas.
“This town is just too impoverished; we lack the necessary resources,” said Robb Jump, 59, who lives steps from the river that separates the United States and Mexico.
In anticipation of a probable surge, which began earlier this year with migrants leaving Central America, the state of Texas erected a razor wire-topped chain-link fence on one route, Vega Verde, after residents complained about hundreds of migrants entering their land. On Saturday, construction workers placed barricades near Dave Rosser's 81-year-old home.
“They constructed it too late,” Mr. Rosser observed, adding that the city was not designed to handle a crisis of this magnitude.
Del Rio, which translates as From the River in Spanish, received its name in the 1630s from Spanish missionaries who anointed the area San Felipe del Rio. According to the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce, the entire name remained in use until 1883, when post office authorities proposed cutting it to Del Rio to avoid confusion with another town. Today, the community is recognized for its recreation — bass fishing is popular at adjacent Lake Amistad Reservoir, one of the largest in the state — and Laughlin Air Force Base, the world's largest pilot training station.
Many people of the city and the Mexican town of Ciudad Acua commute daily across the border. Hispanics constitute 85% of the population. Some residents hold dual citizenship or work permits and commute across cities as easily as they do to the grocery store.
However, many people were left scrambling on Friday when ports of entry were abruptly closed in an attempt by US Border Customs authorities to dissuade migration.
Residents and business owners living near the bridge have felt the impact of the border closure. On both sides of the border, some business owners learned that their staff were trapped.
Irma G. Rocha, 55, a clerk at a Border One Stop gas station a few miles from the bridge, noticed something was wrong when she noticed a line of cars forming outside.
Drivers walked into the store one by one, purchasing drinks and expressing their dismay. They informed her that the impossible had occurred: the port of entry had been sealed.
“This is biblical proportions,” Ms. Rocha exclaimed as she shook her head in astonishment. “The bridge is perpetually open. Never. I'm aware that this is frequently stated, but nothing comparable has ever occurred here.”
She contacted a daughter who had just informed her she was running an errand on the Mexican side, hoping to catch her in time.
“Are you already there?” she inquired, her voice trembling. “Te dije que no fueras, hija. I warned you not to leave. Now you're stuck, and you're stuck for an eternity.”
Ms. Rocha, a Mexican-American, expressed conflicting feelings about the never-ending migrant tale, as do many of her neighbors. After all, Del Rio has served as a transit point for migrants for as long as people can recall. “Many have been of our Mexican ancestors,” she explained.
Local residents have also been divided by the humanitarian catastrophe. On Saturday, a few dozen people gathered approximately a mile from the international bridge to protest the encampment's existence, with some yelling, "Impeach Biden!"
“He has precipitated a humanitarian crisis,” Elizabeth Stavley, 57, stated, echoing statements made by conservative legislators for months. “Right now, I want him to close the border and repatriate everyone.”
The surge in migration was not entirely unexpected. Del Rio, like many other border cities, had been prepared for an imminent rise in migrant arrivals this year.
However, even the wildest expectations could not have prepared local and national officials for the humanitarian crisis that erupted in a matter of days. Large groups of migrants began arriving at a site that quickly expanded into a shantytown beneath the international bridge, fueled by misinformation and claims that the Biden administration would welcome them.
Bruno Lozano, the mayor of Del Rio, a young politician who has received national attention in recent months for his occasionally angry comments about the threats such large numbers bring to the city, went on Facebook Live last week to assure his constituents that their community would overcome this.
Mr. Lozano described the incident as "absolutely bizarre."
Unauthorized immigration has increased to levels not seen in more than two decades. Over 200,000 migrants crossed the border from Mexico last month alone, pushing the total for this fiscal year to around 1.5 million.
Recent years have seen an upsurge in the number of Haitians passing through the Del Rio region, a lonely 245-mile length. This surge began in June, when Haitians crossed the border illegally at a rate more than double that of the previous month. It is a trend that has not abated, with Haitians continuing to flee the country's hopelessness, as latest border figures indicate.
The situation beneath the bridge remained terrible over the weekend, just a few miles from the service station. Trash was strewn about, and some refugees constructed temporary tents from greenery and children's blankets, with bright depictions of Disney characters and superheroes such as Batgirl contrasting against the otherwise desolate surroundings.
According to some migrants, they were given a number indicating when they would be processed. However, only a select handful have made it across the bridge. Those who have a sponsor or a relative in the United States, and who frequently make the perilous voyage with children, are granted temporary visas to remain in the nation while their case is heard by an immigration judge.
Anouse Sarazin, 29, a Haitian migrant, and her seven-month-old daughter, Ymshy, were among the handful processed by border authorities this week. Both found refuge beneath a sliver of shade as they waited for a bus after spending 11 days beneath the bridge. Ms. Sarazin was awarded a temporary residence, she explained as she watched her daughter play with a small bag containing vital paperwork.
When asked to describe her experience, her lips quivered and she was at a loss for words. “Difficult, extremely difficult,” Ms. Sarazin stated in shaky Spanish. “What we require is assistance. We were compelled to depart. I felt compelled to take a chance.”
On Friday, a small group of local residents gathered on the American side of the border wall, back at the Del Rio International Bridge. As a continual stream of heavily armed National Guard and state police went past, comparisons to disaster film scenes were obvious. Residents extended their necks to catch a view of the disturbance as each police vehicle barreled toward the bridge, sirens blaring.
Among those onlookers was Armando Rodriguez, 62, who had earlier used Facebook to narrate scenes of what he was seeing, much like the TV anchors staging scenes nearby.
He paused for a moment longer now. “Everyone is watching us,” Mr. Rodriguez stated. “Nowaday, everyone is aware of Del Rio, and not for the best of reasons. This is an embarrassment for our small town.”