The influx of thousands of migrants has led to squalor under a bridge, and a dispirited town beyond it.
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Edgar Sandoval and
DEL RIO, Texas — On Friday afternoon, Jose Rodriguez stood near a fence that was steps away from the Rio Grande and tried to comprehend what was happening in his small border city: a steady stream of flashing red and blue lights speeding down a side road, each vehicle bringing heavily armed officers to guard thousands of desperate migrants huddled in a shantytown near and under Del Rio’s international bridge.
There, amid a sea of crushed plastic bottles, old diapers, chicken bones and food containers, some migrants, many of them Haitian refugees, placed cardboard to use as beds. Weary children lay in the arms of their mothers and fathers.
“There was not much to Del Rio before this,” Mr. Rodriguez, a 40-year-old warehouse worker, said. “Now, it feels like the end of the world.”
Del Rio, a bicultural city of 36,000, is used to cross-border traffic, and it benefits from it, with workers and residents going back and forth across the bridge daily. But the masses of humanity that have shocked and dismayed people seeing them on their phones and televisions this past week have been especially straining to the city and people who lie just beyond that bridge.
While most of the migrants who have remained around 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 overwhelmed with cases in recent weeks of migrants who ventured into town, and sometimes private property.
Over the weekend, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed the bridge that connects Del Rio to Mexico, adding another disruption to daily life, with local residents unable to make the cross-border trips for shopping or work or family visits.
All of these tensions have turned the town into a political battleground, with residents protesting the Biden administration, the governor sending state troopers and residents like Mr. Rodriguez lamenting what has happened to his city.
“No one was prepared for this,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We won’t be the same after this is over.”
Thousands of migrants here have been able to enter the country, straining border agents and prompting the state police to barricade the border with their vehicles on Sunday.
The authorities are making an average of 20 to 40 arrests a day, which has overwhelmed the local police and led to overcrowded jails, said Victor Escalon, the Texas Department of Public Safety’s South Texas regional director.
“This town is too poor, we don’t have the resources,” said Robb Jump, 59, who lives steps away from the river that divides the United States from Mexico.
In anticipation of a possible surge that began with migrants fleeing Central America earlier this year, the state of Texas erected a razor wire-topped chain-link fence on one road, Vega Verde, after residents complained that hundreds were crossing into their land. On Saturday, construction workers added barriers not far from where Dave Rosser, 81, lives.
“They built it too late,” said Mr. Rosser, shaking his head, adding that the city is not designed “to deal with a crisis this big.”
Del Rio, which translates in Spanish to From the River, got its name in the 1630s from Spanish missionaries, who anointed it San Felipe del Rio. The full name survived until 1883, after the officials with the post office suggested shortening it to Del Rio to avoid confusion with another town, according to the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce. Today, the city is known for its recreation — bass fishing is popular at nearby Lake Amistad Reservoir, one of the biggest in the state — and nearby Laughlin Air Force Base, the largest pilot training ground in the United States.
Many residents in the city and in the Mexican town of Ciudad Acuña typically travel back and forth over the border every day. Hispanics make up 85 percent of the population. Some residents have dual citizenship or work visas and move between the cities with the same ease that people go to the grocery store.
But many residents were left scrambling on Friday after the ports of entries were shuttered with little notice, a desperate effort by U.S. Border Customs officials to deter migration.
With the border closed, those residents and store owners near the bridge have felt the impact. Some business owners on both sides of the border discovered that employees were stuck on the other side.
Irma G. Rocha, 55, a clerk at a gas station, Border One Stop, a few miles from the bridge, knew something was amiss when she started noticing a line of cars piling up outside.
One by one, frustrated drivers came into the store to buy beers and express their dismay. The unthinkable had happened: The port of entry was sealed, they told her.
“This is something of biblical proportions,” Ms. Rocha said, shaking her head in disbelief. “The bridge never closes. Never. I know people keep saying this, but nothing like this has ever happened here.”
She quickly dialed a daughter who had told her moments earlier that she was running an errand on the Mexican side, hoping to catch her in time.
“You are already there?’ she asked, a tremble in her voice. “Hija, te dije que no fueras. I told you not to go. Now you are stuck, you are stuck for God knows how long.”
Ms. Rocha, who is Mexican-American, said that she and many of her neighbors have mixed feelings about the never-ending migrant saga. Del Rio, after all, has been a way station for migrants for as long as many can remember.
“Many have been our people, Mexican,” she said.
The humanitarian crisis has also divided local residents. On Saturday, a few dozen gathered about a mile from the international bridge to protest against the existence of the migrant encampment, with some shouting, “Impeach Biden!”
“He’s created a humanitarian crisis,” said Elizabeth Stavley, 57, echoing assertions that conservative lawmakers have been making for months. “Right now, I want him to shut the border and ship everyone back to their country of origin.”
The migration spike was not completely unexpected. Like many other border cities, Del Rio had been bracing this year for an impending surge in migrant arrivals.
But even the wildest predictions did not prepare both local and national officials for the humanitarian challenge that spilled out of control in a matter of days. Led by misinformation and rumors that the Biden administration would welcome them, large crowds of migrants began arriving at a site that very quickly grew into a shantytown under the international bridge.
The mayor of Del Rio, Bruno Lozano, a young politician who for months has gained national notoriety for at times fiery rhetoric about the dangers such big numbers pose to the city, went on Facebook Live last week to tell his constituents that their city would overcome this.
The crisis, Mr. Lozano said, is “completely surreal.”
Overall, unauthorized immigration has reached levels not seen in two decades. Last month alone, more than 200,000 migrants crossed the border from Mexico, bringing the total for this fiscal year to about 1.5 million.
More recently, the number of Haitians making their way through the Del Rio region, a desolate 245-mile stretch, has also increased to new heights. That surge began in June, a period that saw more than twice as many Haitians crossing the border illegally compared with the prior month. It is a trend that has not slowed, with Haitians continuing to flee the despair in their native country, according to recent border statistics.
Over the weekend, a few miles from the gas station, the situation under the bridge remained dire. Trash was everywhere, and some migrants created their own makeshift tents out of foliage and children’s blankets, with cheery images of Disney characters and superheroes like Batgirl juxtaposed against the otherwise dreary environment.
Some migrants said they had been given a number that indicated when they would be processed. But only a few have made it past the bridge. Those with a sponsor or a relative living in the United States, often having made the dangerous journey with children, are given temporary permits to remain in the country until an immigration judge can hear their case.
Anouse Sarazin, a 29-year-old Haitian migrant, and her 7-month-old daughter, Ymshy, were among the few who were processed this past week by border authorities. After spending 11 days under the bridge, both sought refuge beneath a sliver of shade as they waited for a bus. Ms. Sarazin has been granted a temporary stay, she said as she watched her daughter play with a plastic bag containing important documents.
Her lips quivered and she was at a loss for words when asked to describe what she experienced. “Bad, very difficult,” said Ms. Sarazin in broken Spanish. “What we need is help. We had to leave. I had to take the chance.”
On Friday, back at the Del Rio International Bridge, a small group of local residents gathered at the American side of the border wall. Comparisons to scenes of disaster movies were inevitable as a constant stream of heavily armed National Guard and state police passed by. With every police vehicle barreling toward the bridge, their sirens blaring, residents stretched their necks to catch a glimpse of the commotion.
Among those watching was Armando Rodriguez, 62, who had earlier gone on Facebook to narrate scenes of what he was seeing, not unlike the news anchors staged not far from him.
Now, he reflected a little more. “All eyes are on us,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Now everybody knows about Del Rio and not for good reason. This is a disaster for our small city.”