The U.S. immigration crisis through the eyes of a border town mayor – WQLN Public Media

Bruno Lozano has broken quite a lot of barriers in Del Rio, Texas: from being the city’s first openly gay official, to its youngest mayor.
While in office, Lozano put this small border town on the map.
He took a stand on immigration by demanding more from his Democratic party at the border. He also brought the first nationally televised drag show to town, which he starred in.
Today, On Point: We sit down with the recent mayor of Del Rio, Texas about his journey into politics and his time in charge of a border town.

Bruno Lozano, mayor of Del Rio, Texas from 2018 to 2022. (@BrunoRalphy)

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The southwestern Texas city of Del Rio sits on the banks of the Rio Grande. It’s a border town and until recently, a relatively quiet one. But from 2007 to 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported only about 20,000 border encounters each year at the Del Rio sector. Border Patrol defines an encounter as an apprehension or determination of inadmissibility of a non-U.S. citizen. And then in 2019, the number of illegal border crossings in Del Rio jumped dramatically to 57,000. In 2021, it was up to 259,000 encounters.
And in 2022, that number stood at 480,000. That’s 14 times Del Rio’s population of roughly 34,500. Now, it’s unclear how many of those 480,000 were the same people trying to cross multiple times. Customs and Border Protection does not track the numbers that way. But no matter how the numbers are tracked, the mayor of Del Rio pleaded with the Biden administration, saying his city was overwhelmed.
BRUNO LOZANO [Tape]: Mr. President, my name is Bruno Lozano, mayor of the city of Del Rio, Texas. And I am pleading and requesting with you to please put a halt to any measures regarding the release of immigrants awaiting court dates into the city of Del Rio and surrounding areas.
CHAKRABARTI: That was the then mayor of Del Rio, Texas, Bruno Lozano. He posted a video online on February 17th, 2021, after a winter storm left more than 11 inches of snow in the area and collapsed Texas’s power grid.
LOZANO [Tape]: If you do send these individuals into our community, we will be forced to make a decision to leave them without resources under these dire circumstances. I am asking you to please stop. Please make another plan for this federal issue. If you’re going to allow these individuals into our community, I respectfully ask that you provide the means and the supplies necessary to accommodate them safely under these extreme circumstances.
CHAKRABARTI: The federal aid did not come and the flow of migrants did not stop. Mayor Lozano posted another video, this one seven months later, September 2021.
LOZANO [Tape]: The Border Patrol right now is so overwhelmed with the influx of migrants in the Del Rio sector, we have about 2,000 to 3,000 at any given moment in detention. These individuals behind me are not in detention. They’re just waiting to get detained to continue their process into the Border Patrol custody.
CHAKRABARTI: Lozano in the video is standing under a bridge leading from Del Rio to Mexico. And behind him are crowds of migrants who Lozano says crossed the Rio Grande illegally and are camping out under the bridge.
LOZANO: You know, this is just something that really needs to be brought to light, that we need quick action from the administration. We need quick attention to this. We need a response in real time. And, you know, a stark warning was delivered back in February when I released the video to the Biden administration. Now, what you’re seeing behind me was a threat then. And here it’s coming in to the worst case scenario of worst case scenario.
CHAKRABARTI: For as long as federal aid did not come. Lozano continued, posting updates and pleading for help from the Biden administration. Tweeting at the president and vice president with aerial photos of the migrants in his city and saying, quote, We need you to visit Del Rio, Texas, and quote, Where is the plan to protect our southern border? Well, President Biden never came to Del Rio in 2021. In fact, his first visit to the border was just earlier this month, on January 8th, 2023, in El Paso, more than 400 miles away from Del Rio. And here’s what the president told reporters that day while at the border.
BIDEN [Tape]: So they need a lot of resources … We’re going to get it for them.
CHAKRABARTI:  Former Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano would be forgiven if he doesn’t buy it. He’d been asking for those resources since 2021 and he’d been asking for them from the head of his own party. Bruno Lozano is a Democrat, and he held his mayoral seat under both President Trump and Biden. His term ended in June of 2022, and today he joins us in the On Point studio. Welcome to the program.
BRUNO LOZANO: Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So when I just played that tape of President Biden in El Paso, I couldn’t help but notice your eyes rolled a little bit.
LOZANO: Thank you for calling me out. Yeah, they did roll. I just feel I mean, I do welcome the president’s visit to the border. I feel like it was needed a lot sooner than later. But I welcome the administration to actually visit the border communities. I think a lot of us border mayors or former border mayors kind of took a better breath. I mean, a breath of fresh air that, okay, it’s finally or at least recognizing that there’s a situation going on, whether they want to call it a crisis or a surge or what have you, it’s irrelevant. There is something going on at the border.
CHAKRABARTI: Tell us in more detail then what is going on. Describe to me, what did things look like in, you know, that period of of 2021 where you saw this like 14 fold increase in the amount of border encounters that were happening in the Del Rio sector. What did it look like?
LOZANO: Honestly it looked like a little war zone. It looked like there was an invasion of of of of people coming in. And I know that that’s a very sensitive topic and word and language. But I mean, there’s no other way to describe the thousands that were coming hourly into Texas into the city of Del Rio. You know it was just something that is just profound, unprecedented. And it’s embedded forever. The faces, the people, the bathing in the river, the micro economy that was established with people purchasing food in Mexico and selling it under the bridge. I mean, you saw everything. People were having babies under the bridge. I mean, it’s something that I witnessed myself.
CHAKRABARTI: Tell me more about about this bridge, because I described it a little earlier. It leads from Del Rio into the the almost like the sister town in Mexico across the border, whose name I’ve forgotten.
LOZANO: It’s an international bridge. And we’re one of the unique border communities where Del Rio is actually inland about three miles. So the bridge is kind of outside. It’s not outside the city limits. It’s our bridge, but there’s a lot of land, you know, you see a lot of border towns. I think the border towns kind of hug the river or hug the border like Tijuana, San Diego, El Paso, Juarez. Whereas Del Rio doesn’t really necessarily hug. Our downtowns are not connected that way. So the bridge is kind of like semi wilderness, semi-natural and the city owns and operates the international bridge. That’s actually our property.
And CBP, DHS only processes and owns the the inbound area where you go through border protection like, you know, we we go through customs basically. And under the bridge it’s like. How can I describe it? There’s nothing there. I mean, there’s nothing there to provide anybody. It’s just a staging area. And how it got to be a staging area now, as you saw in September and even beforehand, is that people cross the river and there’s nowhere for them to wait.
So … it’s got shade. It’s a shelter, you know, for whatever reason from inclement weather. So that’s kind of like why the Border Patrol was just kind of like saying go that way, go that way. And then they pick them up whenever they have enough patrolmen to go and detain them.
CHAKRABARTI: So I want to get a clear picture as possible because, I mean, like this incredible surge and where people like actually physically crossing the river, where they coming over the bridge. I mean, how were they coming into the river?
LOZANO: There was no pedestrian traffic on that bridge. It was all coming across the river. And so there’s a little there’s a little a tiny little dam. … And it’s actually very dangerous. And if you look at the image,  you see the individuals crossing and it’s very shallow where they’re walking. But if they were to fall to their right, where the water is over that dam, the water sucks you under and people have drowned. I mean, I remember growing up, that was like nobody did that because you would drown if you fell into that water. But I mean, there was a whole line. I mean, there was thousands of people crossing out. It was something I had never, ever I never saw. I never imagine that happening.
CHAKRABARTI: Thousands of people, hourly.
LOZANO: Thousands of people. And at the peak.
CHAKRABARTI: Where were they expected to go?
LOZANO: That’s a great question. We don’t know where they were going to go. And leading up to that, I mean, let’s go back a couple of months and a couple of years. So the crisis actually initially started under the Trump administration. I appreciate you talking about the fact that I was under both presidencies. Right. The Trump administration. I feel, you know, initially they didn’t react either. I remember talking to some of the, you know, elected officials during that administration and even Governor Abbott and a lot of the emergency responses in Texas, you know, because we were seeing people who were sick, you know, we didn’t know what kind of diseases they had. And we were just trying to provide some health resources and trying to reach out to Texas resources for these individuals.
… And of course, the Trump administration wasn’t going to send anything at the time either. But then COVID happened. So Title 42 took into effect. That was 100%. You know, nobody allowed, nobody in which really gave border communities a chance to breathe. And just catch up and like, you know, during that time, that’s when the campaigning started that, you know, immigration reform, we’re going to do this, trying to do that, you know, border protection,  and immigration became even that much more polarized with the former president trying to build a wall.
And this administration, you know, trying to welcome people for asylum, you know, there’s all these different political rhetoric. But physically at the border, Border patrol stations systemwide were already backlogged since 2019. And these facilities were built because prior to the last five years, I mean, the border crosser was a single male.
LOZANO: And so these facilities are built to manage men that are by themselves, you know, in processing cells right now. Now, they’re families. And they’re large families and diverse families. So the facilities themselves do not have the capacity to to process individuals fast enough. That’s just the physical property itself.
We also do not have enough manpower to process the influx of what we’ve witnessed in the last two years. I mean, five 5 million people have crossed the border. If you add up both years, I mean, that’s the size of Houston, Texas. Basically imagine that processing power that’s needed for the magistrate judge as the CBP, the Border Patrol, ICE, all these different, you know, entities under the DHS, there’s just not enough manpower.
CHAKRABARTI: Before the break, you were describing, you know, not just the acute problem of immigration at the southern border over the past year, but sort of the history that led up to especially ,2021 and 2022. Why does that matter? And in particular.
LOZANO: The crisis that we saw in September of 2021 was the worst-case scenario of all worst-case scenarios. But what people forget, I think, is that the Border Patrol has been backlogged, just overwhelmed with the numbers of crossers for the last five years. I mean, that’s just the way it’s been. I mean, there’s just not enough processing power, whether it’s actual physical location or the personnel that’s needed to facilitate the processing itself.
And I say processing, it’s a very specific set of things that happens when a crosser comes, they get detained by Border Patrol. And so once they’re in detention, they go to these facilities, you know, at the Border Patrol station, if you will, and that’s where they’re given the documentation to continue their journey in the United States. But once they have that documentation, which the public would, depending on which side you’re on on the political spectrum, they have a legal reason to be here now. So they’re no longer illegal.
But there’s different types of statuses for individuals that never get processed because they never got detained and they don’t have documentation, so they are undocumented. Then you have the ones that are documented, just like the ones that get released. And so there’s all this different language and rhetoric that’s going out there. But the problem, at the end of the day, is immigration reform.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, so I also wanted to ask you about many of the people that were literally crossing the river, as you described when the numbers started rising in the Del Rio sector were Haitian.
LOZANO: During that event, sure.
CHAKRABARTI: Has that subsided since then in Del Rio? I mean, what’s the situation like now?
LOZANO: There are waves of different groups of people. So remember back in 2019, it was as President Trump then put it, the Mexican Triangle. Remember the three. So it was El Salvadorians, Guatemalans and or Nicaraguans. They crossed, you know, in large numbers. And then it was Venezuelans, and then it was the Congolese. And then it was, you know, the Colombians. And then in 2021, with the Haitians. And so there’s different waves of groups of people that cross. I don’t understand completely like how that actually happens, how like just a large number of a certain particular group of people from a certain nationality come. But that’s just how it’s been.
CHAKRABARTI: But and so the crossings are still higher than they were, say, ten years ago. What impact has this had on Del Rio, on your community, on your constituents?
LOZANO: Initially, when we started to see individuals, you know, when Border Patrol had just released individuals into the city limits, I mean, it’s like you’re getting forced homeless individuals. I mean, there’s nowhere for them to go. You know, we don’t have a homeless shelter in Del Rio, Texas. And at the time in 2019, we didn’t have a nonprofit that would even help facilitate, like getting them access to a phone or shelter or new clothes or anything.
So we had to like as a council, we had to figure that out. And a nonprofit, bless their hearts, you know, they came out of nowhere and sort of saying, hey, we’ll help process individuals. We got that going. But I mean, people were just walking the streets aimlessly, nowhere to go, trying to figure out how to get access to a phone so they can buy their bus ticket or buy their flight. And then we’ve kind of become desensitized to it, so to speak. I mean, it’s kind of like we know it’s happening in our backyard and, you know, now it’s streamlined to where the Border Patrol just drops them off.
They’re at the nonprofit location at the Val Verde Humanitarian Border Coalition. And, you know, sometimes you’ll see them walking on the streets and sometimes you won’t. Where the bus picks up individuals to take them to San Antonio on the Greyhound, that property which is a convenience store. They’re so tired of it that they actually won’t even let the individual stay inside the building anymore.
They’re like now buy your taco … buy your drink, buy your soda, whatever. But you had to wait outside because what’s happening is that they just sit there for hours waiting for the bus. And so like regular people that are trying to use the facility, like you and I, you know, buying gas or whatever and eat our taco, there’s no space, you know, because it’s just migrants waiting.
CHAKRABARTI: When you were mayor and again, your term ended last summer, what did your constituents want you to do, or what did they want from the Biden administration?
LOZANO: Great, great question. So 90% … know that this is not a city of Del Rio issue. They understand completely it’s a federal issue. And so they just wanted to at least recognize that there’s a crisis happening right now in real time. And when the numbers doubled as quickly as they did, we had local restaurants make burritos and taquitos for them to feed them because we knew that the Border Patrol did not have the food available for them, you know, So people were very willing to, like, help out the situation because this is extreme circumstances.
But they know that day we wanted our Border Patrol men and women to be supported by this administration. People forget that Border Patrol men and women live in the communities that they’re serving. I mean, my brother is a Border Patrol guy. I mean, it’s like and they have children. They have needs. And they were being worked, you know, overtime hours like never before. And so my community just wanted to get additional resources at the end of the day.
CHAKRABARTI: And the resources being?
LOZANO: More manpower, larger facilities, the magistrates to actually like, you know, get the individuals, you know, with their court dates and everything. I mean, there’s just an endless amount of resources that are needed, you know, just food, water, shelter, everything, you name it. That’s what these facilities need.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So we’re going to talk more about sort of you and your journey in politics in just a second. But you made a really good point earlier about sort of how immigration is talked about in this country and that a very complex issue tends to get flattened. In the national conversation. And I was thinking about this the other day because it seems like we’ve reached a point in the United States where when we talk about border crossings on the southern border especially, it’s like, well, if you’re watching right wing media, the phrase is constantly, well, there’s just an open border.
The Biden administration has open border policies. If you’re watching, I guess, left wing or progressive media, the talk is, Well, Donald Trump … did stop most immigration as well. So just wants to be nativist and close America down. I mean, let me just ask you, from what you saw every day during your time as mayor, how would you describe what the border is? Is it an open border?
LOZANO: It’s a closed border, right? There’s supposed to be processes in place where you go to an actual border facility, an actual customs facility. So you have land crossings, right? You have all the legal points of entry. You also have airport crossings, which are, you know, the big airports that have customs, you have seaports. So you have a lot of access and a lot of points to legal crossings. However, most migrants that are trying to come into the United States right now are not using those access points because what they’re seeing or what they’re being told back home is like, oh, we’ll just cross unlawfully.
And then it’s like you kind of like cut the line, you know? … You have people like my classmates that are, you know, … we’re turning 40 this year. And some of them are just now getting their citizenship. You know, they went through the legal, lawful process and they paid thousands of dollars. And they’re extremely livid at this administration because a lot of these individuals, we understand that they’re not getting their legal status right away or they’re not getting American citizenship right away.
But it’s like they get to cut the line, so to speak. And it’s like, wait, well, what about me? I did it the right way. Is that the right way? Is that the wrong way? I think what needs to happen at the end of the day is immigration reform. Like, what process can we simplify and what locations can we open up to alleviate the impact that border communities are getting every single day by this influx of migrant mentality that’s like, well, let’s just cross illegally. It’s dangerous. It’s not safe for anybody involved.
You know, we don’t want you to drown. We don’t want our Border Patrol men and women to have to risk their lives either. We want dignified, humane treatment of individuals coming into United States to live this American dream right now. Also, case in point, it’s like you have two different sides of the same coin. It’s the same coin. It’s immigration. And it’s being shared in two different perspectives and points of view. But furthermore, I feel like there’s there’s this romanticized utopian dream from and I’m going to just say urban Democrats, you know, they oh, we want to welcome everybody. We have resources, everything.
You guys have a lot of resources in big cities, Boston, New York, Chicago. There’s a lot of stuff available that you can provide the public. You know, you have homeless shelters, you have programs, you know, but the smaller communities like Del Rio … we don’t have that. It’s just does not exist. We don’t have homeless shelters. You know, we don’t have this utopian like, you know, we can give funding for everybody. Our budgets are very limited and very finite.
And just like any sensible budget is, and I feel like it’s a romanticized ideology that like, you know, we want to welcome as many people as we can. Well, so do we. But we have to do it lawfully or at least reform the processes to make it simpler, to get citizenship so that you can continue to pay into the tax system that you’re trying to find. And I think that the Republican side of things has kind of just demonized the individual that’s crossing because they know that trigger words like illegal, unlawful, are very powerful and very impactful.
And the regular average Joe is like, oh, well, that’s illegal, that’s unlawful. You know, let’s categorize them as rapists, as murderers or whatever, because that’s the kind of grouping. But the only crime that’s being committed is just the way that it’s constructed. It’s a civil penalty. It’s not like, yeah, they’re not murdering anybody. You know, this is the duality that’s happening right now in real time.
CHAKRABARTI: And it’s not helping places like Del Rio. And you’re saying all this as a Democrat, right? Okay. We’re going to come back to that in a second. But so let’s put a pause on the question of immigration, because you yourself have a fantastic story about how you entered politics. You’re born in Del Rio. Okay. So tell me what it was like growing up there.
LOZANO: Traditional.
CHAKRABARTI: Meaning what?
LOZANO: I’m also a queer guy, first openly gay elected official in Del Rio, Texas. So growing up, you know, you have this mindful mentality with like, you know, what a guy is supposed to be like. And then here I am, you know, like the most feminine guy around, like I didn’t even do sports or anything like that.
Anyway, my cousins used to tease me all the time. They’re like, Oh, yeah, You know, he doesn’t play outside with the boys. He’s in there with the girls playing house. … I love Del Rio. I love my hometown. You know, I got picked on. I got bullied. But, you know, I felt like I grew up, you know, with a very strong, tight family. We’re very close. … It’s a very, very predominantly Hispanic Tejano community.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And how long has your family been in the Del Rio area?
LOZANO: So my dad’s side was fifth generation Texan Tejano. … My mom … she’s first generation. … They were born right across the river.
CHAKRABARTI: Do you mind if I ask, I mean, do you have a coming out story to your family?
LOZANO: I mean, I came out three times. Because my mom, when I told her when I was 15, she didn’t talk to me for three days. She insists she did. And I was like, No, mom, you’re ignoring me for three days. And then. Long story short, they ended up telling my dad. I didn’t realize that. So then my dad came home one day, tore up my car, totaled it because they told them.
Long story short, I didn’t know that what was going on. I ran away from home, came back three days later, and my mom was like, Go tell your dad. And I did. And then my dad ended up telling me. Well, it’s a very challenging and hard life. What I didn’t realize is that a couple of his cousins had actually died due to LGBT issues. One was a trans woman that committed suicide and then the other had HIV and passed away. So my dad was very close to his cousins and he just didn’t want me to have that kind of difficult life. So it’s not that he didn’t accept me. He just didn’t want the hardships.
CHAKRABARTI: He wanted to protect you from the hardships that he saw his family members go through.
LOZANO: That’s a very short version of a very long process.
CHAKRABARTI: You said that one of your brothers works for Border Patrol.
LOZANO: Elder brother.
CHAKRABARTI: And so he’s actually out there, like, helping?
LOZANO: He used to be. I think now he’s like in a back office job or something. I tease him, because his name is also Bruno Lozano. And so, like, his Facebook is like, not the mayor. I went to an awards ceremony for the Border Patrol. They were honoring my responses to the crisis. And then my brother was actually recognized there, too. At that same function. And they were like, Mayor, go up and get your award. I’m like, That’s my brother. That’s your coworker. That’s not me. So yeah, I have an older sister and them I have my younger brother. So there’s four of us. The older two are half. They have different fathers.
CHAKRABARTI: So when did you decide to jump into politics?
LOZANO: That’s a great question. So I have always loved my community and I love Del Rio. I’m a big Del Rio guy. And I would volunteer throughout my life, you know, cleaning up the creek. We have a creek that needs a lot of love. It’s the vein and artery of our community, gives us our water and, you know, do trash cleanups, things like that. And then I would be involved in local nonprofits.
… I was not anywhere near like being the class president during high school. But like, somehow I got suckered into like being the president of our reunions, I had a 15-year reunion. And after that my classmates were like, You organized this. This was brilliant. You should run for mayor. And I’m like, guys, like running a class reunion. You know, 15-year reunion is not the same as running a city. But my classmates just saw something that I still to this day, I’m like, people ask me like, why do you do it? Why you do it? And I’m like, I just do me.
I’m just doing what I want to do. Like, you know, living the way that I want to live and being the person, an elected official should be. So they kind of like planted that seed. But even before then, I work at a small airline at the time, and I would visit these small municipalities and I wanted to bring these ideas back to Del Rio. And so I campaigned on economic development, infrastructure and accountability. And that’s how I started the campaign trail in February of 2018.
And that’s when the incumbent, I’ll just kind of share that little story. The incumbent was too busy focused on my queerness and was like sharing my Speedo high heel tutu picture from many Prides ago. But I wasn’t focused on my sexuality. I was focused on the city. And so I had already uploaded my political campaign on my Facebook page. And so, like, for every time he’d share the photos, I got more likes and interest, and people were like, it kind of helped me. It was like free advertising. Thank you, sir, for being such a punk, you know? … I walked the walk; I went to community events and 62% of the vote.
CHAKRABARTI: Because so you anticipated my question about being a gay man, was it an issue in the campaign? But it sounds like it wasn’t an issue amongst the voters.
LOZANO: No. I mean, it’s like, okay, this guy so focused on my sexuality and I’m not.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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