DEL RIO, Texas – On Friday afternoon, Jose Rodriguez stood near a fence just steps from the Rio Grande trying to understand what was going on in his small frontier town: a steady stream of blinking red and blue lights sped one on Down side street, each vehicle brought heavily armed officers to guard thousands of desperate migrants huddled in a slum near and under the Del Rio International Bridge.
There, in the midst of a sea of ââcrushed plastic bottles, old diapers, chicken bones and food containers, some migrants, including many Haitian refugees, laid cardboard boxes for beds. Tired children lay in the arms of their mothers and fathers.
“Before that, Del Rio didn’t have much to offer,” said Mr. Rodriguez, a 40-year-old warehouse worker. “Now it feels like the end of the world.”
Del Rio, a bicultural city of 36,000 residents, is used to cross-border traffic and benefits from it as workers and residents walk back and forth across the bridge every day. But the masses of humanity who have shocked and dismayed people for the past week when they saw them on their phones and televisions have particularly strained the city and the people just behind that bridge.
While most of the migrants who stayed around the bridge have been transferred to other border locations for processing or flown back to Haiti on deportation flights that started on Sunday, the local police and prisons have been inundated with migrant cases in recent weeks ventured into town, and sometimes privately.
At the weekend, the US Customs and Border Protection closed the bridge that connects Del Rio with Mexico, which also disrupted daily life as residents could not take the cross-border trips to shop or to visit work or family.
All of these tensions have turned the city into a political battlefield, with residents protesting against the Biden government, the governor dispatching state soldiers, and residents like Mr Rodriguez lamenting what happened to his city.
“Nobody was prepared,” said Mr. Rodriguez. “We won’t be the same when this is over.”
Thousands of migrants were able to enter the country here, strained border officials and caused the state police to barricade the border with their vehicles on Sunday.
Authorities make an average of 20 to 40 arrests a day, which has overwhelmed local police and has led to overcrowded prisons, said Victor Escalon, the regional director of the South Texas Department of Public Safety in Texas.
“This city is too poor, we don’t have the resources,” said Robb Jump, 59, who lives a few steps from the river that separates 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 barbed wire chain link fence on a road, Vega Verde, after residents complained that hundreds were coming to their country. On Saturday construction workers installed barriers near 81-year-old Dave Rosser.
âThey built it too late,â said Rosser, shaking his head and adding that the city was not designed to âdeal with such a major crisisâ.
Del Rio, which translates to From the River in Spanish, got its name in the 1630s from Spanish missionaries who anointed it to San Felipe del Rio. The full name survived until 1883 after Post officials suggested shortening it to Del Rio to avoid confusion with any other city, according to the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce. Today, the city is known for its recreation – perch fishing is popular at nearby Lake Amistad Reservoir, one of the state’s largest – and near Laughlin Air Force Base, the largest pilot training area in the United States.
Many residents of the city and the Mexican town of Ciudad AcuÃ±a usually travel back and forth across the border on a daily basis. Hispanics make up 85 percent of the population. Some residents have dual citizenship or work visas and move between cities with the same ease that people go to the grocery store.
But many residents had to crawl around Friday after ports of entry closed without notice, in a desperate attempt by U.S. border customs officials to deter migration.
With the border closed, residents and shopkeepers near the bridge have felt the effects. Some business owners on both sides of the border found employees stuck on the other side.
Irma G. Rocha, 55, an employee at a gas station, Border One Stop, a few miles from the bridge, knew something was wrong when she noticed cars piling up outside.
Little by little, frustrated drivers came into the shop to buy beer and express their dismay. The unthinkable happened: the entry point was sealed, they told her.
âIt’s biblical,â said Ms. Rocha, shaking her head in disbelief. âThe bridge never closes. Never. I know people keep saying that, but nothing like this has ever happened here. “
She quickly called a daughter who had recently told her she was running an errand on the Mexican side in hopes of catching her in time.
“You are already there?’ she asked with a tremor in her voice. “Hija, te dije que no fueras. I told you not to go Now you’re stuck, you’re stuck, God knows how long. “
Ms. Rocha, a Mexican American, said she and many of her neighbors have mixed feelings about the never-ending migrant saga. After all, Del Rio has been a stopover for migrants for as long as many can remember.
“Many were our people, Mexicans,” 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 the existence of the migrant camp, with some shouting, “Impeach Biden!”
The assassination of the President of Haiti
“He created a humanitarian crisis,” said Elizabeth Stavley, 57, reiterating claims conservative lawmakers have been making for months. “Right now I want him to close the border and send everyone back to their country of origin.”
The peak of migration was not entirely unexpected. Like many other border towns, Del Rio had been preparing for an impending surge in migrant arrivals this year.
But even the wildest predictions did not prepare local and national officials for the humanitarian challenge that spiraled out of control in a matter of days. Led by misinformation and rumors that the Biden government would welcome them, large numbers of migrants arrived at what very quickly turned into a shanty town under the international bridge.
The Mayor of Del Rio, Bruno Lozano, a young politician who has become known nationwide for months for his sometimes fiery rhetoric about the dangers that such a large number poses for the city, told his voters last week on Facebook Live, that their city would overcome this.
The crisis, Lozano said, was “completely surreal”.
Overall, illicit immigration has reached levels not seen in two decades. In the past month alone, more than 200,000 migrants crossed the border from Mexico, bringing the total for this fiscal year to around 1.5 million.
Recently, the number of Haitians hiking through the Del Rio region, a desolate 245-mile stretch, has also reached new heights. That surge began in June, a time when more than twice as many Haitians crossed the border illegally as in the previous month. It’s a trend that hasn’t slowed as Haitians continue to flee the desperation in their homeland, so current limit statistics.
At the weekend, the situation under the bridge a few kilometers from the gas station remained bleak. Trash was everywhere, and some migrants built their own makeshift tents out of leaves and kids’ blankets, with cheerful images of Disney characters and superheroes like Batgirl juxtaposed with the otherwise drab surroundings.
Some migrants said they were given a number indicating when they would be processed. But only a few made it over the bridge. Individuals with a sponsor or relative who reside in the United States and have often made the dangerous journeys with children will be granted temporary residence 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 by the border authorities in the past week. After spending eleven days under the bridge, they both sought shelter in a shadow while they waited for a bus. Ms. Sarazin was granted temporary residence, she said as she watched her daughter play with a plastic bag containing important documents.
Her lips trembled and she was speechless when asked what she had experienced. âBad, very difficult,â said Ms. Sarazin in broken Spanish. âWhat we need is help. We had to go. I had to take the chance. “
On Friday, back at the Del Rio International Bridge, a small group of residents gathered on the American side of the border wall. Comparisons with scenes from disaster films were inevitable as a steady stream of heavily armed National Guard and State Police passed by. As each police vehicle raced toward the bridge with wailing sirens, residents craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the commotion.
Among the viewers was Armando Rodriguez, 62, who had previously gone to Facebook to recount scenes of what he saw, similar to the news anchors staged not far from him.
Now he thought a little more. “All eyes are on us,” said Mr. Rodriguez. âNow everyone knows about Del Rio, and not for good reason. This is a disaster for our small town. “