DJ In Overwhelmed Del Rio, Texas, Migrants Cross the Border Freely -- Update
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By Alicia A. Caldwell | Photographs by Christopher Lee for The Wall Street Journal
DEL RIO, Texas and CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico -- Jorge Rios stood watch at his family's property on the Mexican side of the border between these two cities Saturday while a stream of migrants trudged back-and-forth across the Rio Grande. Many held boxes or bags above their heads as they waded through the murky, thigh-high water. Some carried frightened-looking children.
"It's like a road. Just people, people, people," said Mr. Rios, 28.
Close to 13,000 migrants, many originally from Haiti, are now in Del Rio, according to officials in the area, overwhelming the resources of local, state and federal authorities. They have formed a makeshift camp under a bridge while they wait to be processed, with a fence on one side and the Rio Grande on the other.
All entered the U.S. illegally and are expected to try to claim asylum in the U.S. Depending on their circumstances, some will be returned to their native countries before they can apply. Others will be allowed to await the results of their asylum claims in the U.S., a process that can take years due to court backlogs.
On Sunday, the first flights removing some from this new wave of migrants departed Texas for Haiti, said Lewis G. Owens, the top elected official in Val Verde County, which includes Del Rio. Federal authorities told him they will give priority to deporting single adults, he said, and are still figuring out how to handle families.
Mr. Owens said Texas Department of Public Safety officers had deterred more migrants from entering the U.S. near the bridge Sunday but that he had received reports of others crossing the Rio Grande at nearby locations.
Border Patrol Chief Raul L. Ortiz said at a press conference Sunday there were 12,662 migrants under the bridge and none had entered Del Rio overnight.
"That is certainly very optimistic and promising. It's something that is going to get us to a point where we can manage the population that is underneath the bridge," he said.
Local officials said as recently as Saturday there were more than 14,000 migrants in Del Rio.
Mr. Ortiz said authorities were working to move about 3,000 migrants from under the bridge to other Border Patrol processing stations or onto flights.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection was expected to have about 600 extra personnel in the area by day's end, Mr. Ortiz said.
In Ciudad Acuña, local authorities have attempted to control the crowds but not stop them from entering the U.S.
Once one of the Border Patrol's sleepiest sectors, Del Rio has become a favored destination for migrants and their smugglers. It is now the second busiest of the Border Patrol's nine southern border sectors, behind only the Rio Grande Valley. Since October, the start of the government's budget year, agents there have made nearly 215,000 arrests, a record for the area.
Still, this city of 35,000 has never experienced anything like the past week. And no one is certain why so many migrants arrived at one time. Word that Del Rio offers a safe place to cross appears to have spread in a community of Haitians who left the poorest nation in the Americas for South America in the past few years, primarily for job opportunities. Now, amid the Covid-19 pandemic and associated economic turmoil, along with the perception that the Biden administration is more likely to let migrants stay in the U.S., many of them are heading north.
Sophia Destine, who lived in Chile for three years before coming to Texas, is among the Haitians who recently arrived in Del Rio. On Saturday, she and her toddler daughter waded back across the Rio Grande to Ciudad Acuña in search of needed supplies.
"We have gone several days without food," Ms. Destine said, her pants dripping with murky river water. She said she planned to head back to the migrant camp in Del Rio later in the day.
Around her, people with similar plans crossed the Rio Grande the opposite way into the U.S., carrying food from Mexican restaurants, along with cases of water and soda, with no interference from either country's authorities. Most had already been given a paper ticket with a number detailing the order in which they will be processed by the Border Patrol.
Enterprising migrants sold supplies in the camp, where many live in shelters built with blankets and carrizo cane, a thick reed found along the riverbank. Others offered to carry bags, boxes or even children across the river for a few pesos.
Most of the migrants massed under the bridge in Del Rio are originally from Haiti, but other migrants came from Cuba and the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the source of a large portion of illegal immigration to the U.S. in recent years.
Haiti's Foreign Minister Claude Joseph said the return of migrants would be difficult just two months after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and one month after an earthquake that killed more than 2,200 people.
Still, Mr. Joseph said, Haiti would accept anyone removed there by the U.S.
"They are fellow Haitians," he said. "If they are sent back, we will receive them and try to accommodate them."
--Michelle Hackman and Jose Decordoba contributed to this article.
Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at [email protected]
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 19, 2021 17:39 ET (21:39 GMT)