Driven by the hope of a new life, migrants from Latin America cross the US border every day without papers. A small border town feels left alone with it. The accusation: The Biden government was mending a burst pipe with a plaster.
Photo series with 19 pictures
The river is not always as tame as it was this morning. Small islands covered in pebbles and greenery protrude from the waters that separate Mexico from the United States. It takes less than 15 minutes for small dots along the hilly coast of the Rio Grande to start a new life with exhausted faces, wet trouser legs and backpacks who step on American soil in Texas. In the small border town of Del Rio, it seems like a bad joke when the government in Washington, some 2,800 kilometers away, says: “The border is closed.”
The eleven migrants come from Venezuela. Alberto and his four-year-old son Andres traveled via the Mexican city of Monterrey to the border. Andres sits on Alberto’s shoulders as the two cross the Rio Grande. The border guards are already waiting behind the fence of the property on the river where the migrants come to shore. An official instructed the migrants in Spanish to turn off their cell phones, wear ID and money, and put the rest of their belongings in their backpacks. The tone is friendly, there is also a short laugh.
Photo series with 25 pictures
“He thinks it’s a game”
Alberto struggles to zip up his crammed rucksack. Andres pats him on the shoulder. “He doesn’t know what is happening. He thinks it’s a game,” says the father. “You come with hope. You come with a desire for a new future, to escape and not be afraid anymore.” A little later he also gets into the white transporter of the border guards. The vehicle is divided into two cells that are only slightly wider than the length of a thigh. The doors slam.
What remains is the white pickup with the sheriff’s star, which has been parked on the gravel road at the fence of the private property since dawn. Joe Frank Martinez stands by the river for hours – the pistol in the leather belt holster, binoculars in hand, his eyes fixed on Mexico. “I’ve been sheriff for 13 years. I’ve never seen it so bad,” he says. As sheriff of Val Verde County, he is responsible for 177 kilometers of border.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis”
Martinez, like US President Joe Biden, is a member of the Democratic Party. The sheriff attributes the increasing number of those who risk their lives crossing the Rio Grande to the relaxed migration policy of Biden’s still quite new government. Martinez speaks compassionately about the fate of many people who arrive on the banks of the river. “It is a sad business. It is a humanitarian crisis. It affects not only our citizens, but the whole country.”
Martinez says with the sheer volume of illegal conversions, his agency is reaching its limits. The prisons are full anyway – smugglers arrested in the USA are increasing the pressure on the facilities. He wished that decision-makers in Washington could see what Del Rio is experiencing every day.
Joe Biden: He inherited Donald Trump. (Source: AP / dpa)
The sheriff knows exactly where the migrants will turn up sooner or later in the day. That morning, a Mexican military vehicle first drives up on the other bank of the river, later a police unit also shows its presence. On the American side, reporters from the conservative television broadcaster Fox News have lined up for a switch, they have been reporting on the arrivals in Del Rio for days.
At a quarter to eleven the time has come: The small group runs down a path on the hill to the water on the Mexican side. After a few steps, your trouser legs are wet, and in parts you go over the small islands with pebbles and undergrowth. In front of the small jetty, where Sheriff Martinez is also standing, the water goes up to the thighs of the adults. The current of the Rio Grande has strength here.
Venezuelans hope for support
Venezuelans like Alberto and Andres can count on getting support in the US, as Martinez explains. People from Cuba would also willingly put themselves in the hands of the authorities. Migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, on the other hand, tried to escape the police, as otherwise they would be sent back directly after crossing the border. And so they choose more dangerous routes into the country, relying on smugglers. Eight Mexican citizens were recently killed in a car chase with the authorities. Two Americans were seriously injured.
Bruno Lozano is upset. The mayor of the 36,000 residents of Del Rio believes it is completely inadequate how the government is handling the situation on the US southern border. Biden has been in office since January. “And I’m still waiting for a plan,” he says. “You’re trying to patch a broken pipe that broke in the middle of your house and flooded the whole neighborhood.” Only “100 percent deportation” can protect the American communities. The words wouldn’t be so surprising if they came from a Republican. But like Biden and Sheriff Martinez, the 38-year-old belongs to the Democratic Party.
A city so close to the border
An aerial photo on the left wall of Lozano’s desk reveals how close his city is to the border. The Rio Grande meanders like a dark ribbon between Del Rio and the city of Acuña on the Mexican side. The US government is concentrating on police reforms or strengthening the rights of blacks and sexual minorities. All of this affects him too, says Lozano, the city’s first openly gay mayor. Immigration is an even more pressing problem. Some citizens are afraid to be in green spaces in the city. People smugglers now operated on the US side of the border. And he would like to ask the Biden government why money is being spent on housing migrants while the country grapples with an “epidemic” of homelessness.
Within the city, you can feel the proximity to Mexico especially in the taco shops. You run into people in the supermarket, but not on the street: cars are driven in Del Rio. It is also thanks to the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition that migrants do not get stranded in the city center. If you are not deported and can move freely in the country until a court summons, the border guards usually drop you off less than 24 hours after crossing the border at the premises of the association in Del Rio. With Tiffany Burrow’s volunteers, the migrants can organize their onward journey. You have to pay for bus or plane tickets to your destination yourself. However, the volunteers help to find connections from the poorly connected place. There are showers and toys are available for children. “This is where you get a first impression of America,” says Burrow.
Misunderstandings after a change of power?
Ariel from Cuba wants to move on to the northeastern state of New Jersey with his partner and one-year-old daughter. Ariel says his family deliberately waited until after the change of government to get to the United States – Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump pursued an extremely restrictive migration policy. “We read the news and saw the best moment to leave Mexico,” says the 31-year-old. He insists on speaking English – after all, he has to keep improving that.
“I want the best for these families. They can enrich the melting pot that America is,” says Tiffany Burrow. After the change of power there was a misunderstanding that the borders of the USA were “wide open”. Now the government is sneaking around the issue instead of tackling it. “We haven’t seen her down here,” says Burrow. The situation at the border is not a priority for the government. “Everything else is in the foreground.”
Burrow describes the situation as increasingly hostile towards migrants in the village. It is not uncommon for drivers to stop at the club, film the newcomers and publish the videos on social media. The volunteer says: “Sometimes I wonder how much our country can take.”
Alberto also organizes the onward journey for himself and his son with the volunteers of the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition. A few days later, he reported on the phone that the two had made it to Miami. In Florida, his wife had already been waiting with his other son – after two weeks of separation, the family was now reunited. At the beginning of June, the Venezuelan has to appear before an immigration judge. “I hope we can do it.”