National News

Texas Archbishop Says Small Border Crossing Is Facing ‘A Humanitarian Crisis’

NEW YORK — As thousands of migrants congregate underneath the Del Rio International Bridge, the Archbishop of San Antonio says the archdiocese is ready to help, but he fears an already overwhelming situation at the small Texas-Mexico border city will get worse.

Asylum-seeking migrants from Central America do their laundry in the public square of Reynosa, Mexico, Aug. 27, 2021. (Photo: CNS/Go Nakamura, Reuters)

The number of migrants underneath the bridge swelled to more than 8,000 on Thursday, with some reports indicating it may be more than 9,000. Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano said on Wednesday that at least 20,000 more migrants were en route from Mexico.

“To hear the numbers in the past few hours it’s really overwhelming,” Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio told The Tablet Thursday afternoon. “For many years we have been serving migrants and refugees in Del Rio but now it is a bit overwhelming and the city itself does not have the capacity to absorb.”

Archbishop García-Siller noted that Del Rio is only a “small piece” of the Texas-Mexico border, therefore it doesn’t have the infrastructure to process such a  high volume of migrants, unlike other border cities like Brownsville, McAllen, and El Paso.

For example, in McAllen the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center has a capacity to serve about 1,200 migrants, and of late has helped 800 to 900 daily. There isn’t a center in Del Rio with that kind of capacity.

Archbishop García-Siller explained that it’s difficult for Del Rio to transport migrants inland to San Antonio — a city better equipped to process them — because it’s “three and a half hours from here to there and there’s not much in between.” He added that the situation is further complicated by the fact that San Antonio is simultaneously trying to accommodate about 800 refugees from Afghanistan.

Migrants’ clothes in Del Rio, Texas, are laid out on the ground to dry Sept. 15, 2021, under the International Bridge between Mexico and the U.S. (Photo: CNS/Go Nakamura, Reuters)

The number of asylum seekers in Del Rio has steadily increased throughout the week, with the majority coming from Haiti and smaller numbers arriving from Cuba and Venezuela. The surge of Haitian migrants has been caused by two tragedies in recent months: the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July, then a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August that destroyed hundreds of buildings and killed thousands.

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Archbishop García-Siller said. “To hear that people are coming not from the typical places — El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala — but they’re coming from Haiti, Cuba, and Venezuela means these people must be in desperate situations trying to find a better life.”

The archbishop said that in recent days, people with the archdiocese have been helping prepare food for the growing numbers of migrants in Del Rio and will continue to be a presence.

“We will be open to do all that we can for people,” Archbishop García-Siller said.

Archbishop García-Siller admitted, however, that in the coming days the response is likely going to take collaboration between different organizations — nonprofits, interfaith groups — to try and get a handle on the worsening situation.

Archbishop García-Siller said another challenge will be communicating with the migrants coming from Haiti, who speak primarily French or Creole. To create such a dialogue, the archdiocese is using a connection it established with people from the Congo, he said.

On Thursday, the Texas and federal governments went back and forth over how they were handling the situation. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott initially ordered state law enforcement agencies to shut down six points of entry along the southern border. Abbott then released a statement later in the day saying the Biden administration had “flip-flopped” to a different strategy.

The Texas Department of Public Safety corroborated Abbott’s claim on social media that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection asked them to assist in shutting down ports of entry in Del Rio, before being told that was no longer a part of the plan to handle the surge of migrants.

Dennis Smith, a spokesperson for the CBP, told the Texas Tribune that the agency hadn’t been told to shut down ports of entry and that they were coordinating efforts with the Department of Homeland Security, other federal, state, and local partners to address the situation.

Migrants in Del Rio, Texas, rest near the International Bridge between Mexico and the U.S. Sept. 16, 2021. (Photo: CNS/Go Nakamura, Reuters)

Archbishop García-Siller said some of the blame for the current migrant problem rests with the federal government, for not working towards immigration reform. The House Judiciary Committee earlier this week approved measures for the forthcoming budget reconciliation bill that would be a step towards immigration reform, but the archbishop questioned the politicians’ real concern for the border.

“There’s not been an attempt to resolve the situation, to think about the situation, to bring reflection and be critical about it, especially from the top,” Archbishop García-Siller said. “We don’t see a real engagement and so for what is going on right now we need that kind of engagement if we want to do something,”

The archbishop said the archdiocese is finalizing the purchase of property in Del Rio to create a new migrant center, but cautioned they will need to buy more infrastructure than that, because the way it’s going, “this is not going to end.”