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Thousands of Migrants, Mostly From Haiti, Are Packed Under Texas Bridge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we're following developments in the city of Del Rio, Texas, which has declared a state of emergency. Thousands of migrants, many of them Haitian, are now gathered in squalid conditions underneath the city's International Bridge. The emergency declaration has shut down traffic into the city from Mexico. Here's Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano.

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BRUNO LOZANO: I never thought in my lifetime - and I'm sure everybody here, in our lifetimes - we would be experiencing something like this, of this magnitude. But this is what needs to be done.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Pictures show hundreds in almost a single-file line wading through a shallow portion of the Rio Grande before congregating under the Del Rio International Bridge. Photojournalist Veronica G. Cardenas was along the Mexico side of the bridge today, where many migrants remain, and described a brewing humanitarian crisis for families waiting for help.

VERONICA G CARDENAS: Some kids are sick, and sometimes their mothers don't have any money to take them to the doctor because they're afraid to get caught by Mexican immigration.

KELLY: Now, in addition to Haiti, some people have also come from Cuba, Venezuela, also Nicaragua. They are waiting for asylum claims to be processed, and it is taking days because of the influx and the backlog.

FADEL: Del Rio's Mayor Lozano also talked about the conditions for migrants on the U.S. side.

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LOZANO: They're angry. There's people having babies down there. There's people collapsing out of the heat. If you guys were down there, they peek up, and they just - you can feel the desperation, the destitute of these individuals. They've been in the heat day after day after day. It's something that - it's very challenging to describe in words, but it's extremely chaotic.

FADEL: Local officials are asking the Biden administration for help. We're going to take a closer look at what's happening on the ground and what might be behind this influx of people hoping to gain entry to the U.S. Alexandra Ulmer is a national affairs correspondent for Reuters. She joins us now from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas.

Welcome.

ALEXANDRA ULMER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So you've been down at the U.S.-Mexico border for a couple of days now. Can you describe what you're seeing and what the conditions are like for people?

ULMER: So thousands of migrants, mostly Haitians, have set up a makeshift camp under the bridge separating Mexico and Texas, on the American side. They're sleeping on the floor, mostly under the bridge itself, to get some shade in the terrible heat. They are crossing back into Mexico - so actually crossing the Rio Grande River again - to stock up on food because they're not receiving or able to get any on the American side. The mayor of Del Rio said last night that 10,000 people were now in the makeshift camp and that that number had gone up by 2,000 on Thursday alone.

FADEL: Wow.

ULMER: And I've been here for about six hours today, and I've seen dozens and dozens of new arrivals streaming in.

FADEL: Now, you're reporting that many migrants there have come from Haiti, which we know has seen a lot of turmoil in recent months with a presidential assassination, a deadly earthquake. But also, people have been leaving for years now after the last devastating earthquake in 2010, economic conditions. What can you tell us about why thousands have made their way now to the Acuna-Del Rio area this week?

ULMER: So I would say probably a majority of Haitians who I've spoken to - and I've interviewed maybe 20 or more - have said they initially were living in Brazil or Chile, and there's a mix of reasons for them to come now. So first of all, a lot of them were really struggling to eke out a living in these home host countries. One Haitian I spoke to had been living in Porto Alegre in Brazil and said he was earning $10 a day as a construction worker...

FADEL: Wow.

ULMER: ...Which was completely insufficient for him, his wife and his kid. He saw a video talking about asylum-seekers in the U.S. and got inspired and had always wanted to come to the United States and decided to take the leap. And then more specifically about why they're coming to Del Rio, several Haitian migrants who I've spoken to have shown me instructions that they're receiving through WhatsApp from other Haitians. So in some instances, it's just a list of 15 cities in Mexico that will - basically, if they follow through on bus or by foot, will reach Del Rio. And other times, I've seen very specific instructions in Creole that basically say, get on the second bus at the third terminal, you know, wait half-an-hour, make sure you go to this ticket booth, et cetera, and you will arrive. And this is a way to evade Mexican authorities. So there's actually a very well-organized grassroots organization among the Haitian migrants which makes them arrive here.

FADEL: Which maybe explains also the staggering speed that this has grown at in the last week.

ULMER: Absolutely. Yes. That's absolutely part of it, and the migrants we're speaking to say more Haitians and more other immigrants are coming behind them, as the ones who are ahead tend to help those who are behind them, either by sharing their location on their phone or just sending advice along.

FADEL: So people are really searching for better opportunities, a better life. But this isn't an easy journey. What are they saying about what they went through to get to Del Rio?

ULMER: Right. So one - there are so many horrendous stories. One Haitian I spoke to said despite having instructions, he got lost in Mexico and was alone, adrift in the mountains and surviving on water and fruit for seven days until he found his way again. Another Haitian immigrant who was struggling to get by in Chile and decided to try his luck up in the United States said he crossed 11 countries to get here.

FADEL: Wow. Now, this is clearly another immigration challenge for the Biden administration. Border Patrol leaders have reported being completely overwhelmed. Have U.S. officials offered any updates about their planned response in Del Rio?

ULMER: U.S. authorities say they're moving to try to improve conditions in the camp and that they're providing toilet facilities, water and other help to migrants there, but they've clearly been overtaken by the number of migrants who are arriving. The mayor of Del Rio says that the camp is about a third of the entire population of the town...

FADEL: Wow.

ULMER: ...And is asking for more resources.

FADEL: Alexandra Ulmer, national affairs correspondent for Reuters.

Thank you so much for your reporting.

ULMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.