American political battle over immigration reaches a boiling point under a Texas bridge

Alexander Panetta reports from the working-class border town of Del Rio, Texas, which became a flashpoint in the U.S.'s ongoing political battle over immigration this week as thousands of asylum seekers were packed in brutal conditions under a bridge.

Indelible scenes from a makeshift refugee camp — on U.S. soil

Migrants take shelter along the Del Rio International Bridge in Texas at sunset as they wait to be processed after crossing the Rio Grande river into the U.S. from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on Sept. 19. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Dave Kroeger was torn. In the midst of a chaotic migration crisis, he grappled in his own head with the same tensions cleaving his country.

The American debates over immigration, characterized by a decade of stalemate and political paralysis, were playing out under a nearby bridge in Del Rio, Texas.

And they unsettled Kroeger's mind.

On the one hand, he's an ardent supporter of former U.S. president Donald Trump. He wants a wall with Mexico and he thinks immigration needs stricter controls.

On the other hand, there are people he loves from Haiti and some were stuck in a makeshift camp under that bridge in Del Rio.

Dave Kroeger drove from Ohio to Texas in one day, desperate to help Haitian friends trying to get from the makeshift refugee camp in Del Rio, Texas, into the country. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

He got to know Haitians after the 2010 earthquake, when he installed solar panels there as part of a faith-led volunteer mission.

He's remained in such frequent, even daily, contact with them that he now refers to them as his family.

That's why this week he drove almost 24 hours from Ohio with one mission in mind: Bring a friend, her husband, and their toddler into the U.S.

He bought a car seat for the child, then drove nonstop for a day toward the southern edge of his country.

An overhead shot of the massive camp under the Del Rio International Bridge in Texas. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

He arrived at a historic scene near the Mexican border — a makeshift refugee camp, inside the United States, on a scale described by federal officials as unprecedented. About 30,000 people, mostly Haitians, arrived there near the Mexican border before they were all moved elsewhere over the course of the week. Thousands were deported but more than half were allowed into the U.S. to seek asylum or were still being screened.

"It's not easy," Kroeger said of trying to reconcile his conflicting feelings.

"Because now it's like [my] family and the rules have changed. It's kind of like I'm being a hypocrite.… It's kind of weird. It makes me think."

The working-class border town of Del Rio became the flashpoint in the country's years-old immigration battle.

It left indelible images: of the camp in the U.S., of border agents on horseback, of people collapsing under scorching heat.

These won't be the last.

'It's horrible'

A record number of refugees around the world are being displaced by wars, poverty and natural disasters, with climate change one contributing factor.

The U.S. has seen a migration surge all year driven by political and non-political factors.

Witnesses described distressing scenes inside the camp, which was heavily fortified and surrounded by a walled perimeter.

"I cried," said Theova Milfort, a Haitian American activist who was allowed in the camp with an invitation from the local municipality.

"It's serious. It's horrible.… It's inhuman," he said Thursday, before the camp was emptied.

Theova Milfort, a Haitian American activist from Florida, seen wearing a Haitan flag scarf, was allowed into the camp. He says he cried when he saw the scene. At one point, he was holding a newborn baby, he said. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

Multiple women were taken away to deliver babies. Milfort said he held one of the newborns — an American baby, on American soil.

Nate Mook brought them formula.

He's the head of World Central Kitchen, a group that feeds displaced people. As the exclusive caterer for the camp, his team was allowed inside the perimeter by the U.S. government to deliver tens of thousands of meals.

People were constantly collapsing in the heat, Mook said. Food and water were initially scarce, and people waded back and forth across the Rio Grande to get supplies in Mexico, before U.S. guards put a stop to it.

Nate Mook’s organization cooked food for the camp. He says people were hungry and collapsing from the heat. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

One woman broke her wrist after collapsing on her child, Mook said.

He said babies were sleeping on cardboard as families built tents with cane, sticks and cloth.

"I've never seen anything like this in my life. Certainly not on U.S. soil," said Mook.

"This was a humanitarian crisis unlike anything I think our country has ever seen."

A man and child outside a makeshift centre for processing migrants in Del Rio, Texas, near the Mexican border on Friday. They’re preparing to leave on buses, as they’re among the group of thousands of migrants from the nearby camp being allowed to stay in the U.S. while they apply for asylum. (Jennifer Barr/CBC )

Mook's team was cooking up to 20,000 meals a day before the camp emptied out by Friday.

He said the legacy of what's unfolded here will take a while for the U.S. to process.

Stalled reforms

It's become a cliché at this point to call the American immigration system broken.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas referred Friday to long-stalled reforms.

Partisan disagreement has paralyzed efforts to modernize a plethora of programs — from work visas, to border security, to the legal status of past migrants, to the chaotic system for refugee claims. As the Haitian migrants will soon discover, cases are badly backlogged and can drag on for years.

The nation's internal conflict was crystallized in the contradictory images from the camp.

One day, border guards on horseback clutching leather reins forced migrants back to Mexico.

A U.S. border patrol agent on horseback appears to use the reins to try to stop a Haitian migrant from entering the encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the international bridge in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 19. (Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images)

The next, toys were being handed out to migrant children at processing centres.

Horseback policing was suspended and the images investigated.

Children were given toys to play with Friday after leaving the now-empty migrant camp in Del Rio. (Jennifer Barr/CBC)

Families were sent off on buses to start new lives in the U.S. and told to apply for asylum.

The surrounding town offers evidence of simmering frustration in America's migration debate.

It's in Val Verde County, which is 82 per cent Latino. Yet that overwhelmingly Latino area voted for Trump in the last election, as Trump made gains in border areas that helped him hold the state of Texas, including a staggering 17-point swing in this county from 2016.

One gas station worker rolled his eyes when asked about the migrants at the station waiting for buses to pick them up.

At the station, Gilbert Rodriguez hopped off his bike during his daily ride to grab a snack at the Mexican food stall inside.

"This is a migrant town, perro," Rodriguez said.

"But not like this. This is something else."

He said he mostly disliked Trump and his idea of a border wall. But he's starting to have doubts about the man he voted for, Joe Biden.

In this photo from June 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he tours a section of the border wall in San Luis, Ariz. The immigration policies of the former president are popular with many people in Texas. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

He says Trump was right to threaten Mexico into controlling northbound migration, with his constant warnings of tariffs.

Now Biden has moved to scrap Trump's so-called remain-in-Mexico policy. The president has also twice raised refugee levels this year.

It's likely the U.S. would have seen a migration increase regardless this year after it temporarily stalled during the pandemic in 2020.

But Rodriguez blames the president's more welcoming attitude for this year's record numbers.

"This is what happens when you don't respect the border," he said.

"[People here] want something done about the border.… Then — boom! Biden comes in here, and he switched it all up. And that's why we have this crisis."

'We're happy'

The Haitian migrants here passed through Mexico on their way into the U.S., now through Texas toward destinations elsewhere.

Most had spent years in Chile or Brazil. Those countries had welcomed foreign workers during better economic times, but the pandemic and worsening economy drove them north.

That's why so many of the migrants speak Spanish, like Gabriel Jean-Charles, who spent years in Chile.

The 28-year-old shared his story before boarding a bus carrying migrants out of Del Rio.

Gabriel Jean-Charles offers a thumbs-up before boarding a bus leaving Del Rio, Texas. The Haitian-born man spent years in Chile and says he’s delighted to be heading to Connecticut to join relatives there. He says some Haitian migrants will want to come to Canada. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)

Authorities tried desperately to keep them away from the media, but Jean-Charles spotted a famous Haitian journalist in the crowd and made a beeline for the press row near the bus.

"I'm so proud, so proud to [meet you]," he said to his countryman in their native Creole.

He later described his week at the camp, which began with a struggle to get food and water, requiring frequent trips across the river to Mexico.

Now he's headed for Connecticut, where he has an uncle and cousins. He'll file for asylum and try starting a life there, he said.

"We're happy," he said, offering a thumbs up before boarding the bus.

He predicted some of the migrants will try coming to Canada to join its Haitian communities.

'It's reached a boiling point'

Texas lawyer Elissa Steglich said that, among the six cases of Haitian migrants she's worked on, one hoped to head to Canada.

She called the U.S. asylum system both inhumane and incompetent. It's plagued by court delays, she said, and prone to treating desperate migrants like criminals, frequently storing them in old prisons repurposed as immigration centres.

"It's reached a boiling point [in Del Rio]," said Steglich, co-director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.

"What we're seeing is unprecedented brutality from the U.S. government against asylum seekers."

Waiting for word

Kroeger's friend communicated with him throughout her journey.

She texted last week to say she was on a plane from Santiago, Chile, to Mexico City.

She made video calls from inside the camp.

In one brief call Thursday morning, she told CBC News that she was doing well — she was told she'd be processed in 15 minutes.

Hours later, she remained in limbo. "I'm very afraid," she wrote in a text Thursday afternoon.

She said she was being taken somewhere else and didn't know where. "Maybe in a prison," she wrote.

Then the texts stopped.

Kroeger kept trying to reach her and got no replies. He chased rumours about where she might be. He drove around town, from one bus pickup location to another, staking them out in his car with Ohio plates.

So, as of late Friday, the Trump supporter who believes in a wall and stricter borders was staring into crowds of foreign faces, at the tired, the poor and the weary, looking for a friend.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.