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How mass migrant crossings are impacting the small border town of Rio Grande City


Federal authorities have made a record number of arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year, more than 2 million. And there's still one more month to account for. One of the places migrants are arriving is Rio Grande City in south Texas. It's a small town of fewer than 15,000 people. And Joel Villarreal is the mayor. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: What are you seeing around your city these days?

VILLARREAL: The numbers have you looking at hundreds of them, meaning individuals coming. But that's something that's been going on for decades. We've actually had in 1986, we had 1.7 million apprehensions. In 2000, 1.6. Back in 2019, 1.7. But this year, yes, it's going to reach over 2.1, probably 2.2 million apprehensions here at the U.S.-Mexico border.

SHAPIRO: You say there have been crossings into your town in large numbers for decades. Tell us what's tangibly different.

VILLARREAL: Well, what's different is, of course, the coverage. In fact, for many years, for many decades, you really would not hear too much in reference to the numbers.

SHAPIRO: Oh, so you just mean the news media's covering it more than we used to.


SHAPIRO: It's interesting for me to hear you say that even though the country is paying a lot more attention to the border, even though the number of apprehensions are up, the experience of people living in Rio Grande City is pretty much what it's always been.

VILLARREAL: That's correct. In fact, our experiences here, we've been dealing with this for decades, and that's one of the things that we must understand. Now, for many years, we have dealt with this without the federal financial resources that are necessary to better manage the flow of migrants. And I do say this - no mayor or governor in America should have to bear the burden for our broken immigration system without the federal financial resources that are necessary to manage these flows.

SHAPIRO: What do you think about Texas Governor Greg Abbott's decision to put migrants on buses and send them north? It's been very controversial in some states. Is that something that your town welcomes?

VILLARREAL: The controversy is not so much the busing. The issue, though, is when we don't have the coordination. For example, the city of El Paso is busing individuals, but they're doing it in a way that's conducive to the betterment of the operation, meaning they are coordinating it with the NGOs at the receiving end. And that is what's critical. And that's one of the things that we need to keep in mind. As long as we do that, then the busing at this point is effective because it's providing these individuals the opportunity to get to the destinations where they're headed. And again, many times they already have family members that are going to help them start their lives and so on while they're waiting for their claims for protection.

SHAPIRO: And what about the charter flight to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts? I mean, is that a little different from the busing?

VILLARREAL: Well, here's some question for America relative to that. Do we Americans deem this immigrant population as so undesirable that we can justifiably transport immigrants anywhere and everywhere across America without their consent? So, yes, I have an issue when you have individuals that don't have consent. And that's the critical point is, is this a political stunt? Is it a disingenuous intent, or is it really addressing the needs of these individuals at the same time? Now, granted, this is where this whole concept lies is we have immigration and we have border security, two concepts of which are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist. And unfortunately, we have not been able to manage this balance between immigration and border security now. That lies in Congress.

SHAPIRO: So let me ask, you know, Congress has failed to act on immigration for so long, for decades. If there is not a major reform package, as there seems unlikely to be, are there smaller steps that would help communities like yours right now?

VILLARREAL: Yes. Meet the federal financial resources that are necessary to better manage the flow of migrants.

SHAPIRO: Just money, you're saying, send us money?

VILLARREAL: That's bottom line. Because if not, then it puts a burden on small communities and having to foot the bill on our local taxpayers' dime for an issue that's a national issue.

SHAPIRO: That's Joel Villarreal, mayor of Rio Grande City in Texas. Thank you very much.

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

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.