The congregation of about 1,700 Central American migrants in Piedras Negras, Mexico, this week sparked a swift response from the U.S. Hundreds of Army soldiers and law enforcement personnel tightened security measures in Eagle Pass. Residents accustomed to easy passage between two nations now experience long waits on the bridges, body searches, diminished commerce, and unease over the sudden show of armed force in their small town.
A caravan of about 1,300 migrants from Honduras, 200 from El Salvador, and 200 are from Guatemala arrived in the Mexican side of the border in early February.
The U.S. military responded by moving about 200 active-duty troops from Arizona into the area to support state, local and federal civilian agencies.
Matthew Hudak, acting patrol chief of the Border Patrol Del Rio Sector, said at least 100 people were arrested trying to cross into the U.S. illegally in this sector.
“Folks that we do arrest and put into that immigration process, whether it is asylum seekers with a credible fear claim," he said, "they all get turned over into the ICE enforcement, removal operations.”
During a news conference Wednesday, law enforcement officials said they were drilling their personnel with 15-minute exercises on the bridges to prepare for larger waves of people trying to cross..
On Friday, Bridge Manager Anna de la Garza ticked off the different agencies she's working with: “We have state troopers. Border patrol. CBP. Police department…”
She said she tries to coordinate with all of them to keep traffic on the bridges moving. She said traffic is still flowing but the exercises complicate matters.
De la Garza said local police re-route vehicles between the bridges during the drills.
Also, she said, CBP agents are closing bridge lanes by blocking them with concertina wire.
"You can see how they are working with the concertina wire," she said. "Because they have concrete barriers. And then on top of the concrete barriers, they built a wall of concertina wire."
The Pentagon said CBP requested the troop deployment in response to this latest caravan. They claimed the current system to process border crossings was insufficient, and asylum seekers face a long wait.
Paul Del Rincon, Eagle Pass Port Director for CBP, said they can only handle about 16 to 20 asylum applications per day because of the lengthy interviews.
“Our case processing, per person on average," he explained, "takes about two to three hours.”
American officials are not alone in addressing migrations from Central America.
Tekandi Paniagua, the general consul of the Guatemalan Consulate in Del Rio, said desperation drives migrants to make the 1,500-mile journey north.
He said the consulate mostly assists Guatemalans halted at the border with obtaining necessary documents, including passports.
Paniagua said that as a consulate in Guatemala offering protection to Guatemalans, they try to warn them about a trip that can be extremely dangerous.
"As a consulate in Guatemala offering protection to Guatemalans," he said, "we are constantly offering detained migrants this kind of information and are attempting to reach out to people to warn them about a trip which will be extremely dangerous to them and to their children."
He also asked the people of Eagle Pass and other border towns to remain calm and patient during this humanitarian situation.
Residents said they've noticed the intensified presence of law enforcement, particularly Texas state troopers and border patrol officers on horseback.
Leslie Rodriguez works in a shopping district and commutes across the border regularly. She said security measures have intensified and wait times to cross have increased dramatically -- and that's already taking a toll on businesses.
“A lot of people are not coming because they’ve been closing down the bridges," she said, "so people can’t cross, neither back neither forth."
Rodriguez said the security measures have complicated her own routine border crossings. She said officials now ask her several questions and inspect her bags.
“The other time I crossed walking, and they made open my sweater and touched my stomach to see if I don’t have nothing with me," she said, "so, yeah, that has changed. They didn’t do that before.”
Many Eagle Pass residents, including Rodriguez, recognized why the migrants were at the border.
"I don’t think they’re here to harm people." she said. "They’re just like any other people. They just want a better future for their family.”
Eagle Pass is a small town, and De La Garza said it has never seen a migrant group as big as the one gathered in Piedras Negras.
But, she says, the community prepared for this type of situation last year when a caravan of several thousand Central American migrants moved through Mexico toward the U.S.
"This is the first time that we’ve seen something like this," she said. "In October we were expecting one. But you know how they went to Tijuana. So yeah, this is the first time."