Small South Texas towns overwhelmed by immigration influx

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LA JOYA, Texas (KVEO)—Illegal border traffic is at a 20-year-high and small cities in South Texas are seeing the biggest effects of it.

Since October 2020, 726,401 people have been encountered by U.S. Border Patrol personnel.

A majority of them crossing through small Texas border towns of the Rio Grande Valley like La Joya, Roma, Hidalgo, Mission, and Rio Grande City.

“I had a conversation this morning with individuals that had immigrants in their backyards and yes, we are having an influx of immigrants and it’s affecting our municipalities,” said Joel Villarreal, Mayor of Rio Grande City. “Our residents are concerned and sometimes it’s a divide should I handle this as a humanitarian standpoint or do I handle this with a risk of threat or harm.”

It’s a question, Villareal asks himself time and time again.

Villareal has been the mayor of the Starr County city for more than six years and says the immigration increase is not a city issue, but a federal problem that needs a serious solution from Washington D.C.

“We have not had a truly comprehensive plan or reform, so why not? Why is it so difficult for us to have true immigration reform and whether it’s republicans or democrats in power, that hasn’t occurred,” said Villarreal. “Are we ready as a country to truly have immigration reform or are we going to continue pushing the can and let someone else handle it? Right now it doesn’t seem like it and it does get politized.”

In the last six months, U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley have apprehended more than 200,000 for illegally entering the country, which a majority of those entries are happening in the smaller towns that make up the Rio Grande Valley.

In La Joya, which has a population of about 4,500 people, there remains what’s left of an unfinished border wall.

When the Biden administration took over, border wall construction stopped and now the mayor of La Joya says it’s triggered an increase in immigration to his city.

“In the past few months we’ve had a huge increase in illegals coming across,” said Mayor Isidro Casanova, “Since January it started picking up a lot.”

Mayor Casanova, who was formally the Chief of Police for La Joya, says what concerns him is how it’s impacting the local police department.

“Unfortunately, we have to get them off the streets and help out Border Patrol to babysit these people as they wait for transport and of course with all the crossing,” said Casanova. “They’re getting off the road, so they have to chase them behind fences, in people’s yards so it is taking a toll on our local police department.”

Another big concern for city officials is the way illegal immigration is affecting residents who call the quiet, tight-knit border town their home.

“They cross and then they jump into people’s backyards, some of them have had their property damaged like their fences torn down,” said Casanova. “I understand they’re upset, but we are trying the best that we can with the personnel that we have.”

Starting in La Joya and driving west into Starr County, you’ll see a sea of Texas DPS Troopers parked every few feet patrolling the roads for Operation Lone Star.

The operation, put in place by Governor Greg Abbott, to crack down on human trafficking, drugs, and illegal immigration has the troopers in the full force of the border communities.

“We welcome them, we really do, we are a border community and we welcome the law enforcement,” said Villarreal.

Both mayors agree that permanent immigration reform is needed and a presidential visit should be a priority.

“I really would like someone from the White House to come down here and see and witness first hand what’s really going on,” said Casanova, “Especially for us little, small border towns, we need help and assistance, so hopefully it’ll make a difference.”

With the nation staring at South Texas through a microscope, Villarreal wants the reality to shine through, which is far from the narrative being portrayed in the national spotlight.

“We are more than what is being portrayed at the national level. The Rio Grande Valley is a great place to live and forge the American dream and we need to continue to promote that narrative. This is a great place to live,” said Villarreal.

Both mayors say their local police departments are in constant with Border Patrol because of the increase in immigration in their cities. 

Both police departments participate in Operation Stonegarden, a federally funded program that allows local police to assist federal agents in the stop of illegal traffic. 

In the last six months, there have been more than 250 human stash houses shut down in the Rio Grande Valley and agents have encountered 60 groups of 100 or more people.

The majority of these large groups are composed of family members and unaccompanied children.

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