Eagle Pass fire chief on the front lines of the border crisis reveals how they've been tested for two years — with losses of $21,000 a day, a rise in drownings, no help from Biden and ambulances so busy they have to rely on private companies
Democratic-led cities like New York and Chicago have complained that the migrant crisis has brought them to a breaking point.
They say the border crossers who wade through the Rio Grande and hike through the desert are overwhelming their communities as they move north.
But it is Texas' small, under-resourced communities that are wasting money to cope with the historic influx of migrants into the US.
Eagle Pass has quickly become the epicenter of the migrant crisis. Last month, the city of just 28,000 residents saw 5,000 migrants pass through.
Local resources, including emergency services, have been stretched so thin that they are losing thousands of euros to the budget every month.
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security closed an international rail bridge in the city for a month to divert staff from processing migrants.
Fire Chief Manuel Mello estimated the move cost the city between $500,000 and $1 million in lost revenue, and they are not getting any help getting the money back.
“That's our main source for the city to sustain itself, from the bridge profits – commercial trucks and vehicular and pedestrian crossings,” he told DailyMail.com in an interview.
About 300,000 migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in December, leading to the closure of four international bridges, one in Eagle Pass.
While much of the immigration debate focuses on big cities being overwhelmed by new residents, the quiet community of Eagle Pass, Texas is now hemorrhaging money from its own pot to accommodate the influx.
About 300,000 migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in December, leading to the closure of four international bridges, one in Eagle Pass, pictured above
The city returned to the spotlight when more than 60 House Republicans led by Speaker Mike Johnson visited border agents and local law enforcement there.
Groups of migrants were seen wading through the river and into the arms of border agents just as Johnson and his Republicans were making a tour. A group of Venezuelan teenagers shouted 'Ayudame! Help me!' to the speaker as he stood on the riverbank.
But Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, who represents the area, suggested the city had been cleaned up and migrants had been diverted to cross to other sectors for the convention visit.
'I am grateful for my colleagues and grateful for the arrival of the speaker and the fact that everything suddenly came to a standstill. We needed that,” he told reporters. “Eagle Pass was about to have to put hundreds, thousands of people on the streets. The fact that Republicans in the House of Representatives showed up today and suddenly everything was turned off is a victory.”
Mello's own local fire department is called in to transport migrants to the hospital when there is an emergency. They see all kinds of things: pregnant mothers giving birth, people drowning while crossing the Rio Grande or having heat strokes.
From January to December, the department was inundated with nearly 9,000 calls and had to transport 778 migrants to hospital at its own expense.
Eagle Pass Fire Chief Manuel Mello
Each EMS transport costs approximately $700 in lost revenue. Mello estimates his agency lost about $21,000 in revenue per day during the fall months of this year.
And with overtime, vehicle maintenance and other factors, the department is over budget by about $38-40,000, Mello said.
The federal government has not yet reached out about reimbursement for the city, which could run out of money this year and have to tighten its belt.
“Sometimes we have all five ambulances on the road and a fire truck has to respond to an ambulance call,” Mello said. “A doctor comes by and sometimes we have to call a private ambulance company.”
Mello said he and his team started feeling exhausted about two years ago, and became even more swamped in the spring of this year.
Last week, the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to intervene in a lawsuit over the knife-studded concertina wire that Abbott placed in the city along the border.
Migrants cross Rio Grande as Chairman Mike Johnson gives a briefing
International Bridge pictured from the riverbed
“When this all started, all the focus was on law enforcement, Border Patrol DPS and local law enforcement. But they forgot a big part of it all, the EMS part,” Mello said.
Mello said the only person who has reached out is Texas Governor Greg Abbott. “So Governor Abbott realized that and he called a meeting. He helped us with $400,000 for overtime, which he got through a grant. He got us a boat, an airboat and an all-terrain vehicle.”
Abbott is locked in a war with the Biden administration over the border policies he has implemented in Eagle Pass.
Last week, the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to intervene in a lawsuit over the leaf-strewn concertina wire that Abbott placed along the border in the city. The White House wants to tear it down.
Speaker Johnson and 60 House Republicans travel along the border in Eagle Pass
Abbott already lost a case over floating barriers he placed in the Rio Grande. But shipping containers full of National Guard members patrolling the summit still line the riverbed on the U.S. side in Eagle Pass.
The governor openly defied federal authority by ordering state law enforcement to monitor the border because he said border agents have been locked up in processing migrants into the country.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit challenging a Texas law that Abbott recently signed that gives police officers the power to arrest and deport migrants. This law will come into effect in March.
Abbott has roiled liberal lawmakers in recent years by sending migrants to northern cities to give them a taste of life in Eagle Pass.
In 2023, the Eagle Pass Fire Department alone has counted 43 drownings of migrants trying to cross the Rio Grande.
'That's a big number. When I first started here in 1992, we thought six drownings in a year was, you know, wow,” Mello said. That number does not include drownings encountered by the Texas Department of Public Safety or the Border Patrol. It also did not say how many bodies were pulled from the river on the Mexican side.
For now, Mello fears another bridge will close, and he's waiting for the day he's told he'll have to cut back on hiring and can't buy new equipment his first responders need.
“If they close one bridge — or both — if they close them both, we're going to really hurt,” he said.