Del Rio horse patrols cease as Haiti deportations continue

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has temporarily halted the use of a horse patrol unit along the Del Rio, Texas, border with Mexico amid public outrage over a photo of a mounted U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent chasing Haitian migrants.

The image showed the agent on a horse wielding what appeared to be ropes or reins while chasing Haitian migrants trying to get back to an encampment where thousands of asylum-seekers had gathered. It has led Haitians, immigration and civil-rights activists to call on the Biden administration to end its accelerated deportations to Haiti.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the policy change about the horse patrol was conveyed Thursday morning to civil-rights leaders.

“That is something, a policy change that has been made in response,” Psaki told reporters. “There is an investigation the president certainly supports overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, which he has conveyed what will happen quickly.”

At its peak there were close to 15,000 migrants in Del Rio camping out underneath the bridge that connects the southern Texas city with Ciudad Acuña in Mexico. The majority of the migrants were Haitian, with families accounting for about two-thirds of the asylum-seeking population. There have also been “a low number” of unaccompanied children as well, DHS acknowledged.

DHS did not have a specific breakdown on how many of the migrants returned to Haiti were part of a family unit or single adults or children.

The United Nations’ leading children agency, UNICEF, said Thursday that more than two out of three Haitian migrants who have been repatriated to Port-au-Prince are women and children. Some of them are newborn babies.

UNICEF also estimates that about 40% of the Haitian migrants in Del Rio are children.

“Haiti is reeling from the triple tragedy of natural disasters, gang violence and the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director. “When children and families are sent back without adequate protection, they find themselves even more vulnerable to violence, poverty and displacement — factors that drove them to migrate in the first place.”

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A migrant from Haiti is detained by Mexican immigration officers in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, near the Texas, U.S, border. Felix Marquez AP

Even though DHS said it has been closely monitoring the flow of migrants throughout the hemisphere, they acknowledged that the scale of this recent surge caught them off guard.

“We did not have any intelligence to suggest that we would be seeing the surge in numbers that we saw,” a DHS official said.

DHS believes that smugglers were involved in the surge at Del Rio and said it is actively investigating how thousands of Haitian migrants were able to move onto buses through Mexico to the U.S. border without going detected.

“In terms of the movement last week, that is something we’re looking into actively,” an official said.

Far away from the U.S.-Mexico border, human smugglers left a group of 71 migrants — reportedly Haitian— on an uninhabited Puerto Rican nature reserve, said Jeffrey Quiñones, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman in Puerto Rico.

“It’s not the first time that these smuggling organizations, that move narcotics and move people, have left people on the island of Mona and they simply told them they had already arrived in Puerto Rico,” said Quiñones.

Two groups arrived Wednesday and another Thursday in Isla de la Mona, a tiny, semi-arid island in the strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic that has no population or infrastructure.

The migrants are presumed to be of Haitian origin, based on reports from Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources rangers who first came into contact with them, but confirmation is pending immigration interviews.

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A man carries a girl across the Rio Grande river as migrants, many from Haiti, leave Del Rio, Texas to return to Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, early Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, to avoid possible deportation from the U.S. Fernando Llano AP

Stranding undocumented migrants in Mona is common for many human smuggling organizations, said Quiñones. At least one of the groups disembarked at Playa Las Carmelitas, a beach on the northwest part of the island that is a typical dropoff spot. Haitians have also previously been left to fend for themselves on the rocks of Islote Monito, a neighboring cliffside cay, where they had to be rescued by the Coast Guard as recently as August.

On Thursday afternoon, the Coast Guard was transporting 59 of the stranded, who will be processed on a “case-by-case basis” at a Border Patrol center in Aguadilla, a town on the northwest tip of Puerto Rico. The remaining 12 will arrive on Puerto Rico’s main island on Friday. They will receive food, accommodation and laundry services.

Since Sunday, there have been 17 flights to Haiti, including five Thursday, from the United States ferrying over 1,949 migrants while 3,901 Haitian nationals have been moved to other processing facilities. As of Thursday morning, the population underneath the bridge had dropped to about 3,100 people, DHS said.

The population decline is not just the result of the processing of the migrants, but “several thousand” migrants choosing to leave the camp and return to Mexico out of fear they would be deported back to Haiti.

Acknowledging that some migrants have been released or paroled with a notice to appear in immigration court or at a facility, DHS officials said Haitian migrants remain the subject of removal from the U.S. under the controversial public health law known as Title 42.

“It has not changed for this population,” said an official.

The determination of whether a migrant will be released or deported, DHS officials said, is based on a case-by-case review of the vulnerability of an individual, and the holding capacity of Border Patrol facilities. For example, new guidance on how to process pregnant women has been sent to field agents by U.S. Customs and Border Protection which has allowed for the release of an unknown number.

“A lot of this depends on our capacity and how many people we are holding at any given time. We do not want to hold people in CBP facilities for an extended period of time,” an official said.

DHS said the agency seeks to release all migrants with a Notice to Appear at a facility or before an immigration judge, but the large numbers needing to be processed don’t always allow for that. Some end up getting released under parole with an alternative to detention, in which they are given an ankle monitor with GPS tracking, or a phone with facial and voice recognition.

On Thursday, the Archdiocese of Miami said two Haitian priests — Father Reginald Jean-Mary, pastor of Notre Dame d’Haiti Mission in Miami, and Father Fritzner Bellonce, pastor of Holy Family Church in North Miami — went to Del Rio to meet with Haitian migrants. North Miami Councilman Alix Desulme, representing the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, and nurses from the Haitian American Nurses Association of Florida have also been assisting migrants who have been released.

U.S. officials had said they were in discussions with the governments of Chile and Brazil to see if they are willing to accept some of the Haitian migrants who had legal residency in those countries and wanted to return. However, so far all of the migrants appear to be headed back to Haiti.

The migration surge in Del Rio has led to “an all-of-government response” with more than 2,300 federal, state and local personnel deployed to help. This includes 150 medical professionals, as well as 50 state law enforcement officers from Florida to help secure the border.

Florida also sent airboats and off-road vehicles to help with surveillance of the U.S.-Mexico border, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said.

U.S. authorities acknowledge that they have been coordinating with Mexican authorities on the migration problem.

In recent days, Haitians gathering in a camp at the Braulio Fernandez Aguirre Park near the Rio Grande said they fear ongoing immigration raids by Mexican authorities and stay up at night waiting to see if they have to run.

On Wednesday, Francisco Garduño Yáñez, Mexico’s commissioner of the National Institute of Migration, visited the park. The top immigration official told journalists that the people at the camp were not subject to deportation proceedings, but needed to go through the appropriate channels.

“We have to see if they have asylum requests and regularize them so that there is an orderly, safe and regular migration,” he said.

Migrants, however, will not be able to apply for asylum in Ciudad Acuña.

“Air and land transportation will be provided that will allow migrants to return to the states from which they left to continue with their process,” Garduño Yáñez sad, adding that Mexican authorities are also providing “a safe return to their country of origin.”

Expressing concern over the humanitarian conditions of Haitians traveling to the border, the commissioner said the government is setting up camps where people can eat and sleep. Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, pregnant women and minors who are unaccompanied will receive priority assistance. There are already three shelters with a capacity of roughly 150 beds and mats in Ciudad Acuña.

When asked by a journalist if Haitian migrants were not being allowed to come to Ciudad Acuña, Garduño Yáñez answered there were “migratory checkpoints throughout the national territory,” including at the border jurisdictions of Tapachula, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Nueva León, and Coahuila.

Journalists also questioned the commissioner about a raid that occurred at a local hotel. He characterized the action from Mexican authorities as “a review and verification of immigration status.”

Miami Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos and McClatchy National Security reporter Michael Wilner contributed to this report.

This story was originally published September 23, 2021 6:33 PM.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.