Fears of deportation to Haiti lead some migrants to rethink

Every day for the past month, Mamouna Ishmael has made her way to a dam where the Rio Grande connects Mexico and Texas, wondering if today will be the day that she wades across the river to try to claim asylum in the United States.

For Ishmael, the 253 steps across the knee-deep waters of the shallow dam represent the final distance after migrating from her native Haiti to the Dominican Republic, then from there to Chile, where, after two years of being unable to get a work permit, she decided to head to Mexico. She and her husband finally arrived a month ago after crossing eight South and Central American countries, mainly on foot, and spending two weeks in the jungles of Panama.

“Everyday we come, and check out the situation,” said Ishamel, 38, standing at the top of the dam, where fellow Haitians were either contemplating the same risk or preparing to cross. “We’re afraid. We have no choice but to wait.”

Just as rumors had fueled hope, prompting an unprecedented number of migrant crossings at the U.S southern border last week, they were now causing fear and despair.

As thousands of Haitian migrants continue to live under an international bridge in the city of Del Rio, Texas, in a makeshift camp waiting for a chance to present themselves to U.S. immigration officials, others are rethinking their plans amid fears that they could find themselves on a flight to Haiti.

On Sunday as Haiti prepared to receive three flights from Texas, the head of the Caribbean nation’s migration office pleaded for a moratorium on repatriation flights from the United States, based on humanitarian grounds.

“Fourteen thousand people are expected to descend on us here,” Jean Négot Bonheur Delva, the head of Haiti’s Office of National Migration, told the Miami Herald. “It is too much.”

Migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. rest near the International Bridge between Mexico and the U.S. as they wait to be processed, in Del Rio, Texas Go Nakamura REUTERS

In a bid to try to contain the surge, the Biden administration has announced that it is ramping up deportation flights to Haiti, and that the White House has directed U.S. agencies to work with the Haitian and other regional governments to provide assistance and support to returnees.

Insisting that the United States’ border is not open, the Department of Homeland Security said the majority of migrants continue to be expelled under Title 42, a law invoked by the Trump administration in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that allows the expulsion of migrants who have recently been in a country where a communicable disease is present.

“Those who cannot be expelled under Title 42 and do not have a legal basis to remain will be placed in expedited removal proceedings,” DHS said in a statement, adding that the agency is “conducting regular expulsion and removal flights to Haiti, Mexico, Ecuador, and Northern Triangle countries.”

Hundreds of additional U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents are being deployed to Del Rio, where Mayor Bruno Lozano on Saturday confirmed that additional state and federal resources were on the way to help the city and Border Patrol deal with the problem. He also announced that many of the migrants would be bused to other ports of entry.

The influx of migrants continue to pose serious challenges for Del Rio, where U.S. Customs and Border Patrol on Friday temporarily closed the port of entry, and Lozano closed the international bridge, forcing traffic to drive 57 miles to the east to Eagle Pass to cross into Mexico. The bridge has also been closed on the Mexican side, leaving journalists with no access to the migrants or the process under which they are being returned.

Lozano said the bridge closure was causing the city “millions of dollars per hour,” but it was meant to send a strong message to his Mexican counterparts about his frustrations over the crisis as the number of migrants swelled to well over 14,800.

“We’re very frustrated by some of the local leadership,” Lozano said, referring to officials in Ciudad Acuña, just across the border. “That leadership needs to step up and stop the cross traffic in our community here as well. They really need to take action on their side to limit the access that unlawful entry is presenting.”

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Haitian migrants use a dam to cross to and from the United States from Mexico, Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Del Rio, Texas. Eric Gay AP

Calling the unfolding drama in Del Rio a humanitarian and security crisis, U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, a Texas Republican, said it was “a crisis beyond our imagination.” The number of migrants in just a few short days, he said, had grown from 8,000 to nearly 15,000.

“The message is that Del Rio is open; that’s the message,” Pfluger said, adding that the administration should be doing what Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had agreed to do: send National Guard troops to the border.

Pfluger blamed the surge on President Biden, accusing his administration of opening the door to the arrivals by pausing deportations to Haiti after the country’s president was assassinated on July 7 and ignoring a Supreme Court decision that blocked the administration from ending a Trump-era program that forces people to remain in Mexico while seeking asylum in the U.S.

“We need the administration to call this what it is. This is a crisis,” he said.

Pfluger accused drug cartels and trafficking networks of getting the word out and bringing people by charging them “thousands of dollars per person because they think this is open.”

“The most alarming thing I heard,” Pfluger added, “is not the almost 15,000 people… who are here. It’s what’s behind that. The Border Patrol agents… told me that what is coming is much worse in the numbers than what we are seeing right here.”

Over the weekend Haiti and Mexico agreed to establish a permanent dialogue to address the situation of irregular migration flows, including the transit through Mexico. Haiti’s ambassador to Mexico, Hugues Monplaisir Féquière, said the country is looking to assist Haiti in addressing the economic and social causes that lead people to leave, and he plans to visit the border to speak with migrants.

In Port-au-Prince, Haitian government officials over the weekend were also initially sent a flight manifest from the U.S., with the names of 147 deportees, including 133 migrants from Del Rio, who are supposed to arrive in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday.

But on Sunday, Delva, the director general of the Office of National Migration, said two Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter deportation flights were already en route to Port-au-Prince from San Antonio and were scheduled to arrive shortly after 1:30 p.m. A third flight was also coming from Laredo, Texas, with repatriated migrants. His office has been told to expect as many as three deportation flights a day starting Monday with between 135 and 150 migrants onboard, he said

“We are pleading for a humanitarian moratorium,” Delva said. “The country is undergoing a difficult period; whether it’s the insecurity, the lack of infrastructure — we just had a major earthquake on the 14th of August in the south. A lot of people lost everything they had; even schools in the region cannot reopen. To be repatriating people back to Haiti at this same moment, and with COVID-19, I think the U.S should be trying to help Haiti at this moment with a humanitarian moratorium.”

Delva said some of those being deported have legal residency in Brazil, Chile and Mexico and instead of being returned to Haiti, those individuals should have the option of returning to the last countries where they lived. “I think if the American authorities give them the offer to return, they will choose to do so rather than return to Haiti because things are really complicated for us here at the moment.”

Marleine Bastien, a Haitian community and immigration activist in Miami, said it is cruel and inhumane for the Biden administration to be deporting Haitian refugees at this time to Haiti. She also said she was “deeply concerned with the United States treatment of Haitian refugees who are fleeing credible threat and violence in Haiti” and returning them without a chance to make a case for asylum in the U.S.

“This humanitarian crisis is a result of years of failed U.S. foreign policies vis-a-vis Haiti that supported incompetent and corrupt leaders ruling by decree and tainted by corruption scandals, while ignoring the voices of civil society leaders,” said Bastien, who heads the Family Action Network Movement.

Among those who will not be on that flight are Elisson Cador, 31, and his family, including his 13-month old child. Awaiting a Greyhound Bus in Del Rio to travel to San Antonio on Saturday, from where he planned to fly to Miami, Cador recounted the decision that led him to the bridge last week.

After four years of living in Chile, he finally left this year, he said, after learning that some housemates had successfully made the journey. But the trip, which cost him about $4,000, and a trek through the Darien Gap — a jungle on the border of Colombia and Panama where many a migrant has perished in rivers and quicksand — wasn’t easy.

“There are some who died along the way, but thank God we made it,” Candor said. “In life you have to take chances because you just don’t know where life will end up.”

Cador made it to Tapachula, Mexico, at the end of July after a three-week trek. His plan, he said, was to stay longer. But with no work, no affordable place to live and no food, he figured “things were going to get complicated” for him, so he took his chances with the border crossing at Ciudad Acuña.

Contrary to Pfluger’s suggestion that migrants are paying traffickers, also known as coyotes, Cador and other Haitians at the bus stop in Del Rio insist that they are finding their way to the U.S.-Mexican border the same way they are making it through South America and the jungle: by the word of mouth, WhatsApp and maps.

Tiffany Burrow, who runs a migrant assistance coalition, said the number of migrants pouring into Del Rio was on the rise even before the latest influx made international headlines. Her faith-based organization, Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in Del Rio, went from helping 100 migrants a month to 100 a week, then to 3,649 in August. All were new arrivals who had been processed by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and brought to the migrant assistance group for help connecting with families in the U.S. and arranging flights.

“We’ve seen a steady incline for sure in the last nine months,” Burrow said, noting that while not all the migrants are Haitians, they are becoming a larger percentage of the total.

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A Haitian migrant uses the Rio Grande to take a bath after crossing a dam from Mexico to the United States, Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Del Rio, Texas. Eric Gay AP

Like other immigration advocates, she’s baffled by how U.S. immigration authorities are deciding which migrants get paroled into the United States so that they can press their asylum claim, and who gets repatriated under Title 42, which was first invoked by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The possibility of being sent back to Haiti has triggered fear among Haitians, many of whom have not lived in the country for years and do not see the possibility of a future there.

Judson Auguste, 23, said he and his wife were both planning to head to the Del Rio border until he heard this week that the U.S. was deporting Haitian migrants. Now he’s looking to stay in Mexico, where he and his wife have been for the past two months after spending two months traveling from Brazil.

“They tell us there are jobs, but we haven’t been able to find work,” said Auguste, a mechanic who left Haiti for Brazil two years ago. “Even to find housing is difficult. We can’t find any.”

He survives, Auguste said, through the generosity of relatives in the U.S., who send him money. While grateful, what he desires most is “to help myself.”

For every Auguste who is willing to give up on his dream to try to get to the U.S. there is someone whose desperation has no deterrent.

“I crossed 10 countries to get here,” a man identifying himself only as Valdano said after wading through the Rio Grande with a cardboard box on top of his head to reach the U.S. side.

Recounting his hardships, including the rape of his wife during the ardous journey, he said he’s determined to get to the U.S.

A father of an 11-month-old who was born in Brazil, where he was unable to find work, the man said he had spent five days under the Del Rio bridge waiting for a chance to enter the U.S. before temporarily leaving Saturday to get food for his family.

He has heard there were already “a lot of deportations.” But what choice does he have? he asked.

“I was already here,” the man said after repacking the box and walking past Border Patrol agents to rejoin his wife. “I have no choice but to resign myself. But if they send me back to Haiti, I will die because I have a child.”

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Pastor Matthew Mayberry of City Church in Del Rio, Texas, delivers donations of oranges and apples to migrants. Jacqueline Charles [email protected]

Alex Rosier, who was also in Brazil where he worked in masonry before winding up in Mexico two months ago, said returning to Haiti isn’t an option. With his wife, Elda, and 3-year-old daughter across the water in the U.S., Rosier had not yet decided whether to rejoin them after returning to Mexico temporarily to get food . That’s when he learned about the deportations.

“I am not going to Haiti to go die,” he said. “They could arrive back in Haiti and not die, but me, I have no choice. I came here to ask for asylum because they already tried to kill me once in my country.”

In the seven years since Rosier left Haiti, the Caribbean nation has been racked by one crisis after another. Currently, there is ongoing political instability, the unsolved assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, and the deadly August earthquake in the southern peninsula that killed thousands. There are also armed gangs that kill and kidnap with impunity.

“What country is this they want to return people to?” Rosier said. “A country without a president, with no stability, no opportunity.”

He doesn’t understand, he said, how the U.S. is sending people back without at least giving them a chance to make their case.

“Where is the justice in that?”

This story was originally published September 19, 2021 9:15 AM.

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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.