Some left to find work. Others to escape violence or racial discrimination in other countries. But many believe ‘there is nothing to go back to.’,
How Hope, Fear and Misinformation Led Thousands of Haitians to the U.S. Border
Some left to find work. Others to escape violence or racial discrimination in other countries. But many believe ‘there is nothing to go back to.’
DEL RIO, Texas — They have arrived this week by the thousands, Haitians who had heard of an easy way into the United States. In what appeared to be an endless procession across the shallow waters of the Rio Grande, they carried mattresses, fruit, diapers and blankets, provisions to tide them over while they awaited their turn to plead for entry into America.
For so many, it had been a journey years in the making.
“A friend of mine told me to cross here. I heard it was easier,” said Mackenson, a 25-year-old Haitian who spoke on the condition that his last name not be published. He and his pregnant wife had traveled from Tapachula, Mexico, near the country’s border with Guatemala, where they had been living after earlier stops over the last three years in Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Panama. “It took us two months to get here on foot and by bus.”
This week, the couple joined an estimated 14,000 other migrants who have converged upon the border community of Del Rio, a surge that has overwhelmed local officials and the authorities and comes amid a staggering spike in border crossings this year. On Friday morning, as the summer sun beat down, the couple found a moment of solace in the shade of the Del Rio International Bridge, which had quickly become a very crowded staging area, with migrants jostling for a patch of dirt to sit and rest.
By Friday evening, federal authorities had closed the entrance to the bridge and were routing traffic 57 miles away to Eagle Pass, Texas, saying it was necessary to “respond to urgent safety and security needs presented” by the influx and would “protect national interests.”
Officials estimated that more than 14,000 migrants have converged on Del Rio, Texas — a figure that’s nearly half the population of the small border city.Credit…Veronica G. Cardenas for The New York Times
The rise in Haitian migration began in the months after President Biden took office and quickly began reversing former President Donald J. Trump’s strictest immigration policies, which was interpreted by many as a sign that the United States would be more welcoming to migrants. In May, the administration extended temporary protected status for the 150,000 Haitians already living in the country. But tens of thousands have attempted to cross into the United States since then despite not qualifying for the program.
“False information, misinformation and misunderstanding might have created a false sense of hope,” said Guerline M. Jozef, the executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an organization that works with migrants.
Mr. Biden’s term has coincided with a sharp deterioration in the political and economic stability of Haiti, leaving parts of its capital under the control of gangs and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes. The assassination of Haiti’s president and a magnitude 7.2 earthquake this summer have only added to the pressures causing people to leave the country. Shortly after the assassination, hundreds of Haitians flocked to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, many carrying packed suitcases and small children, after false rumors spread on social media that the Biden administration was handing out humanitarian visas to Haitians in need.
Most of the Haitians in Mexico — a country that has intercepted nearly 4,000 this year — were not coming directly from Haiti, but from South America, where, like Mackenson, they had already been living and working, according to a top official in the Mexican foreign ministry. The number of Haitians heading northward across the border that separates Colombia and Panama — often by traversing the treacherous jungle known as the Darien Gap — has also surged in recent years, increasing from just 420 in 2018 to more than 42,300 through August of this year, according to the Panamanian government.
“We are dealing with this really new type of migration which are these Haitians coming from mainly Brazil and Chile,” said Roberto Velasco, the chief officer for North America at Mexico’s foreign ministry. “They are mainly looking for jobs, they come from third countries so repatriation is difficult.”
Following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, tens of thousands of Haitians headed southward to Chile and Brazil in search of jobs in two of South America’s richest countries. To get there, many undertook an arduous overland journey across the continent through the Amazon and the Andes.
Migrants gathered under the Del Rio International Bridge on Thursday evening. Credit…Veronica G. Cardenas for The New York Times
Many were offered humanitarian visas in both nations, which needed low-wage workers, but that welcoming stance withered as economic instability in the region rose in tandem with a growing backlash toward immigrants.
Haitian mass migration to Brazil, South America’s largest nation, began increasing in 2011, reaching a peak of nearly 17,000 in 2018.
But as the pandemic has battered the Brazilian and other South American economies, work opportunities have proved increasingly scarce: Only a net of about 500 Haitians gained formal jobs in Brazil in the first five months of this year, compared with around 2,000 in the same period in 2019, according to Brazil’s latest migration statistics.
In Chile, the exodus of Haitians has also been driven by the government’s increasingly restrictive immigration policy. President Sebastian Pinera has tightened border controls and visa rules and increased deportations of undocumented migrants after being overwhelmed by the influx of Venezuelans and Haitians fleeing economic collapse and violence in their countries.
Many Haitians have also suffered from discrimination in Chile, a nation that a decade ago had no significant Black population. “Anti-Black racism is one of the main driving forces of people leaving Chile in search of protection,” Ms. Jozef said.
The number of visas issued to Haitians in Chile collapsed to just 3,000 so far this year from the peak of 126,000 in 2018, according to the country’s migration statistics. In fact, more Haitians have left than arrived in Chile this year, dramatically reversing a prepandemic trend.
“The movement of Haitians from Chile and other South American countries shows that migration is not just a simple journey of you move once and then you’re done,” said Cris Ramon, an immigration consultant based in Washington, D.C. “People are making a far more complex journey to the United States, it isn’t just that there’s an earthquake in Haiti so people are going to migrate.”
Until recently, Haitians were gathering by the thousands in Reynosa and Matamoros, the Mexican cities on the other side of McAllen and Brownsville, in the Rio Grande Valley, after hearing that families with children were not being turned back by the Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande. Some were allowed into the country; others were returned to Mexico, only exacerbating the confusion.
“The movement is often based on rumors,” said Ms. Jozef. “Last week, if you’d asked me, I’d say they were in Reynosa and Matamoros. This week it’s Del Rio. These people are extremely desperate. And they know that there is nothing to go back to in Haiti.”
Crowds in Del Rio, Texas, have created a new humanitarian challenge.Credit…Veronica G. Cardenas for The New York Times
Though Haitians still represent a small percentage of border crossers — about 4 percent of the migrants encountered by border agents in August — their numbers have ballooned in recent months. Nearly 28,000 Haitians have been intercepted by the Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, compared with 4,395 in 2020 and 2,046 in 2019.
The United States is home to about one million Haitians, with the largest numbers concentrated in Miami, Boston and New York. But Haitian communities have blossomed in Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina and California.
This week, the United States resumed deportation flights to Haiti under Title 42, an emergency public health order that has empowered the government to seal the border and turn away migrants during the pandemic. Immigration and Customs Enforcement repatriated about 90 Haitians, including families, on Wednesday.
The move drew sharp rebuke from immigrant advocates and lawmakers who said the administration should be offering Haitians legal protection and the opportunity to apply for asylum rather than repatriating them to their troubled home country just a month after the earthquake.
“It is cruel and wrong to return anyone to Haiti now,” said Steve Forester, immigration policy coordinator at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
But returning Haitians to their home country is “essential to prevent these kinds of situations from developing,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors curbing immigration. “If any Haitian who makes it to the U.S. border is home free, then more people are going to do it. If you lived in Brazil or Chile for years, one of your kids was born here, you are ineligible for asylum. You were firmly resettled in another country.”
On Friday, at the spillway north of the Del Rio International Bridge, a two-lane thoroughfare that connects the small bicultural city with Mexico, the migrants in the growing crowd became restless as they waited to be processed by border agents. They walked about the camp, which was filling up with hundreds of new arrivals on Friday, and crossed the Rio Grande into Ciudad Acuna, where they bought as much hot food and cold drinks as they could carry.
Near the bridge, enterprising migrants set up shop, shouting out their wares and prices. It felt like an open-air market, and by midafternoon, the piles of trash were strewn about the dirt ground. As the sun intensified, so did the dust, which left a thin layer on clothes, cellphones and bodies.
The mood, while mostly serious, was also at times jovial. As border agents looked on, migrants chatted with each other, joked and took occasional refreshing swims in the calm waters of the river.
Not too far from the camp, Ang Ladeson Francillon, 29, washed his clothes outside a shelter, where he had been taken after being processed by border agents. He had left Haiti only a month ago with his wife and little girl, setting out on an odyssey that took them across several countries, through jungles, across deep rivers and on long, exhausting treks by foot.
He reached Del Rio four days earlier, and was surprised to find thousands of other Haitians.
For the first time in a long time, at the shelter with so many others who dreamed the same dreams, Mr. Francillon felt optimistic about his family’s future. He was expecting to get on a California-bound plane, possibly as early as this weekend, where he would meet up with a sister.
“We hope to find a new start there,” he said. “We all want the same thing, a better life.”
James Dobbins and Edgar Sandoval reported from Del Rio, Natalie Kitroeff and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Mexico City and Miriam Jordan from Los Angeles. Oscar Lopez contributed research.