With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.
This week, one of the remotest and most rural segments of the U.S.-Mexico border witnessed an event of major humanitarian, human rights, and political impact. Over the course of about a week a large group of migrants, mostly Haitian in origin, arrived en masse at the border crossing between Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, a site where the Rio Grande is shallow enough to wade across.
By September 18, Del Rio’s mayor, citing information from Border Patrol, said that 14,534 migrants were encamped on the riverbank, under and around the border crossing bridge. There, while awaiting their turn to be processed by Border Patrol, they washed in the river and slept in tents, under shelters built out of vegetation, or in the open air. While access to the site has been restricted, the scene appeared to be chaotic but peaceful.
Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which sits east of Big Bend National Park and west of Laredo, usually ranks low among the agency’s nine land border sectors in number of migrant arrivals. By August of this year, though, Del Rio had broken its annual record for migrant encounters.
Between October 2020 and August 2021, Del Rio border agents encountered citizens of Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, and Cuba at least 10,000 times each. Fear of organized crime in Mexico’s borderlands influences where migrants cross, and word had gotten out among citizens of these countries that Ciudad Acuña was a relatively safe place. “It’s unclear how these rumors started,” Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance told the Intercept.
Though Haiti this year has suffered COVID-19, the assassination of its president, an earthquake, and a tropical storm, very few of the Haitians in Del Rio have been there recently. Most left the country years ago, in the years after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, to pursue work opportunities in South America, especially Brazil and Chile. (Haitian labor was important, for instance, in Brazil’s effort to build infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.)
The pandemic hit South American economies hard, and several Haitian migrants in Del Rio told the New York Times that “they made the journey because they had lost their visas or their jobs and had no choice but to find a way to survive in the United States.”
At the moment, large numbers of Haitian migrants are backed up at key points along the migrant trail between South America and the U.S.-Mexico border. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document seen by NBC News claims that 3,000 Haitians are currently in Peru. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, said on September 22 that 19,000 mostly Haitian migrants were waiting in the Caribbean coast town of Necoclí for their turn to take ferries to Panama.
Once there, they walk through eastern Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap region, an ungoverned jungle area where unknown but significant numbers die of dehydration or illness, or are attacked and robbed—or worse—by criminals. This is the heaviest year ever for migrant flows through this route; estimates range from “more than 50,000” people to “more than 70,000 people, among them 13,000 children” passing through the Darién so far this year.
The DHS document cited by NBC estimates that about 1,500 Haitians are in Panama. In August, Panama’s migration authorities reported encountering 15,279 Haitian citizens exiting the Darién Gap.
In August, Chiapas Paralelo estimated that as many as 30,000 Haitians were stranded near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, especially in the city of Tapachula. There, most are confined to the area as they await decisions on asylum requests before Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR. Our weekly updates from late August and early September covered Mexican authorities’ repeated attempts to keep Haitian and other migrants from leaving Tapachula on foot. These included four operations to stop “caravans” in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. Some of these operations generated outrage, as photos and videos circulated of agents from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) chasing and beating migrants.
Following a September 21 conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said that most of the Haitians in Mexico had refugee status in Chile or Brazil and were not seeking it in Mexico. (In fact, Haiti is the number-two country among COMAR’s asylum applicants.) “What they are asking for is to be allowed to pass freely through Mexico to the United States,” Ebrard concluded.
It remains a mystery how nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants could so quickly make their way to remote Ciudad Acuña so soon after INM’s repeated crackdowns in Tapachula. “Many of the recently arrived Haitians took buses through Mexico, expediting their arrival and increasing their numbers,” NBC reported. They were able to do so despite the INM, National Guard, and other Mexican agencies maintaining numerous highway checkpoints.
“The Haitian community did not arrive at the northern border without the complicity of the federal authorities,” alleges veteran migration reporter Alberto Pradilla of Animal Político. “Either they looked the other way or they benefited (there are policemen who asked for bribes and companies that charged tickets at a very high price).” Pradilla also speculates that the INM may have responded to criticism of its human rights performance in Chiapas by catching a case of the “blue flu.” He notes, “a week of looking the other way shows the consequences [of their inaction], and then they can tell the U.S., ‘don’t question our methods.’”
Many Mexican officials blame organized crime. “They are domestic gangs, they come from the south and everything derives from there, but whoever receives them here also has to do with the polleros [smugglers] who work between Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila,” said Coahuila governor Miguel Riquelme. The smugglers “have tricked them…telling them, let’s go to the United States because they’re going to give us residency or even citizenship,” said Ebrard.
According to the Associated Press, though, the Haitian migrants are “a population that relies little on smugglers and instead moves based on shared experience and information exchanged between the tight-knit community, often via WhatsApp or Facebook, about where it is safest, where jobs are most plentiful and where it is easiest to enter a country.” Earlier this year, the AP notes, Haitians were coming more frequently to the El Paso sector hundreds of miles west of Del Rio. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the shift to Del Rio “was unusually sudden.”
Following this word of mouth, Haitians are even leaving other Mexico border cities to travel—eastward or westward, often through territory under heavy organized crime influence—to Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio. In the Gulf Coast state of Tamaulipas, Mexican authorities forced a group of a few hundred Haitians to dismount the buses on which they had been riding. They walked or hitched rides northward, and by the middle of this week, many were sleeping near the border in San Fernando—a town notorious for a 2010 massacre of 72 migrants by the Zetas organized crime group.
Some arrived in the Tamaulipas border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas—a town known both for very high violent crime and for a very large population of mostly Central American migrants recently expelled by the United States. Few Haitians plan to stay or to cross there. (Milenio reported, though, that some intend to settle in the prosperous industrial city of Monterrey, just south of Tamaulipas.)
A Haitian woman in Reynosa told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor that her goal was to arrive in Ciudad Acuña, more than 300 miles away—and that she wasn’t even aware that Reynosa was on the border. On the other end of the border, other Haitian migrants are planning to leave Tijuana for Ciudad Acuña, according to Milenio.
The rapid arrival of such a large population of migrants in Del Rio came as a surprise to U.S. authorities. CNN reported that Border Patrol agents in Del Rio had been asking management since June for more resources to process migrants, but—at least according to the local union—had not received an adequate reply.
In response to the Haitians’ rapid arrival, CBP surged 600 Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, and DHS volunteers to Del Rio, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a September 20 visit to the sector. CBP also shut down Del Rio’s official land port of entry (the border bridge), and closed Border Patrol checkpoints north of Laredo, Texas, allowing traffic to flow freely without inspection while personnel moved to Del Rio.
By September 21, CBP had constructed a field hospital and was more systematically providing food for migrants encamped around the border crossing. Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen also provided numerous free meals. But for the first several days, food and clean water were scarce at the Del Rio site. This forced migrants to wade into Ciudad Acuña, Mexico to buy food at local stores and restaurants, then wade back into the United States with their provisions.
On their return to U.S. soil, some of the migrants, often laden with bags of food, encountered hostile Border Patrol agents on horseback. Photos and videos showed agents appearing to charge at migrants, including some children, at the water’s edge, apparently trying to force them to return to Mexico. One can be heard using a profane slur against Haiti. Some are shown waving or making slapping motions with lariats or long reins, which bore a resemblance to whips.
“Video footage of Border Patrol’s actions in this incident clearly demonstrate that the migrants being encountered by mounted agents did not present an imminent threat,” an ACLU letter describes the scene. “In one video an agent stops a family with small children, makes derogatory and xenophobic comments to the family, and then maneuvers his horse in a way that comes dangerously close to trampling a child.”
Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz, a former Del Rio sector chief, claimed the agents were attempting to control the horses with the reins. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote that “this was an apparently isolated encounter, one that soon resolved with those seeking to enter the country and return to or arrive at the camp able to do so.”
Nonetheless, images of uniformed White men on horseback menacing Black people with what looked like whips blanketed U.S. social media on September 19 and 20, inspiring horrified reactions.
Immigrant rights and civil rights groups joined in condemnation. In Miami, 200 Haitian-Americans protesting outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office forced road closures. The NAACP tweeted side-by-side “then” and “now” images: a drawing of a slaveholder whipping a Black man next to one of the Del Rio photos. A letter from civil rights groups said Biden’s promises for a more humane immigration policy “are being shredded before our eyes.” Human Rights Watch called it “the latest example of racially discriminatory, abusive, and illegal U.S. border policies that are returning people to harm and humanitarian disaster.”
Reactions in Congress were strong. The images were “horrific and disturbing,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “We had not seen the horses and the whips with any other population of people, so that to us goes to racism,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. House Oversight Committee Democrats sent a letter demanding a briefing from Biden administration officials by September 24.
Strong words also came from the Biden administration itself. “As it relates to those photos and that horrific video, we’re not going to stand for that kind of inhumane treatment and obviously we want this investigation to be completed rapidly,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “What I saw depicted, those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were, was horrible,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “Human beings should never be treated that way, and I’m deeply troubled about it.”
On September 24, President Joe Biden addressed the images for the first time. “It’s horrible what you saw. To see people like they did, with horses, running them over, people being strapped, it’s outrageous,” he said. “I promise you, those people will pay. There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences.”
DHS promised an investigation and disciplinary actions, and suspended the use of horse patrols in Del Rio. However, “There is little reason to have confidence in the department’s willingness to hold its agents accountable,” Chris Rickerd and Sarah Turberville contend at the Los Angeles Times, noting that “CBP’s own records found that it took no action in 96% of 1,255 cases of alleged Border Patrol misconduct between January 2012 and October 2015.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), an immigration hardliner who has made border security a signature issue as he heads toward a 2022 re-election campaign, sent hundreds of Texas state police to Del Rio, where they parked their vehicles in a tight line along the bank of the river. It’s not clear whether Haitian migrants were deterred by Abbott’s so-called “steel wall” of cars, since they were already on U.S. soil and waiting for Border Patrol to take them into custody and process them.
On the right, where some conservative media has been openly portraying this non-white migration as part of a Democratic party-orchestrated “great replacement,” politicians called for a Trump-style crackdown on asylum seekers and defended the actions of the Border Patrol agents depicted in the controversial horseback photos. “As tens of thousands of illegal immigrants come across the border, Joe Biden promises them citizenship,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) falsely stated on Twitter.
Meanwhile, life in the small town of Del Rio has been largely unaffected by the situation along the riverbank. “Residents collectively agreed the situation at the bridge and the release of migrants into their region and town are not directly affecting their daily lives,” read a Washington Examiner article whose headline nonetheless describes the town as a “dusty war zone.”
While voicing outrage about the horse patrol photos, Biden administration officials doubled down on the use of Title 42, the pandemic provision that the Trump administration implemented in March 2020 and the Biden administration has continued. Title 42 allows U.S. authorities to expel undocumented citizens rapidly in the name of public health, even without affording them a chance to ask for asylum in the United States.
“I want to make sure that it is known that this is not the way to come to the United States,” DHS Secretary Mayorkas said. On September 19, DHS began filling planes with Del Rio Haitians and expelling them back to Haiti, regardless of asylum concerns. The tempo of flights from Texas to Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien increased from three on September 19 to six on September 24.
By the evening of September 23, the number of Haitians taken from Del Rio and flown back to Haiti had climbed to 1,949. Those sent back to Haiti reported being shackled by their hands and feet for the duration of their flights. Some said they were not told where the planes were going, and only found out they were back in Haiti—a country most had left many years ago—when they landed.
DHS is not testing the expelled Haitians for COVID-19. The Haitian government claimed it would provide food, a COVID test, and US$100 cash to the new arrivals, but “deportees said they got only half or a quarter of that amount,” according to the New York Times.
Expelled migrants vented their despair at the Port-au-Prince airport. They pelted a plane with stones and shoes on September 21. Authorities dumped their belongings on the tarmac; “video footage taken at the airport shows people scrambling for their personal belongings,” the BBC reported.
Jean Negot Bonheur Delva, the head of Haiti’s government migration office, pleaded for a suspension of the flights. “It is unconscionable to return migrants against their will to this situation of uncertainty and mortal danger,” read a statement from Doctors Without Borders, which adds, “The insecurity that we see today in Port-au-Prince is the worst we have seen in decades.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi put out a statement voicing his “shock” at the images from Del Rio and calling for the United States to “fully” lift the Title 42 expulsions policy. After a meeting between Congressional Black Caucus members and White House officials, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California, who WOLA presented with its 2021 Human Rights Award on September 22) called for a halt to deportations of Haitian migrants. Speaking from the Senate floor, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said, “I urge President Biden to put a stop to these expulsions and to end this Title 42 policy at our southern border. We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws.”
As we noted last week, on September 16 U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan ruled that Title 42 must no longer be applied to families—but he paused his ruling, which the Biden administration immediately appealed, for two weeks. If the appeals court doesn’t overturn Sullivan’s decision by October 1, it’s possible that DHS will no longer be able to expel Haitian or any other families.
Only a fraction of the Haitians in Del Rio are being put on planes. Some, especially those with small children or unspecified “vulnerabilities,” are being given a chance to apply for asylum in the U.S. interior. These releases are happening on a “very, very large scale,” in the thousands, a U.S. official told the AP. Who goes where appears to be determined by a color-coded system of “tickets” that Border Patrol agents have been handing out to yet-to-be-processed migrants.
As often happens with asylum-seeking families, most are being released with a notice to appear at ICE offices, in or near their destination cities, within 60 days. These “notices to report” take less time to issue, but they are not appointments for a hearing to start immigration proceedings.
DHS, with support from the Defense Department, has been busing Haitian migrants from Del Rio to other, more populated, Texas border sectors, and flying a few to Tucson, Arizona, where Border Patrol then processes them. Those who are processed in Del Rio itself and then released are mostly dropped off at the town’s bus stop, which is really just a gas station.
At least several hundred (or possibly several thousand) of the migrants, fearing expulsion to Haiti, fled back across the river from Del Rio to Ciudad Acuña. The Mexican town has since been encircled by migration agents and other authorities, who have been sweeping through parks and hotels where migrants have been staying.
While Mexico isn’t sending captured migrants back to Haiti—at least not yet—it has begun busing and flying many back to southern Mexico: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco, and Tapachula, Chiapas, where thousands of migrants are already living while they await decisions on their asylum applications. Detained migrants, an official told AP, may be “flown directly to Haiti once Mexico begins those flights” if they fail to ask for asylum.
Those who ask for asylum inside Mexico will wait many months for a decision from the country’s overburdened refugee agency, COMAR. As a steady flow of Haitians continues to manage to exit Tapachula, the COMAR office in Mexico City this week saw a big jump in Haitian asylum seekers applying there.
On September 22 NBC News, noticing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract announcement, reported that the agency was seeking a private contractor to run a Migrant Operations Center at the U.S. naval facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The facility, which was used in the 1990s to detain thousands of Haitians intercepted at sea, has not been used for that purpose since 2017.
“The facility has a capacity of 120 people and will have an estimated daily population of 20 people,” the request reads. “However the service provider shall be responsible to maintain on site the necessary equipment to erect temporary housing facilities for populations that exceed 120 and up to 400 migrants in a surge event.”
A DHS spokesperson was quick to clarify that the agency did not intend to use the facility to hold Haitians detained at Del Rio or elsewhere along the land border. It is apparently being stood up to respond to a possible increase in Haitians attempting to migrate by sea.
The persistence of Title 42 expulsions, and a general sense that the administration’s immigration and border policies lack direction, appear to have increased frustration among officials within the Biden administration. There are also splits between those who want a new approach to asylum-seeking migrants at the border, and those who urge tougher policies to “deter” large-scale migration.
“Several officials who have been involved in discussions about the border said that Susan E. Rice, Mr. Biden’s domestic policy adviser, has been a leading proponent of more aggressive enforcement,” the New York Times notes, “arguing that it is more compassionate to pursue an immigration system that is orderly in order to pass broader reforms.” However, “Esther Olavarria, a Cuban-born immigration lawyer who serves as Ms. Rice’s deputy, has often pushed to allow more migrants into the United States so they can pursue asylum claims.” DHS Secretary Mayorkas “is sympathetic to Ms. Olavarria’s view, several people said, but as the head of the department he has been the public voice of the harsher approach.”
Speaking anonymously, some of 20 government officials who communicated with BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz had some strong things to say:
On September 22, the State Department’s special envoy for Haiti, Dan Foote, resigned with a very strongly worded letter. “I will not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, at the Del Rio site, the number of migrants awaiting processing continues to fall. As of the morning of September 23, there were just over 4,050, down from the September 18 peak of 14,534. The chief executive of Val Verde County, of which Del Rio is the seat, said that the expectation is for the camp to be empty by September 25, as migrants are expelled, flee to Mexico, are moved elsewhere for processing, or are released into the U.S. interior.
Update: as we write this on September 24, Secretary Mayorkas is reporting that the Del Rio site is now empty of migrants.