North America

Halted at U.S. border, Haitian migrants keep hoping

Published : September 23, 2021 13:33 IST

Migrants wade through the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, to Ciudad Acuna in Mexico as they go back and forth for supplies. Photo: Felix Marquez/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Thousands of Haitians have arrived in the U.S. border town of Del Rio. What happens next is unclear.

A pale yellow building next to a dusty football field in the border town of Del Rio in Texas represents hope for migrants wanting to come to the U.S. Those who have made it here have crossed the river and the border, and, for the moment at least, have left behind some of their uncertainty. Migrants holding brown paper envelopes are standing in line in the shade of the buildings, waiting for a bus on this mercilessly hot afternoon.

It's more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade, but there is water and fruit here and volunteers from the Border Humanitarian Coalition who are taking care of the migrants. There are no makeshift camps and inhumane conditions like those that exist under the city's bridge spanning the Rio Grande and connecting Mexico with the United States.

Charly is one of more than a hundred migrants here. And, like almost all of them, he is from Haiti. The 32-year-old has been on the move for a long time. Charly spent two months on the road, traveling through 12 countries. It's all to secure his future, he says. He left his native country years ago and stayed in Chile for a few years. But the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the economic situation there, increasing discrimination against migrants like him.

For him, returning to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, is not an option, and he sees no future for himself there. The country slid deeper into chaos after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July and an earthquake in August. Wearing a blue baseball cap and colorful floral-printed shirt, Charly is finally on American soil. He's hoping he won't be deported, because he has family in Orlando.

It's the same with Edlin. The 27-year-old sits somewhat to the side, feeding her one-year-old daughter. "I'm hoping for work and a better life," she says. She, too, initially fled to Chile, in 2018 and, just like Charly, was on the road for about two months. "I'm doing fine," Edlin says, despite everything she's been through. She speaks in short sentences, almost always looking at her daughter.

Edlin also has the envelope in which she has papers that will supposedly lead her to her family in the U.S. Among the people here, there's a widespread rumor that no one who has family in the U.S. will be deported. Many of the migrants here believed that things would get better with Joe Biden as U.S. president and that the promise of America would be within reach.

But even though Biden has promised a more humanitarian immigration policy than Donald Trump and stopped Trump's wall-building, it hasn't really led to fewer fortifications along the country's long southern border.

Damaging images around the world

A few kilometers (miles) south of the yellow building in Del Rio, hope quickly fades as a black steel fence looms. After images of deplorable conditions in an impromptu overcrowded migrant camp under a bridge in the town went public, access to the site has been blocked. The no-man's-land in the border region is now sealed off. In the windows of a long-closed supermarket, there's an advert in Spanish for cigarettes and alcohol. The paint peeling off, it still holds out the promise of a golden land.

A few meters away, roadblocks and state trooper cars close off the bridge, which usually sees heavy border traffic. National Guard soldiers drive across the road in all-terrain vehicles. One of the entry gates is still open for the hundreds of officials that the government in Washington has sent to Texas. They are charged with quickly bringing the situation back under control to avoid a repeat of further disturbing images from which President Biden is trying to distance himself.

His homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, has come to make the administration's message clear once again: "Don't come." And those who have arrived in Del Rio are now being firmly sent back.

Anger at politicians

Since September 19, Haitians have been being flown back to their country, and thousands more are being transferred to other places in the U.S., where a decision will be taken on their status. The vast majority of them, however, Mayorkas repeats, are to be sent back to their native countries. But despite the sealed-off bridge, people are still trying to get in. Videos have shown border guards on horseback yelling at migrants in the Rio Grande river to turn back and using their reins as whips to deter them.

The White House has said it's appalled by the scenes. But they are now out there for all to see, just like the images of tens of thousands of migrants camped under the bridge. By the end of the week, the Border Patrol wants to have broken up the camp.

Frank Lopez isn't surprised by any of it — neither the chaos nor the many people who have flocked to the city, where he has lived for a long time. "The only people surprised by this are the politicians," said the 55-year-old, who himself worked for a long time as a border agent. For him, the city of Del Rio, which has a population of 35,000, is a war zone. And in his view, the president is to blame for promising open borders. Standing at the sealed bridge where he regularly films short videos for his Facebook page, Lopez says a promise like that is just calling for a disaster.

Lopez doesn't have much time, but he's in the mood to talk. The Trump supporter is angry at politicians, and not just the Democrats, though he says Trump at least raised pressure on Mexico.

But, Lopez says, none of the lawmakers have a clue about how such decisions affect the lives of citizens. Life in Del Rio is going on as usual with football games on the weekend and residents going about their daily routines. But the presence of so many migrants scares people, Lopez says, adding that more will be pouring in if the country doesn't deport people as a matter of course. There are migration laws in place, Lopez says. "We aren't heartless, but we simply can't help everyone. There are limits."

Immigration a hot-button issue

For conservatives like Lopez, those limits have long since been reached. Border crossings in the U.S. have reached their highest level in decades. More than 200,000 undocumented people were apprehended by Border Patrol in August, and more than 1.5 million since last October. Republicans blame Biden's immigration policies. Ted Cruz, a senator in Texas, had himself filmed under the bridge and added the hashtag #BidenBorderCrisis.

The immigration debate will be one of the most contentious issues in next year's midterm elections. And President Biden has yet to find a way out of the dilemma of wanting to act humanely while sticking to his "don't come" rhetoric, which would seem to point rather toward policies designed to keep migrants out. Human rights organizations and the left wing of the Democrats have criticized the president for the deportation flights to Haiti. "This is completely inhumane. Haitians are experiencing a crisis after crisis and deserve compassion," congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted.

Roberte Marquez, who goes by the pseudonym Robenz, sums it up in a slogan on a large canvas in front of the border fence in Del Rio. "Stop the deportations," it says in black letters on an orange and white background. Brushes and paint lie ready on his pickup truck. Robenz is here because he wants to show solidarity "with my brothers under the bridge."

Originally from Mexico, he's now an American citizen and has been working for years with migrants. Jobs would help them, Robenz says. But many Americans fear losing their jobs, which is precisely the argument used by Republicans to justify restrictive immigration policies. Still, there are many jobs in the country done by undocumented people. Robenz didn't approve of Trump's policies, and he's not yet sure about Biden either. But sending people back will achieve nothing, Robenz says. "They'll come back."

For Charly and Edlin, the journey continues, for now. After some delay, the bus organized by the volunteers in Del Rio rounds the corner. Both of them find seats on it. It takes them a little deeper into America. But it's unclear whether they will be allowed to stay.

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