For US-Bound Haitian Migrants, Acuña Became a Deportation Trap

“I need help. Please come get me. Police are chasing me”, texted Richard Augustin, a 26-year-old Haitian who was being followed by Mexican migration authorities. Many Haitians had left the camp in Del Rio, Texas escaping imminent deportations only to find the same on the Mexican side. 

Betania Dominique, 43, and her husband thought they could finally rest when they crossed over into the U.S. on September 15 and settled under the International Bridge at Del Rio, Texas. They were each given a piece of paper by U.S. officials at the border with a number which they thought meant they were a step closer to their family in Miami. 

Four days later, Dominique’s husband’s number was called. Shoelaces off and handcuffed, he was put on a bus to San Antonio, Texas, and then deported to Haiti on one of the first flights of a series announced by the U.S. government. 

When she heard about it in the news and knowing that her number – 2,439 – was next, she waded into the Rio Grande and swam back to Ciudad Acuña on the Mexican side.

By late Tuesday, she had yet to hear from her husband.

“We have been traveling for over five months. We left people behind in the Darien Gap and death along the way. We only want to work,” she said in tears.

Betania has three children back in Haiti. And now, she must pay for their tuition, food, and all living expenses on her own.

Although in the past years Haitians have already been making their way north from South America, the numbers in 2021 are breaking records. According to the Panamanian Immigration Authorities, since the beginning of the year, over 70,000 migrants have crossed the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, most of them Haitians having previously lived in Brazil and Chile. 

The increment is due to the economic crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing xenophobia towards Haitians in South America and notably more positive messages from the Biden administration towards migrants:  in May 2021, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a new 18-month designation of Haiti for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, enabling Haitian nationals residing in the U.S. at the time to file initial applications for TPS, so long as they met eligibility requirements. Those arriving now would not qualify for TPS.

“Joe Biden is a nice person. Trump was bad, he was a Republican,” said 26-year-old Richard Augustin, a Haitian, staring at the Rio Bravo from Ciudad Acuña.

Dreams

After living in Chile for almost three years with a decent job but not the proper immigration documents, being so near to U.S. soil was a dream come true. “Is that really Texas?” he kept asking. 

Despite an initial positive approach to migration, Biden has continued implementing Trump era decisions such as Title 42, a policy that allows CBP to immediately expel people who entered the U.S. irregularly to their last country of transit.

The regulation, implemented in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, generally prohibits entry of people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents to the United States as long as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control determines “there is a serious danger to the introduction of disease into the United States.”

A District of Columbia judge recently paused Title 42, but the Biden administration has appealed that decision.

Haiti has been suffering one serious crisis after other. After a 2010 earthquake shredded the Caribbean nation, an estimated of 1 million Haitians fled. It is members of this group who are now migrating north, coming mostly through Chile and Brazil.

This summer saw a new series of misfortunes: A 7.2 magnitude earthquake last month left more than 2,200 people and thousands injured amid the political turmoil caused by the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July.

Changing migration patterns

The Biden administration temporarily paused deportations to the island, but when news broke of the nearly 15,000 Haitians settled along the U.S.-Mexico border, CBP decided to restrain migrants on the U.S. side of the Rio Bravo to start seizing control of the situation. 

Most migrants explain that someone traveled before them and sent them instructions on how to avoid immigration controls. It is still a mystery how and why they got to Ciudad Acuña, a border city with a population slightly over 200,000.

Officer Mauricio Cruz, from the municipal police of Ciudad Acuña, explained that a month ago, most immigration raids took place in Piedras Negras, an hour and half east along the U.S.-Mexico border. “We knew they were talking among themselves because they suddenly started arriving in Acuña.”

Augustin felt lucky to get out of the camp before he was apprehended. He was running out of money and felt really scared to get on a bus and wondered, was this really his dream?

 

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