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Haitian migrants still hoping to reach US ‘openly discriminated’ against in Mexico

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The tens of thousands of migrants, many of them Haitian, who camped out in Del Rio, Texas in the hope of seeking asylum in the US captured the world’s attention in September. Two weeks later, the camp has been cleared and thousands of Haitians are living precariously back in Mexico, facing discrimination. Our Observer runs an NGO in a Mexican border town and, after witnessing measures taken against them by authorities, says the plight of Haitian migrants there is “worse than any other group”.

At its peak on September 18, the Del Rio encampment held around 15,000 people. US border authorities have since deported thousands to Haiti and held others in custody to await processing. By September 24, the camp had been mostly cleared out.

But legally entering the US in order to file an asylum claim is nearly impossible, due to Title 42, a public health order put in place in March 2020 by the Trump administration, which makes it possible to expel potential asylum seekers without due process in order to limit the spread of Covid-19. Under this directive, the US sent nearly 4,000 migrants back to Haiti in just nine days, even though many of them had been living in other countries for years. Thousands of others decided to head back to Mexico to avoid deportation and consider their next steps. 

A video posted on Twitter on September 22 shows deported migrants who stormed back into the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in anger.

‘We have more Haitians coming from Chile, from the Dominican Republic, because they heard that they could legally cross into the US from Del Rio’

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro is the founder and co-director of The Sidewalk School for Asylum Seekers, which began as a school in a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico on the border with the US. Rangel-Samponaro and her organisation currently operate in nearby Reynosa, Mexico providing support, education, Covid-19 testing and food to refugees and migrants at the border.

Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico are around 530km southeast of Del Rio, Texas.
Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico are around 530km southeast of Del Rio, Texas. © Observers/datawrapper

According to Rangel-Samponaro, US immigration policies and the crisis in Del Rio have contributed to the number of Haitian migrants in Mexico.

Haitian asylum seekers move often, and they move in large groups. We’ve always had a percentage of Haitians in Reynosa. It has ticked up since the Del Rio situation has come about. We have more Haitians coming from Chile, from the Dominican Republic, because they heard that they could legally cross into the US from Del Rio. 

They started coming down to Matamoros and Reynosa [Editor’s note: around 530 km southeast of Del Rio] because they didn’t understand the geography of Mexico, they thought they were closer than they were. Some of them didn’t realise that right across from our encampment is the port of entry into McAllen, Texas. They could present themselves to the border patrol and try to cross. We advised all of them not to do that because they would get deported but one group tried anyway.

Right now there are a little over 2,000 people [in the Reynosa encampment], mostly people who’ve been expelled under Title 42. They made it to the US side but they were sent back because of the pandemic, they weren’t even given a chance to file an asylum claim.

Photos posted on Twitter on September 24 show the encampment set up in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico.

While thousands have been sent back to Haiti, 8,000 from the Del Rio camp returned to Mexico, alongside countless other Haitians who have made the journey toward the US border from other South or Central American countries – easier and cheaper to immigrate to than the US – where many headed after an earthquake in 2010 brought about massive damage and economic precarity in Haiti.

According to Rangel-Samponaro, they face even greater difficulties than other migrants and asylum seekers, due to discrimination and increased scrutiny.

‘We pulled over and the military just surrounded my car’

On September 18, Rangel-Samponaro went to help a group of Haitian migrants trying to reach the border, but was stopped on the way by Mexican security forces. 

I heard [from my colleagues in Mexico] about some buses of around 400 Haitians going toward the border who were stopped by Mexican military and forced to get off the bus and forced to walk. They spent the night at a church and then made plans to make a caravan [along the highway] the next day. I drove out the next morning and saw that the Mexican military was actually helping them. People, random strangers started going up and helping the migrants into their cars, vans, trucks. That’s not really a good thing to do, as Mexico is known for its cartels. But the Mexican military was okay with that, because they wanted them off the highway. Me and Victor, the other director of the school, picked up nine Haitian asylum seekers. They were families with a small newborn baby, and two small children under the age of six. We drove them, passing by state police three times, and no one stopped us.

It was when we were 30 minutes outside of Reynosa that there was this checkpoint with Mexican military. We had to pull over, we couldn’t go around. We pulled over and they just surrounded my car, it was a scary experience. They told us that everyone had to get out and we could do it the easy way or the hard way. We asked them, ‘Why are you forcing the Haitian asylum seekers out of my car?’ and there was not any explanation or good reason for that. 

It wasn’t just my car, they stopped every car coming down that road and they had everyone get out so they could see who was in the cars. They took the asylum seekers from my car and – it was just a few steps – but they surrounded them and guided them to a van and made everyone get in that van. We’ve worked in Mexico for three years and that’s never happened before, at least never with any Central Americans.

Rangel-Samponaro asked if she could follow the van to ensure the migrants were just going to be processed. She asked if she could take the nine people who were with her to a shelter in Reynosa, but security forces did not release them to her. The next morning, she found out they had been sent to Veracruz, a city in southeastern Mexico about 950 km away.

‘Black asylum seekers have it worse than any other group’

Haitian asylum seekers have it worse than anyone. They can’t hide in Mexico; their skin tone sets them apart from the Central American asylum seekers. And racism in Mexico is very strong. People won’t serve them food or sell them water – I’ve seen it myself. They won’t rent them apartments. So when I say black asylum seekers have it worse than any other group, it’s true. They can’t blend in, they’re very openly discriminated against by multiple people along the way. They don’t speak the language. So they have many things going against them that I’m sure people don’t think about. 

There is always hope, especially for Haitian asylum seekers, they don’t have any other options. Their home country is completely destroyed. They have nothing to go back to. Their only hope that they cling to is to make it to the US. That’s it.

An influx of Haitians seeking asylum in the US came after President Jovenal Moïse was assassinated on July 7, prompting instability and civil unrest across the country. A devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake also racked the country on August 14.

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The Groucho

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