Thousands of Haitian migrants at the Mexico-US border in Texas faced a ramped-up US exclusion effort on Tuesday, with six flights to their homeland. On the other side of the border, Mexico had begun bussing some away.
More than 6,000 had been removed from an encampment at Del Rio, Texas, US officials said on Monday as they defended a response that faced criticism over the use of horse patrols to stop migrants entering the town.
Some Haitian migrants returned to Mexico. Others struggled to decide where to take their chances.
Marie Pierre, 43, stood on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande as night fell on Monday, with hundreds of others. She said border patrol agents separated her from her 19-year-old son in Texas and she didn’t know if he had been deported. She waited for a chance to charge her phone, hoping to get news from family in Florida.
“They told me he was an adult and couldn’t be with us,” she said.
At dawn on Tuesday, Jean Claudio Charles, 34, his wife and their one-year-old son woke after sleeping on cardboard in a park by the river with 300 others who chose to return to Mexico, some for fear of being deported, others because of a lack of food.
Charles said he did not want to leave the area, gradually becoming a new camp on the Mexican side, for fear of arrest.
“They are grabbing people, they bother us, especially Haitians because they identify us by skin,” he said.
Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, said on Tuesday he had spoken with his US counterpart, Antony Blinken, about the situation. Ebrard said most of the Haitians already had refugee status in Chile or Brazil and most weren’t seeking it in Mexico.
“What they are asking for is to be allowed to pass freely through Mexico to the United States,” Ebrard said.
Officials from Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission walked among migrants, signing up those interested in applying for asylum. This year, more than 19,000 Haitians have opted to do so.
Mexican authorities detained some migrants. The first busloads pulled out on Sunday. Humanitarian workers said they had seen Mexican national guard troops help immigration agents detain a group of 15 to 20. A federal official said the plan was to take the migrants to Monterrey, in northern Mexico, and Tapachula, in the south, with flights to Haiti to follow.
The US homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, conceded on Monday it was a “challenging and heartbreaking situation” but issued a stark warning: “If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family’s life.”
Mayorkas and the border patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, said they would look into agents on horseback using what appeared to be whips and their horses to push back migrants at the river between Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio, a city of about 35,000 roughly 145 miles west of San Antonio where thousands of migrants are camped around a bridge.
The Department of Homeland Security called the footage “extremely troubling” and promised a full investigation that would “define the appropriate disciplinary actions”.
On Tuesday in Washington the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, urged Joe Biden to put an immediate end to the expulsion of Haitian migrants.
“Images of Haitian migrants being hit with whips and other forms of physical violence is completely unacceptable,” Schumer said. “This behavior must be addressed and you must promote accountability. The images turn your stomach. It must be stopped.”
Mayorkas said 600 homeland security employees had been brought to Del Rio. He said he had asked the defense department for help. He also said the US would increase the pace and capacity of flights.
Schumer urged an end to deportations. “Such a decision defies common sense,” he said. “It also defies common decency.”
The number of migrants at the bridge peaked at 14,872 on Saturday, said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council. The expulsions were made possible by a pandemic-related authority adopted by Donald Trump in March 2020 that allows for migrants to be removed without opportunity to seek asylum. Joe Biden exempted unaccompanied children from the order but let the rest stand.
Any Haitians not expelled are subject to immigration laws, which include rights to seek asylum and humanitarian protection. Families are released in the US because the government cannot generally hold children.
Haitians have been migrating to the US in large numbers for several years, many having left after a devastating 2010 earthquake. Many make the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car, including through the Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
Some at the Del Rio camp said the recent earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of the president, Jovenel Moïse, made them afraid to return.
“It’s not right,” said Jean Philipe Samus. “The Americans are grabbing Haitians and deporting everyone to Haiti. Haiti has no president, no jobs, there is nothing. In the earthquake a lot of people died. It’s not right over there, I’m going back to Mexico.”