Haitian migrants seeking to escape poverty, hunger and hopelessness in their home country said they would not be deterred by US plans to swiftly send them back, as thousands remained encamped on the Texas border.
Scores of people waded back and forth across the Rio Grande on Saturday, re-entering Mexico to purchase water, food and diapers before returning to an encampment under and near a bridge in Del Rio, a Texas border city.
Crowd estimates varied but the Del Rio mayor, Bruno Lozano, said on Saturday evening there were 14,534 immigrants at the camp under the bridge. Many pitched tents and built makeshift shelters from giant reeds known as carrizo cane. Others bathed and washed clothing in the river.
It is unclear how such a large number amassed so quickly. The number of Haitian arrivals began to reach unsustainable levels for the Border Patrol in Del Rio about two weeks ago, prompting the agency’s acting sector chief, Robert Garcia, to ask headquarters for help, according to a US official who spoke anonymously.
Junior Jean, 32 and from Haiti, watched as people carried cases of water or bags of food through the knee-high river. Jean said he lived on the streets in Chile the past four years, resigned to searching for food in garbage cans.
“We are all looking for a better life,” he said.
The US Department of Homeland Security said that it moved about 2,000 migrants from the camp on Friday, for processing and possible removal. It also said it would have 400 agents in the area by Monday and would send more if necessary.
The announcement marked a swift response to the sudden arrival of Haitians in Del Rio, a city of about 35,000 roughly 145 miles west of San Antonio and on a relatively remote stretch of border.
A federal official said the US would likely fly the migrants out of the country on five to eight flights a day starting Sunday. Another official expected no more than two a day and said everyone would be tested for Covid-19. The first official said operational capacity and Haiti’s willingness to accept flights would determine how many flights there would be.
Told of the US plans, several migrants said they intended to remain in the encampment and seek asylum. Some spoke of the most recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, saying they were afraid to return to a country that seems more unstable than when they left.
“In Haiti, there is no security,” said Fabricio Jean, 38, who arrived with his wife and two daughters. “The country is in a political crisis.”
Haitians have been migrating to the US in large numbers from South America for several years, many having left home after a devastating 2010 earthquake. Many made the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
Jorge Luis Mora Castillo, a 48-year-old from Cuba, said he arrived on Saturday in Acuna and also planned to cross into the US. Castillo said his family paid smugglers $12,000 to take him, his wife and their son out of Paraguay, where they had lived for four years.
Told of the US message discouraging migrants, Castillo said he wouldn’t change his mind.
“Because to go back to Cuba is to die,” he said.
US Customs and Border Protection closed the only border crossing between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuna. Travelers were being directed indefinitely to a crossing in Eagle Pass, roughly 55 miles away.
The agency has transferred Haitians in buses and vans to other Border Patrol facilities in Texas, specifically El Paso, Laredo and Rio Grande Valley. They are mostly processed outside of the pandemic-related authority, meaning they can claim asylum and remain in the US while their claims are considered.
Nicole Phillips, legal director for advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, said the US should process migrants and allow them to apply for asylum, not rush to expel them.
“It really is a humanitarian crisis,” Phillips said. “There needs to be a lot of help there now.”
Mexico’s immigration agency said Mexico has opened a “permanent dialogue” with Haitian government representatives “to address the situation of irregular migratory flows during their entry and transit through Mexico, as well as their assisted return”.