BY THE TIME word spread that up to 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants had been detained under the international bridge in Del Rio, the small Texas border town had become occupied territory. A helicopter hovered over the Rio Grande, state troopers swarmed everywhere and were stationed every half-mile along the surrounding roads. A tent city of military and law enforcement personnel had sprouted up on city-owned land on the south side of the border wall, near the makeshift camp where Haitians slept. Inside the camp, in the dirt and the heat, pregnant women went into labor.
Four years ago, Republicans and Democrats linked arms with residents from both sides of the border to form a human chain across the bridge in a show of “unity,” yet in recent weeks Del Rio has become a theater for a dramatic show of violence and force, as mounted Border Patrol agents charged at Haitian migrants while twirling their reins like whips. Some 2,300 law enforcement officers, said Mayor Bruno Lozano, had been dispatched to Val Verde County, home to roughly 49,000 residents.
“I don’t feel it’s in anybody’s best interest to come in mass movement like that,” he said, adding that it creates security vulnerabilities elsewhere. “If this is going to continue to be our response, it’s not a good precedent.”
Outside a shelter operated by the Val Verde Humanitarian Border Coalition, a local man carrying a holstered firearm said he was providing security to protect Haitians from hostile residents and outsiders. When Rev. Al Sharpton attempted to hold a media event near the border wall in solidarity with the Haitian migrants, he was shouted down by men who accused him of spreading racism. Volunteers in Del Rio collected donations and set out refreshments and snacks — for state troopers.
“Overwhelmed” was the word repeatedly used by federal, state, and local officials to describe Border Patrol agents, who officials said were caught by surprise and unable to address the influx of Haitian migrants.
But the arrival of Haitians was anticipated, and much of the chaos that ensued seemed preventable with basic planning and logistics. But in the scramble to contain the media crisis, the U.S. employed tactics that set off a cascade of repression and violence on both sides of the border. By allowing the situation to reach critical levels, federal officials created conditions that made a militarized crackdown seem inevitable, making criminals out of people asserting their right to seek asylum.
Almost 30,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, “were encountered” in Del Rio after September 9, said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in a briefing, and more than 12,000 will have their cases heard by an immigration judge. But more than 5,000 of those asylum-seekers have been deported to Haiti, just weeks after the U.S. extended and expanded temporary protected status to the country. As Mayorkas stated in May, “Haiti is currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The arrival of vulnerable asylum-seekers is not a crisis,” said Wade McMullen, an attorney at RFK Human Rights who traveled to Del Rio. “The militarized response and lack of preparation — that’s the crisis.”
Days after Border Patrol agents on horseback charged at Haitian migrants, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made four requests of the mayor to authorize state troopers to enter the city property to arrest the Haitians for criminal trespassing, Lozano told me. “It would have caused mass chaos,” he said during an extensive interview. A spokesperson for Abbott did not answer questions about the governor’s request to conduct arrests. Lozano said he stalled, telling the governor he was staking his faith on the immigration system to process the asylum-seekers.
After a massive deployment involving the Coast Guard, Texas National Guard, state troopers including air and marine support, and Customs and Border Protection, on September 24 officials announced that Haitians were no longer under the bridge. After weeks of a growing encampment and worsening conditions, everyone had been cleared out in mere days.
The aggressive response in Del Rio underscores an immigration system that prioritizes the spectacle of force over an investment in the construction of systems needed to process asylum-seekers.
The aggressive response in Del Rio underscores an immigration system that prioritizes the spectacle of force over an investment in the construction of systems needed to process asylum-seekers to conform to obligations dictated by international and U.S. law. Officials left little doubt that the aggressive deployment was designed to send a message of deterrence to others who might also seek aslyum.
“What we start doing to Haitians tends to spill over to everyone else,” said Yael Schacher, an immigration historian and senior advocate with Refugees International. In the 1980s, after the U.S. had experimented with imposing detention on Haitians, the policy was expanded to Central Americans fleeing U.S.-backed wars.
County Judge Lewis Owens, the top administrator of Val Verde County, described the state and federal law enforcement deployment as “amazing.” “We want to lean on law enforcement to stop flow,” he said, adding, “that said, there has to be a process to ask for asylum.”
Despite claims that border officials were caught off guard, signs of the impending arrival of a large number of asylum-seekers were not hard to find. In the Del Rio area, the number of encounters with migrants had increased in 2021 over the prior year, with the numbers spiking over 1,000 percent by May, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
In May, Lozano, a Democrat, met with congressional Republicans and appeared on Fox News, complaining about “illegals” in town and criticizing the Biden administration for a lack of response at the border. “Unfortunately, at the time it was only right-wing media groups like Fox that were telling the story,” he told me, adding that “the policy needs to be reformed so ports of entry have to take them in legally and not be criminally charged.”
Two months later, Border Patrol agents detained hundreds of people from various countries under the bridge in Del Rio. Meanwhile, a video that captured Mexican immigration officials brutalizing Haitian migrants who were headed north circulated online. The Spanish newspaper El País reported that Haitian claims for asylum in Mexico had reached a record high. By September, Mexico had received 19,000 petitions for asylum, higher than any other nationality, following a trend of Haitians transiting through Mexico that began two years ago. Even so, U.S. officials repeatedly claimed that the arrival of Haitians on the border was a surprise.
Given that the Biden administration has continued the Trump administration policy of closing the traditional route of asking for asylum at ports of entry, asylum-seekers took to the river, setting the stage for compelling video footage of large groups of immigrants turning themselves in at the border fence in Del Rio, exciting viewers of Fox and Newsmax. In early August, Jorge Ventura, a contributor to the right-wing Daily Caller interviewed Del Rio residents about the “crisis.”
Around this time, said Owens, the judge, county authorities were informed that “caravans” of some 25,000 people were expected to arrive on the border.
The longer the Haitians were under the bridge, the more currency was extracted from their presence.
Weeks later, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, recorded a video at the bridge in Del Rio, using Haitians suffering miserable conditions as a prop to talk about border chaos. Gesturing toward a crowd of what he said was 10,503 people, Cruz claimed the number had increased tenfold in one week after the Biden administration announced a pause to deportation flights following a devastating earthquake in Haiti. According to Cruz’s version of events, the hundreds of Haitians who had been camped in Del Rio sent word to friends and family in South America who arrived in one week.
Texas state police later posted images of troopers and their vehicles positioned with Haitians in the background, a show of force meant to deter other migrants. By that time, 700 troopers had been deployed to the county, a number that ultimately grew to 1,000.
The longer the Haitians were under the bridge, the more currency was extracted from their presence. An editorial in the newspaper Zocalo stated, “Someone has made a business from the issue of the migration crisis in the border state of Coahuila.”
About 1,000 Haitians arrived in Del Rio in early September. When Lozano visited the camp on September 13, the number had doubled to more than 2,000. The local CBP port director called Lozano and said, “’Mayor, this is it, it’s happening now. There’s 30 buses coming this way.”
The worsening situation was apparent even to diners of La Cabañita, a taqueria along Acuña’s main tourist drag, where the television is permanently tuned to a live feed from the international bridge. A restaurant manager said he first noticed the growing crowd two weeks before state and federal agents flooded the region.
On September 15, with nearly 4,000 people under the bridge, Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz informed the mayor that construction of necessary infrastructure to process people would take 10-14 more days. “And I said, in a more colorful tone, ‘You don’t have 10 to 14 days,’” Lozano told me. “You had plenty of frickin’ time to fix this out.” Two days later, the number of people had increased to 14,000. Ortiz told a reporter he expected to clear the camp within a week.
“It’s not a lack of resources but a lack of priorities of screening asylum-seekers.”
“I don’t believe these capacity arguments anymore. It’s not a lack of resources but a lack of priorities of screening asylum-seekers,” said Schacher. “What I wish, is that people would be honest and say, ‘We are deliberately not devoting resources to asylum-seekers to send a deterrent message.’”
With the equivalent of a third of the population of Del Rio living under the bridge, Lozano posted a video stating that the local processing center was at capacity and asked: What was the Border Patrol supposed to do with the 20,000 who were projected to arrive?
The answer to Lozano’s question soon became clear. After the deplorable conditions made national headlines, immigration officials removed thousands of people from the camp within days. Deportation flights to Haiti began almost immediately. During one night, nearly 3,000 people were bused out. U.S. officials shut down the border and mobilized air support, the Coast Guard, state troopers, and the deployment of an additional 600 CBP agents and officers to the area.
Shortly before the camp was cleared, Owens posted a video describing the situation as “bat-shit crazy” and blaming the Biden administration for the arrival of the migrants, saying, “I’m going to go ahead and throw rocks at [Biden] because it’s his fault.”
When I asked about the lack of preparation or readiness, Owens said that county officials knew 45 days earlier that the projected caravans would arrive on the Acuña-Del Rio border. “What I’ve been told is that nobody expected it,” said Owens. Why there was no response or preparation? “I don’t have an answer,” he said, “I’m not going to throw rocks at Border Patrol.”
U.S. Border Patrol referred requests for comment to Customs and Border Protection, which referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security. Those questions went unanswered.
For his part, the massive government response within 48 hours left Lozano speechless. “Makes you wonder,” he said. “I don’t know how they explain it.”
For McMullen, the attorney at RFK Human Rights, the situation represents “a lack of transparency.” “They said they are overwhelmed,” he said. “Either that’s a lie or they don’t know how to treat migrants. It’s either gross incompetence or blatant lies.”
Fleeing From Texas
As word of the U.S. deportations spread through the camp, thousands of Haitians who had waited under the international bridge for processing fled back across the river to Mexico and took refuge in Parque Braulio Fernández Aguirre, a large park along the riverbank. U.S. authorities had closed the port of entry, and with the bridge closed, commerce ground to a halt between the U.S. and Acuña, home to at least 50 factories, many of which ship goods across the river. The U.S. told Mexican authorities that the bridge would be reopened once the Haitians were removed from the park. Meanwhile, the business community in Acuña demanded that Mexican officials do whatever was necessary to appease the Americans and reopen the bridge.
Mexican immigration authorities, backed by local police, rode through the city in caravans waging nightly raids. Agents abducted people from hotels, apartments, and even off the street. Haitians were loaded into buses and sent to Tapachula, on the border with Guatemala, and Villahermosa in the Yucatán. The operations were reminiscent of the tactics regularly used by security forces a decade ago under President Felipe Calderón during Mexico’s “drug war,” when agents routinely grabbed people off the street and during traffic stops.
Andrés Ramírez, director of Mexico’s commission for refugees said in an interview with El Diario that Haitians should not be returned to Haiti because the country has been “absolutely devastated” by recent disasters, including an earthquake and presidential assassination. Less than a week later, the Mexican government announced the start of deportation flights to Haiti, which it termed “humanitarian returns.”
Thirty-year-old Jean was among those who joined the exodus from Del Rio. “It feels like a humiliation,” Jean told me. “I came from far for help and they rejected us.” Two of his friends had been deported to Haiti from the U.S.
When I met Jean, he had recently left Aguirre Park and moved to the Fandango, a nightclub with a massive courtyard that had been converted to a shelter. The relocation was not his choice. “They told us that they couldn’t reopen the bridge until we were gone,” he said.
We met at nightfall when hundreds of families and single men were settling into the Fandango. Tents had sprung up inside atop the old dance floor and along an enormous elegant bar. Volunteers unfurled more tents outside where armed soldiers with the Guardia Nacional roamed around. In the middle of the courtyard, children soon found spaces to play, and women rummaged through huge bags of donated clothes.
Jean wore a bright smile on his weathered face and said he had traveled to the U.S. from Chile through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap, through Guatemala along the Atlantic coast and into Tampico before arriving in Acuña and crossing into Del Rio. Five years ago he had fled Haiti, embarking on long journey that included studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic, where he also learned English. He then migrated to Chile where he worked in the hotel and tourism industry and became a bodybuilder.
Nearby, Rev. Marco Rivera, the pastor of World Harvest Church Mexico, checked in on new arrivals. Rivera had intervened at the park to persuade people to move to the refuge, telling them it had been established for them. But they had reason to be distrustful of Mexican officials and were reluctant to leave.
“They were promised certain things and they broke their promises,” Rivera told me while he toured the Fandango. “For example, that they were safe there at the camp. Then about three days ago, at 3 o’clock in the morning, they came with cars and three buses; they filled them up and sent them away.” The next day Rivera combed the city for Haitians who had gone into hiding, to try and persuade them off the streets into the shelter where they wouldn’t be alone.
The chaotic response by the U.S. resulted in confusion and misinformation that left Gaby and her partner DeYoung feeling deceived. “They said pregnant women could stay,” said Gaby, who is six months pregnant. But with the announcement of deportation flights, such exemptions to rapid expulsion went unstated. Some 44 percent of Haitians deported this week were women and children. “I am not certain of anything,” she said, adding that she has been too stressed to even think about baby names.
Seated next to her, James, a tall man with dreadlocks piled high on his head retorted, “Name the baby Del Rio.” His suggestion stirred withering laughs from others nearby. To describe how he felt, James pulled up a meme of two images: an 1830 engraving of the slave trade depicting a man gripping a whip, next to the photo of Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing people who hail from the first country in the hemisphere that successfully revolted against slavery.
The next day the shelter courtyard looked like a tailgate party. Mexican families from the city to the small farm communities had piled up food and clothes to share with the Haitians. A Mexican toddler queued up to kick a soccer ball while a Haitian boy played defense.
Two sisters, Susana and Leticia Reyes, served dishes of pureed potatoes, salad, and chicken from their van. The meals represented the combined efforts of five family members plus a cousin in San Jose, California, who sent the funds to cover the ingredients. They were also motivated to help after watching the treatment of the Haitians. “We had never seen raids like the ones done to Haitians,” said Susana. “We thought it was a type of persecution.” For two years they had noticed Venezuelans, Cubans, and Haitians living in Acuña, but they had not heard about any raids.
Across the courtyard, Yesenia Castro and her family and friends had traveled to Acuña from a nearby rural community with their van loaded down with meals prepared by seven families. They too were moved by the plight of the Haitians, saying they had all experienced tough times when a meal was nothing more than a tortilla with beans. And they were motivated by indignation over ads warning Mexicans that it was a crime to give the Haitians a ride.
The fate of the Haitian asylum-seekers remained uncertain, and fear was pervasive. Jean and others were anxious about an impending visit by immigration officials that could result in their removal to the Guatemalan border. Twenty-eight-year-old Christela decided to pass the anxious moments by weaving an intricate and beautiful braid for one of the volunteers who had donated food. She didn’t want to think about the possibility of deportation, and she feared the bandits who were known for violence. The journey to Texas had been marked by fear and trauma; thieves robbed migrants and raped women. But for a few minutes, surrounded by people admiring her handiwork, she experienced an unfamiliar feeling: She felt content.
Two days after the camp was cleared, after thousands of Haitians had been deported to Haiti or bused from Acuña, two Haitians, one in red shorts and a red hat and another wearing a gray polo shirt, waded into the Rio Grande and turned themselves over to the Border Patrol as state troopers looked on, a military utility truck cruised by, and a CBP helicopter hovered closely.