The Biden Administration Hasn’t Ended the Cruel Treatment of Migrants
Originally Published in Slate
Mary Harris – September 22, 2021
A few different images have made it out of the makeshift camp in the town of Del Rio, Texas, where nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants have been living. Drone shots show the sheer number of people crammed together, waiting to be processed. There’s the Border Patrol response: men on horseback appearing to violently herd these desperate people. And there are the long lines of people trying to wade into this country, one after another, balancing water bottles and takeout bags in their arms. But many journalists have been kept away from the camp itself, which means what’s happening to these migrants is happening in a black box. Jacqueline Charles, the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald, is Haitian American, and she spent the summer covering crisis after crisis in Haiti—the assassination of the president, a devastating earthquake. Last week, she flew into Texas to try to tell the migrants’ stories. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Charles about how Del Rio became the last hope for thousands of Haitian refugees, the treatment and plight of these asylum-seekers, and how Charles saw it coming. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jacqueline Charles: The frustration of being a reporter on this Del Rio story has been the fact that we have not had access to the migrants underneath that bridge in the town.
Mary Harris: What happens when you try?
I have asked, and you’re told no.
What’s the reason given?
There was no reason given. We were just told no. It’s a no-man’s land.
What does that mean?
If you’re standing at the bottom of the bridge, you’re looking through a fence, but you cannot see anybody. You don’t see anything. All you see now are Border Patrol vehicles. So you cannot see the camp. And even on the Mexican side, where I went, you cannot see the camp. Nobody has access to it. In fact, when I walked from the Mexico side to the other side, as a journalist, we were met by Border Patrol agents. We asked if we could go through there, and they said no.
I have seen images of Border Patrol agents on horseback, and some of them appear to have something like a whip in their hands. I’m wondering if you have any information on what is going on in those pictures.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who was in Del Rio yesterday, was actually asked about this. He says they are going to do an investigation into it. That picture … for a lot of people, whether they’re Haitian or whether they are Black, it has triggered a lot. There’s a lot of symbolism, and not very good symbolism.
Right now it doesn’t seem, from the outside at least, that there have been a lot of responses. I was wondering, are Americans providing any provisions for the people who’ve crossed? Like toilets or showers or food or medicine?
I spoke to advocates who did get access to the camp. One of them said, I did see port-a-potties as far as my eyes could see. Others said that food is being is being provided. But I think we need to have more access to this camp so we can fully understand how it is structured, what’s going on.
For instance, on the Mexican side I met a gentleman, Alex, who was inside, and he left to come get food for his wife and child. While he was out, that’s when he started to hear the “rumors” that they were starting to deport Haitians. He’d left Haiti in 2013 and just could not go back—he feared for his life if he were to return to Haiti. So he was sitting there contemplating whether or not to rejoin his wife and child or whether to stay in Mexico.
It’s a heart-wrenching decision. And I ased, You’re willing to let your wife and child take that risk of deportation and not join them? And he says, Yeah, but if they get deported, they would have a better chance at living than I would.
Lots of people are facing impossible choices. And another thing many of these people share is that they haven’t been in Haiti for years. Many of them left way back in 2010, after an earthquake hit Port-au-Prince. They resettled in Brazil and Chile. When jobs and money ran out, they moved again, many travelling by bus and by foot to Mexico. They’ve been on the move for a solid decade. How did so many of these migrants suddenly decide now is the time to begin to cross into the U.S.? Had Mexico become untenable?
Well, Mexico was difficult. A lot of the Haitians who have arrived were not given papers to be legal in Mexico. So finding work was difficult, finding a place to live was difficult. And when they left Chile and Brazil, they spent a lot of money: People have spent thousands of dollars to get through 11 or 12 countries in the region in order to get to Mexico. Then people heard the border was open and that is why they ended up under Del Rio’s international bridge.
And now that they’ve arrived in the U.S., many migrants are surprised Border Patrol is jailing and swiftly deporting them. Just a few months back, the Biden administration extended Temporary Protected Status to Haitian refugees, allowing them to stay in the U.S. if they were already here. But it’s different for migrants arriving now because of something called Title 42. That’s a Trump-era provision, renewed by the Biden administration, that allows the U.S. government to deport migrants to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The problem in the controversy around Title 42 is that, today, migrants who are in need of protection do not have the opportunity to present their case before U.S. authorities.
Because they can’t apply for asylum?
Exactly. Title 42 is basically allowing the U.S. to do “wholesale” deportations without giving people an opportunity, whether they’re from Haiti or elsewhere, to present their case for asylum.
We’re hearing about flights in the U.S. beginning to repatriate some of these migrants who crossed into Del Rio, sending them back to Haiti. Can you describe what that’s like for the migrants, especially those who haven’t been in Haiti for years?
You’re back at square one, and you are most likely worse off than when you left years ago. That’s the reality. I saw something by a colleague where there people who had arrived from Del Rio and they didn’t know how to get their way out of the airport, like it was all foreign to them. You have children who don’t speak Creole or French, but they speak Spanish and Portuguese. And where do you begin if you sold everything you own to go to South America, and then you sold everything you own to go to Mexico and take this gamble into the United States, and now you’ve been sent back to the very country you left?
There are some who will be turned back to South America because they have legal residency in those countries. They get to start over. But in Haiti, where there really isn’t a prospect of work, where even humanitarian aid groups have acknowledged that it’s been difficult to provide resources and assistance because the southern entrance of the capital is still controlled by gangs, and streets are still blocked by gangs. Even the countryside, which has a reputation of being safer than the capital, is not an option for some of these people, because they can’t go on the road in a bus because they’re scared they may either be shot dead or kidnapped.
Have you been able to speak to any of these migrants directly, the folks who have been sent back?
We have. They are angry. They still don’t understand what happened. They were still under the impression that the border was open. They are shocked by the detention, that that they were jailed. One gentleman talked about how he spent six days without taking a shower and without brushing his teeth. It’s not the welcome they expected.
I think Del Rio requires a larger introspection in terms of U.S. immigration policy and the asylum system, which the U.S.—under Biden and also Trump—has been criticized for.
I think about Vice President Kamala Harris and the fact that she went on this tour, not to Haiti, but to South America a few months back. Her message was “Do not come here.” And that may discourage some folks, but it will by no means discourage everyone. These surges will keep happening. There’s a limit to just saying no.
It would be very interesting to see how much money the U.S. government has spent in these countries to address issues of migration. And most people don’t understand how immigration works. They don’t understand how somebody could be in this country 30 years and still be undocumented. They don’t know that there’s a process. They don’t know that there’s a green card. We in the media, too, we’re not necessarily covering those stories unless there’s something dramatic. So people don’t see everything.
One of the questions that I raised with Mayorkas was that more than 10 years back, the U.S. government used to actually provide Haiti with financial assistance to help with the repatriation of Haitians. The reality is that there have been thousands of Haitians prior to this who have been deported, either because of exhausting all other immigration remedies or because of criminal records in the U.S. And this is a country where the conditions are not safe for people to return. So does this mean that you believe that this country, this cash-strapped government, is in the position that it can help with the resettling of thousands of people?
One of the things that we are now told by DHS is that it is talking to Haitian government officials. I’m waiting to see what funding is going to look like, if it is going to come through, because this is a huge burden on a country that’s already troubled. But what are the root causes of migration and why these people left Haiti either yesterday or 10 years ago? The reality is that they left. And the other reality is that they are not trying to go back.
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