“I’d like to stay here in Mexico, but I’m scared because I don’t have permission to be here,” one immigrant told BuzzFeed News. “I don't know what to do."
Posted on September 24, 2021, at 7:44 p.m. ET
The 35-year-old father weighed his options: head back into the US, where he could be sent back to Haiti, or stay in Mexico as authorities closed in around him and other immigrants.
Wood, who declined to give his full name out of fear of retaliation from the US or Mexico for speaking out, said he didn’t have a plan but needed to form one if he’s to take care of his wife and two daughters.
“I’d like to stay here in Mexico, but I’m scared because I don’t have permission to be here, Wood told BuzzFeed News. "But the US may deport us. I don't know what to do."
Like hundreds of immigrants who left the camp in Del Rio, Texas, this week in an attempt to avoid being flown to Haiti, the walls are closing in on them, this time from the Mexican side of the border. Immigration agents, flanked by armed soldiers and police officers, conducted day and nighttime raids on the streets of Ciudad Acuña, where they have been detaining and flying immigrants to southern Mexican states. For days, immigrants have been going back and forth across the precarious Rio Grande, moving to whichever side of the border seems friendliest.
On Thursday before dawn, Mexican immigration agents drove into the camp flanked by local police and the National Guard. The immigrants, most of them Haitian, who had been living at a park in Ciudad Acuña, were startled awake. The presence of Mexican authorities was enough to scare some of them back to the US side of the border, a place they had previously abandoned after the Biden administration started to send back hundreds of immigrants to Haiti. No one was detained at the park, but the threat loomed.
The Biden administration has moved thousands of immigrants from the Del Rio area to other parts of the border, to be processed into the country or removed. It has relied, in large part, on the Title 42 policy, which cites the pandemic as the reason for allowing border agents to quickly turn back asylum-seekers, to clear the camp in Del Rio of thousands of Haitians. In a matter of days, the US flew almost 2,000 immigrants back to Haiti. On Friday, more flights were expected to the country, which has been struggling following an earthquake and presidential assassination.
On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the camp underneath the Del Rio International Bridge had been cleared and that no migrants remained there. Since Sept. 9, nearly 30,000 immigrants had been encountered in Del Rio, Mayorkas said. Another 8,000 had returned to Mexico voluntarily, and 5,000 others were waiting to be processed, which means they’ll either be expelled or allowed to remain in the country.
Mayorkas added that over 12,000 immigrants who had entered the US would have their cases heard.
He maintained that the use of Title 42 was necessary due to the pandemic and that it was not an immigration policy. He also noted that the policy allowed for exceptions.
On Thursday, a Mexican immigration agent, who only gave BuzzFeed News his last name, Rodriguez, said they, alongside the National Guard and local police, showed up at the park in Ciudad Acuña before dawn and frightened immigrants awake because the US was conducting an operation in Del Rio, and they were worried people would drown trying to get back into Mexico.
But their early morning presence had the opposite effect on some immigrants who had waded across the Rio Grande to get back into Del Rio, Texas. Mexican authorities soon blocked their access, cutting a yellow rope that immigrants had used to cross the river.
Although many Haitians had initially left their homes to go to Brazil or Chile after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake, immigration policies in those countries had become more restrictive in the last five years, according to a 2021 report on Haitian women’s migration. The report, published by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said the tighter restrictions led many Haitians to head to Mexico.
One of them was Wood, whose 12-year-old daughter fainted from dehydration last week at the camp in Del Rio.
"If you go out onto the streets of Haiti, you have to pray to come back," he said.
Wood immigrated with his family to Chile, where he tried to make a living — but without legal status there, finding a well-paying job was difficult.
He has considered going back to Chile, but that would mean having to travel through the Darién Gap, a jungle that UNICEF describes as one of the most dangerous routes in the world. It was the most difficult part of the journey up to the US–Mexico border, Wood said, adding that criminals violently rob immigrants and rape women in the region.
"It's something you cross once in your life, not twice," he said.
Standing in the camp Wood had been sleeping in with his family, Rodriguez, the immigration agent, said authorities had established a shelter in Ciudad Acuña for those who wanted to leave the park they had been camping in. He also said the immigrants could continue their refugee application process with the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, but they would need to do so in the city of Tapachula in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
But Tapachula is a prison city for immigrants who don't have documentation to leave the state or authorization to work. If they try to leave without paying smugglers thousands of dollars, they have to contend with National Guard troops. There have also been violent confrontations for years between immigrants trying to leave and Mexican authorities, under pressure from US officials, who are trying to keep them from heading north. Last month, Mexican officials condemned the "inappropriate" actions of their agents after they violently clashed with immigrants in Tapachula.
When Rodriguez told a group of immigrants they would have to go back to Tapachula if they hoped to complete their refugee process, they collectively groaned and protested, knowing what was waiting for them there.
Diana, 30, of Colombia said she sold water in Tapachula in an attempt to cover her rent of about $200, but it was difficult. Waiting to complete the refugee process takes months, and all the while they have to find a way to make a living without work authorization, she said.
"How do you expect us to survive?" Diana asked Rodriguez. "We have nothing, and then we try to leave and the National Guard beats us up."