Haitian migrants say they will not be deterred by the United States’ plans to expel them, as the Biden administration on Sunday began flying back to Haiti some of the thousands of asylum seekers camped on the Texas border with Mexico.
The migrants have camped beneath the Del Rio International Bridge, which carries traffic across the Rio Grande River into Mexico.
Told of the US intention to increase the capacity of removal flights, several said they intend to remain and seek asylum, citing the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the turmoil that followed the assassination of President Jovenel Moise as reasons why they cannot return.
“In Haiti, there is no security,” Fabricio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian who arrived with his wife and two daughters, told The Associated Press. “The country is in a political crisis.”
On Sunday, about a dozen Texas Department of Public Safety vehicles lined up near the bridge and river where Haitians have been crossing from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, into Del Rio, Texas, for almost three weeks.
Yellow police tape was being used to block them from using a small dam to walk into the US.
Border Patrol Chief Raul L Ortiz said 3,300 migrants have already been removed from the Del Rio camp to planes or detention centres, and he expects to have 3,000 of the approximately 12,600 remaining migrants moved within a day.
The rest should be gone within the week, he said. The first three planes left San Antonio for Haitian capital Port-au-Prince on Sunday, with the first arriving in the afternoon.
“We are working around the clock to expeditiously move migrants out of the heat, elements and from underneath this bridge to our processing facilities in order to quickly process and remove individuals from the United States consistent with our laws and our policies,” Ortiz said at news conference at the bridge.
Junior Jean, a 32-year-old man from Haiti, said he lived on the street in Chile for the past four years, resigned to searching for food in rubbish cans. “We are all looking for a better life,” he said.
Tens of thousands are also stuck in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, waiting for documents that would allow them to continue.
Judith Joseph fled to Chile from Haiti in 2017 after one of her three children was murdered. Despite suffering ailments including diabetes and difficulty walking, the 43-year-old set off on July 10 and arrived in Tapachula nearly two months later with her other two children, Samuel and Cristelle.
Her son, 11-year-old Samuel, has few memories of life back at home. “There were mice in the kitchen at night. During the day there were always Haitian soldiers shooting outside the house,” he told the AFP news agency.
As the family waits for refugee status to continue their journey into the US, Samuel said he wishes they had never set off. “I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in Chile.”
Haitians have been migrating to the US in large numbers for several years, many having left their Caribbean nation after a devastating 2010 earthquake. They make dangerous treks by foot, bus and car, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a jungle controlled by armed gangs and drug traffickers connecting Colombia to Panama.
The US says it will step up the number of “removal flights” to expel migrants encamped at the Texas border – estimated at close to 14,000.
‘They can’t go back to Haiti’
A pandemic-related order known as Title 42 to immediately expel migrants without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum – introduced in March 2020 – remains in effect but unaccompanied children and many families have been exempt.
During his first month in office, President Joe Biden chose to exempt children travelling alone on humanitarian grounds.
But migration advocates, human rights activists and public health experts have slammed the Biden administration for keeping Title 42 in place, urging him to rescind the policy and process the asylum seekers’ claims for protection.
They also called on the US government to immediately stop all deportations to Haiti specifically.
Nicole Phillips, legal director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance advocacy group, said the Biden administration has taken the “wrong approach” to the humanitarian situation.
“It’s like telling people who are in a burning house that they can’t leave the house … They have to leave the house, it’s burning. They can’t go back to Haiti,” Phillips told Al Jazeera.
“So if they don’t cross into the United States for fear of being deported, then they are going to just be staying in Mexico in flux and essentially they’re shifting the burden of this onto Mexico. That is the wrong approach.”
Some critics said Biden’s decision in late July – after Moise’s assassination – to allow Haitians without US visas at the time to remain in the country without fear of deportation offered an incentive for others to come.
In August, US authorities stopped migrants nearly 209,000 times at the border, close to a 20-year high. Biden has promised a more humane approach to immigration compared with his predecessor, Donald Trump, but the veteran Democrat has been confronted with a growing tide of migrants crossing the border since he took office in January.