CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico — Riquet Terneus, 34, left Haiti with his wife and 7-year-old daughter three months ago, searching for a new home for his family.
"Haiti doesn't provide safety," he said. "People are scared to go out on the street. If you need any services or a hospital, there's nowhere to go."
In the months since Terneus left, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake killed more than 2,000 in the small nation.
Terneus says the worst part of the journey from South America was crossing the rainforest on foot in Panama's Darien Gap. After a month of waiting in Tapachula, Chiapas on Mexico's southern border, Terneus took buses north to Del Rio, Texas.
He is now one of the 14,000 migrants camped on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande under the Del Rio International Bridge, waiting to open asylum claims with Customs and Border Protection. Most came from Haiti, but others had left Venezuela and Cuba.
Early Saturday morning, he had crossed into Ciudad Acuña alone, to buy food and water. He made the journey to the U.S.-Mexico border alone while his wife and daughter wait in Tapachula.
"We hope the U.S. can help us," Terneus said.
Undeterred by months-long journeys, the migrants waiting in Del Rio had heard by word of mouth that they might have better chances of entering the United States via this small border city.
But by this weekend their window of opportunity was closing.
The Department of Homeland Security announced Saturday morning a six-point plan, which included sending 400 additional CBP agents and officers to the Del Rio sector. U.S. authorities are using the Title 42 ordinance to immediately expel migrants during the pandemic. In cases when Title 42 does not apply, the migrants would be placed in expedited removal proceedings.
CBP's mandate was clear: Ensure that "irregular migrants are swiftly taken into custody, processed, and removed from the United States."
Ciudad Acuña, Del Rio unprepared for migrant encampment
While Mexican border cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana have experienced influxes of migrants in recent years, Ciudad Acuña is a less-common destination on the vast U.S.-Mexico border.
Ciudad Acuña, a city of just over 200,000 people, is closely linked to Del Rio across the river, which has a population of only 35,000. The closest major U.S. city is San Antonio, 150 miles east.
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Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez said that that his officers are "all hands on deck" to ensure safety in Del Rio. He said his priority was making sure, "the citizens of my community understand we are mobilizing all our resources to address this issue."
Food and water provided by U.S. officials at the Del Rio camp quickly run out, so hundreds of migrants cross back through the Rio Grande to Ciudad Acuña each day to buy provisions.
Markenson Charles, of Haiti, said that the conditions in the encampment are unbearable.
"There's no food, no water, nowhere to sleep," he said.
An armored Coahuila police vehicle was parked at the entrance to the river crossing and police officers were only letting migrants pass if they had a facemask.
Ciudad Acuña residents had set up stands selling water, hot food and instant noodles. In downtown Acuña, hotels advertise rooms in French and buses and taxis arrive carrying more migrants and asylum seekers.
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Lisette Díaz of Ciudad Acuña and a friend were running a using clothing stand near the river. She said they were keeping prices low, but that others were taking advantage of the migrants' desperation. Since Tuesday she had noticed an unprecedented number of people arriving on the border.
"We were in shock to see people from so far away," she said. "People have stayed calm so far but we're worried the situation will impact local business."
As last week progressed, local officials were increasingly alarmed.
Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano tweeted a plea to federal officials on Thursday, saying the situation was a "real-time threat" because of health and security concerns. On Friday, Mexican officials, including Ciudad Acuña's mayor and the Coahuila state prosecutor, committed to stop the flow of migrants.
On Friday evening, CBP closed the port of entry between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, redirecting traffic 57 miles east to Eagle Pass, Texas. Border residents who travel back and forth for work and family obligations were frustrated.
"I know Haiti is a very poor country," said Rene Beltran, a trucker from Ciudad Acuña who crosses the border multiple times a day. "Those who deserve asylum should get it, but some people are just taking advantage of the situation."
Haitian migrants navigate inconsistent border policies
Angel Joseph, 26, waited a few blocks from the Rio Grande to buy a plate of chicken and rice on Saturday morning. He left Cap-Haitien, Haiti four years ago, settling in Chile. But he struggled to find work in Chile and headed for Mexico.
Joseph hopes to enter the United States and resettle in Miami.
“There’s no work in Haiti and politics are horrible there,” he said.
If he can’t enter the United States, he says he will try and find work in Ciudad Acuña.
Like Terneus, he had come from Tapachula, Chiapas. Asylum seekers entering Mexico at its southern border must wait in border cities such as Tapachula to process their paperwork.
Mexican immigration and asylum offices shut during the pandemic, leaving Haitians, Central Americans and Africans indefinitely waiting along Mexico's southern border. They have few employment opportunities and face increasing backlash from Mexican officials and local residents.
The Trump administration implemented Title 42 during the pandemic, which allowed officials to turn back the majority of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border on public health grounds. The policy has been criticized for effectively ending legal access to asylum. President Joe Biden rolled back many of Trump's immigration policies when he took office but left Title 42 in place.
Mexico agreed to accept migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who were expelled under Title 42. However, Mexico does not accept Haitians and the U.S. has not had the resources to quickly detain and expel them.
Last week the United States restarted Title 42 deportation flights to Haiti. As more migrants arrived in Del Rio, U.S. officials decided to expedite expulsions and add more deportation flights to Haiti.
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Many of the Haitians in Del Rio left their country months or years ago. In the lead up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, thousands of Haitians moved to Brazil, which gave them work visas. But after work dried up in Brazil, they struggled to integrate with other Latin American countries.
Recent developments in the country, including the president's assassination and high rates of kidnappings and other violent crimes, have only strengthened their resolve not to return to their home country.
With CBP cracking down on Haitians on the border, some may give up on their efforts to enter the United States. But much like the difficulties in Tapachula, they are unlikely to find a warm welcome in Northern Mexico. Mexican immigration officials stepped up enforcement in Saltillo, Coahuila, on the route to reach Ciudad Acuña. The Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration has largely ceded to U.S. pressure to stop migration north through Mexico.
In 2016, thousands of Haitian migrants arrived in Tijuana, shortly before the United States ended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians. Many were stranded in Tijuana. Biden in May reinstated TPS for Haiti, but those who enter the U.S. now do not qualify. Meanwhile, Haitians began focusing on Del Rio as their door into the U.S.
Wilner Metelus, a Haitian activist living in Mexico and the President of the Committee in Defense of Naturalized Citizens and Afro-Mexicans, tweeted on Friday, "We call on Joe Biden to respect the rights of Haitian migrants. They aren't criminals. Solidarity with Haitian migrants."
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Haitian migrants wait on border as US officials prepare deportations