(TEXAS) — A mounting crisis is unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border where thousands of migrants, many from Haiti, have trekked across dozens of countries, facing blistering heat and other dangers to seek refuge in the United States.
But entering the land of the free has proved difficult after migrants waded across the border. They were met by Border Patrol agents and deportation efforts.
All eyes are on the small town of Del Rio, Texas, where at one point more than 14,000 migrants, the majority from Haiti, were sheltering under a bridge.
One of the migrants, Jean Baptiste Wilvens, told ABC News he crossed 11 countries to get to the U.S. after he and his family had been living in Chile for the last four years.
“I’m scared to go back there because right now I cannot live in my country,” he said.
His pregnant wife and 10-year-old daughter are now back on the Mexican side of the border. He said they had made it to the U.S. camp but called it “hell.”
On the U.S. side, Wilvens said they were only given a burrito and a bottle of water per day, but in Mexico, several people came to the camp to give away food, which some migrants got into a fight over.
The mayor of Del Rio, Bruno Lozano, called the scenes unfolding,”heartbreaking.”
“The fact that they’re putting their lives at risk is telling of the situation that they come from,” he said.
Like so many migrants who arrive at the U.S.’ southern border, the current wave has come from Central or South America. Many of them are Haitian refugees who left their country after the 2010 earthquake.
“For a variety of reasons, perhaps mostly economic, the economy suffered with COVID, we have seen them migrate up over the last few months to our southern border,” said Elizabeth Neuman, a former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary and ABC News contributor.
Now, the world watches to see how the Biden administration handles the influx.
For years after the 2010 earthquake, Haitians living inside the U.S. had been granted temporary protected status. The Trump administration let that designation expire.
However, after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenal Moise in July and another devastating earthquake earlier in August, the Biden administration restored that special status to Haitians.
“While that TPS is only applicable for people that are already here in the United States, that might have given the Haitian community hope that if they somehow got into the United States, maybe they could take advantage of that TPS as well,” Neumann said.
Some of the migrants have claimed asylum and are awaiting the immigration process inside the U.S., but many have already been loaded onto planes and deported back to Haiti.
The Biden administration says one to three flights are leaving a day removing migrants who do not have a valid claim to stay in the U.S. based on Title 42, a Trump-era law prohibiting migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S., citing COVID concerns.
“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family’s lives,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a Monday press conference.
“Title 42 is actually not immigration law as much as it is public health law that allows an emergency to be declared and basically the borders to be closed,” Neumann said. “A year ago, you could definitely see the case. We did not have vaccines. We did not have a robust testing capability. We have those things now.”
However, unaccompanied minors, and many families are exempt from Title 42. Still, migrant advocates like Guerline Jozef with the Haitian Bridge Alliance say that’s not enough.
“Title 42 should not be used as a way to trap migrants, as a way to trap asylum seekers,” she said. “Why can’t we make sure they are tested, they are vaccinated and provide them the access? Jozef said.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers have called for the end of the use of Title 42.
“I urge President Biden and Secretary Mayorkas to immediately put a stop to these expulsions and to end this Title 42 policy at our southern border,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Now, many migrants are living in fear of being sent back to Haiti after their exhaustive and perilous journeys.
One migrant named Josef, a social studies school teacher and father of three who didn’t want to share his last name, told Nightline he crossed 10 countries to get to the U.S. to give his children the chance at a better life.
“When I saw that my child would not get the education that I wanted, I had to think that maybe the U.S., as a superpower, could give me some wisdom, and that my child could get social protection, a protection for education,” Josef said.
Wilvens compared how the U.S. has welcomed Afghan refugees, but is turning away Haitians.
“The U.S. gives nearly 30,000 Afghans the ability to be refugees in the U.S. but Haitians are deported. Why is that?” Wilvens said.
Neumann said that “we have a debt that we owe the Afghan people,” with the withdrawal of American troops in wake of the swift Taliban takeover and end of 10-year war in Afghanistan.
“There is a slightly different sentiment for those trying to reach us from the Southern Hemisphere. And I think that it’s a good question for us to ask ourselves why,” she said.
Harrowing images from the border have emerged over the past week showing border patrol agents on horseback aggressively attempting to push back migrants as they cross the Rio Grande into the U.S.
One image showed an agent on horseback grabbing a man by the back of his shirt.
“As I saw this, this image brought me back to slavery,” Jozef with the Haitian Bridge Alliance said, overcome with emotion.
“As a Black woman, as a descendant of slaves, as a woman from Haiti whose forefathers and ancestors fought to end slavery, fought for freedom of all Black people, it is painful because we keep on being reminded that our lives do not matter, our pain [does] not matter,” she said.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz initially defended the agents, saying, “We do not know who are the smugglers or who are the migrants. So it’s important that the Border Patrol agents maintain a level of security,” during a press conference Monday.
Homeland Security later slammed the video as “extremely troubling,” saying a “full investigation, which will be conducted swiftly, will define the appropriate disciplinary actions.”
President Joe Biden said he found the videos of tactics used by Border Patrol agents on horseback against Haitian migrants at the Texas border “horrific and horrible,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
But, Biden doubled down on the handling of the chaos at the border.
“We will get it under control,” he said when asked about the crisis by reporters at the United Nations headquarters Tuesday.
Vice President Kamala Harris condemned the treatment of migrants at the border on Tuesday saying, “Human beings should never be treated that way. I was deeply troubled by it.”
Meanwhile, the Del Rio mayor said of the images, “We don’t know the situation that came out that caused that, that contrast to happen, but I can tell you what I’ve seen is, it’s been a humanitarian effort of proportions that I’ve never seen in my life.”
The union representing Border Patrol agents defended the images, arguing that’s part of their training.
DHS says it now has agency monitors on the ground at the border to make sure policies are being followed.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visited Del Rio Tuesday and asked the Biden administration for an emergency declaration.
“These border patrol officers are overwhelmed with the amount of work they are ordered to do and they’re suffering the consequences of an administration that is not providing either the personnel or the resources they need,” he said.
Neumann said she hopes the crisis will lead to “public pressure on Congress to once and for all address things that we are now on four presidents that have been trying to address this.”
“We’ve got to fix it because the problem is just going to get worse,” she said. “These are human beings that deserve to be treated better than we’re capable of treating them today.”
Jozef with the Haitian Bridge Alliance said people are coming to the border as a last resort.
“Because they are in need of protection, because they are dying, because they need support,” she said.
Their desire for a better life often makes them vulnerable to smugglers and coyotes who have been known to charge migrants anywhere up to $15,000 per person to take them over the border, she said.
“If those people haven’t had an avenue to properly present themselves to want to seek asylum, there would be no need for them to be engaged with those coyotes, to be engaged with those human traffickers, frankly, to be engaged with people who do not have their best interests at heart,” Jozef added.
For families like those of Haitian school teacher Josef, making this treacherous journey for a chance at a better life is one of the last options they have left.
“I went through all these dangers with my family, my wife and my children, because the United States, I think, it’s the last journey for us to make our dreams come true,” Josef said.
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