After seeing other migrants washed away in a Central American river and sexually assaulted by gunmen, a man wants to put the traumatic journey back in time.
DEL RIO, Texas – After moving from his native Haiti to Chile in 2018, Nicol struggled for years to find a full-time job. Some days he worked as a construction worker, other days he mowed lawns or cleaned houses.
While there, he met his future wife, who had also come to Chile from Haiti to look for work. After she fell pregnant in August and work options narrowed, the two left Chile, following thousands of Haitians who made the perilous journey from South America to Del Rio, seeking asylum.
Along the way, Nicol, 26, said he and his wife, who did not want to be questioned, saw other migrants washed away as they crossed a river and a migrant raped by an armed gang in Panama.
“We suffered a lot to get here,” said Nicol, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of hurting his chances of staying in the United States.
Since September 9, 30,000 Haitians have arrived in Del Rio – migrants said they chose the small border town because they heard it was safer than other roads – and at one point, until to 15,000 were forced to camp under the international bridge when their numbers overwhelmed immigration officials.
The reason why thousands of Haitians decided to migrate to the United States now varies.
Federal officials said there had been a misunderstanding on the part of Haitians as to who could claim temporary protection status for Haitians following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse on July 7. But this status was only granted to Haitians who were in the United States before July 29.
However, Haitian migrants interviewed say they decided to leave now because jobs had dried up in Chile and other South American countries – where many moved after the 2010 earthquake – to the aftermath of the pandemic. Some could not legalize their immigration status to be able to work legally in Chile, others were tired of not being able to afford to feed their children, and some said racism against blacks had driven them out.
A week ago, all migrants were evacuated from the makeshift camp on the Texan side of the Rio Grande after the Biden administration deported 5,000 Haitians and more than 12,000 others were sent to federal immigration centers in the southwest. Some have been released in Del Rio to reunite with family members already in the United States until they can get an asylum hearing in immigration court. They could still be deported if their asylum claims are successful.
8,000 other Haitians returned to Mexico for fear of being deported to Haiti if they remained in the camp. The Mexican government has offered them work permits and flights for those who decide to return to Haiti.
Nicol and his wife were among the lucky ones: on the bridge, immigration officials gave them a yellow ticket – literally a ticket to the United States. He said he was not told why they were allowed to seek asylum when thousands more had been turned away.
Last week, Nicol, a slim man wearing Nike sneakers with ripped blue jeans and a white T-shirt, waited at a gas station next to a charter bus station with his wife and about 20 others. Haitians. They were heading to San Antonio, where many of them were taking flights to other parts of the country. Nicol said he and his wife were traveling to Ohio, where he has a cousin.
While they were waiting, some customers gave them food or Gatorade. Others seemed visibly annoyed. A man who entered the store with a boy covered his nose with his T-shirt and waved his hand over his face, implying that Haitians smelled badly. The boy imitated him.
“I’m used to it,” said another Haitian migrant in Spanish. “I saw a lot of them in Chile. It doesn’t bother me anymore, I’ve known worse.
Nicol and his wife said they experienced much worse on their 1.5-month trip through 10 countries.
More migrants are also choosing to leave Chile after the country this month announced restrictions on how migrants can legally work there. Nicol said he remembers queuing for construction work among a group of Chileans and Haitians when a manager told Haitians to go home and gave Chileans jobs. Incidents like this prompted him and his wife to leave, he said. He knew that a group of Haitians in his neighborhood were planning to make the trip to the United States and he decided to follow them.
“We are not wanted in Chile,” he said.
The couple began with a bus ride from Chile to Peru. From there, they took another bus to Ecuador and Colombia, keeping in touch with a cousin and family friend in Ohio via WhatsApp. The cousin would wire the couple money for food and hotels.
Then they ran into the Darién Gap, a 66-mile stretch of jungle, mountains and roadless rivers between Colombia and Panama.
The Darién Gap has been a passageway for thousands of migrants – and criminals often await them. Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian group, has recorded nearly 200 rapes against migrants since arriving in May to provide medical care to migrants on the Panamanian side of the border.
Nicol said it took them about a week to cross the jungle on foot and by canoe. As they crossed a river, he said he saw two men being swept away by the current after slipping while trying to cross. Then their group was stopped by a group of about 40 armed men.
They started taking money and other goods from the migrants. Some of them raped a pregnant woman. Nicol said he feared his wife would be raped as well, but once he gave them his money, the men left them alone.
“I didn’t do anything because I was scared,” he said.
Once they left the jungle, he said they continued by bus through Central America and eventually reached Mexico.
He said they arrived by bus in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Acuña and crossed the shallow Rio Grande to Del Rio on September 19. They stayed under the international bridge for two nights before immigration officials gave them the yellow ticket and a date to appear in court.
After decades of political instability and poverty in Haiti, it was only a matter of time before Haitians migrated in such large groups, said Jean Eddy Saint Paul, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. Saint Paul, who is also the founding director of the Institute for Haitian Studies CUNY, said the August earthquake and the assassination of the President of Haiti in July are just the more recent tragedies that the country has known.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration negotiated a new trade deal with Haiti that granted subsidies to American rice farmers if they sold their grain in Haiti. This essentially killed Haiti’s rice industry, resulting in massive job losses, Saint Paul said.
The former president would later tell Congress in 2010 that this was a mistake. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it didn’t work,” Clinton said. “I have to live every day with the consequences of losing the ability to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed these people because of what I have done.
The trauma that many Haitians who fled South America experienced on their recent trip to the Texas-Mexico border was compounded by the unwelcoming response from the Biden administration, said Taisha Saintil, director. legislative and communications for Haitian Bridge Alliance, a San Diego-based organization. organization that helps Haitians and other black migrants.
“When people take this route, some cross 11 borders without money, food or water, it shows the level of desperation they feel,” she said, adding that the images of thousands of people crammed under the Del Rio bridge “is something that will leave a stain on this administration forever.
Nicol said he was just grateful that he survived the trip and wished to leave those heartbreaking experiences in the past.
“Things are better here for immigrants, aren’t they? Nicol asked, adding, “I just want to work, find a consistent job and find stability.”