The scene has played out over and over again at the southern border since January: Cross the river, find a shaded spot and wait for Border Patrol to arrive so you can surrender. The difference this time was tens of thousands of people followed the script at a scale and magnitude no one imagined or was ready for.
Among them is a young Haitian named Paulnick “Nicko” Archelus, 28, and the woman he met on the journey, Nayou Jean-Pierre, who is 25. Nicko and Nayou were among the many to travel back and forth across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Tex., to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico — the long-desired crossing point for thousands of Latin Americans who had been told it was relatively safe, cheap and comfortable for crossing.
“What are you going to eat? Dust with warm water?”
The Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian migrants has outraged many of his supporters, including members of his government. The U.S. envoy to Haiti resigned in protest. A senior State Department official is also leaving his role, criticizing the continued use of Title 42, the Trump-era public health order authorizing the expulsion of thousands of would-be asylum seekers without hearing their claims.
While some Haitians were released into the United States to pursue asylum, thousands of others were expelled without a clear explanation. They were flown back to Haiti, the last place any of them wanted to be and the last place able to receive them. Fear of that same fate sent about 8,000 people back across the river to the Mexican border city, where government officials are also eager to see them gone.
Here, on the opposite shore of the international boundary, hundreds of confused, demoralized Haitians are still agonizing over what to do. Many are scattered throughout the city, hiding from Mexican police, who have rounded up scores of migrants and put them on buses back to the city of Tapachula, 1,500 miles south on the border with Guatemala.
Nicko was racked with doubt. Should he stay close to the Rio Grande by camping in a public park, vulnerable to police and criminals? Or be moved to an abandoned nightclub hastily converted to a shelter, by Mexican immigration officials he doesn’t trust?
It’s the latest in a series of wrenching decisions. Nicko was a teenager when the 2010 earthquake killed 220,000 and devastated his island nation. He pushed forward to university to study civil engineering, though his passion was always medicine. But when he graduated, there were no jobs. So he joined a massive exodus of Haitians who migrated to South America in search of opportunity.
He enjoyed his life in Chile, even if it was never easy. Their skin color makes Haitians targets for abuse by employers or landlords, migrants say. After five years of enduring racism and failing to obtain residency, he decided to leave. The global pandemic and a new U.S. administration gave him the final push. President Biden, Nicko said, seemed like a kind man who had promised to help.
So Nicko, carrying his faded university ID card as both proof of accomplishment and totem for his desired life, followed the advice of friends who had made the journey months before him. And he followed the signs — clothing wrapped on a tree, a rope strung across a swift waterway.
“…and then you walk through the jungle.”
The journey starts with a calculation: What am I willing to sacrifice to reach the United States?
Wherever their starting point in South America, most migrants eventually reach the Colombian beach town of Necoclí to wait on a ferry across the bay to the Panamanian jungle.
The 60-mile trek across the jungle of the Darien Gap is one of the most dangerous in the world. There are mountains to climb and raging rivers to cross. Many migrants lack adequate shoes and emerge with scarred and swollen feet. They suffer through outbreaks of malaria and dysentery.
On the other side of the gap, Panamanian immigration authorities are waiting. They register the migrants’ biometric information and share that with the United States and other countries.
And there are other dangers. Thieves and sexual assault are rampant and a particular threat for women and girls. Traveling with a male companion can offer at least some protection.
Nayou wasn’t interested in Nicko’s attempts to woo her when they first met in Colombia, and she pushed along without him. But his persistence and romantic overtures via messaging apps cultivated something more than a friendship.
They lost contact for weeks until Nayou reached out to Nicko after emerging from the Panamanian jungle. He promised to wait for her at a little hotel in Costa Rica. They traveled the rest of the way together, sharing meals and resources, taking care of each other when ill and holding each other up.
Nayou was wary of the camera and of reporters. She speaks Portuguese after years in Brazil. She and Nicko speak in Haitian Creole to each other. He is the one fluent in Spanish, and so she relies on him to talk with others. With Nayou at his side, just out of the frame, Nicko told their story.
“…and that is how we found each other.”
He had come alone from Santiago, Chile, this summer, through Bolivia, and Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, and then the jungle of Panama, some 4,500 miles. There were still some 1,500 miles to go to reach Mexico. But after reuniting in Costa Rica, at least Nicko and Nayou were together. They traveled through Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.
Like so many others in late August and early September, they ran into a wall of Mexican immigration officials in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The Mexican National Guard held thousands of people in Tapachula until they could obtain a Mexican travel visa. Every day, hundreds more migrants arrived in the city of 350,000. Guesthouses had no vacancies. Haitians were sleeping on the streets. Some locals were gouging the migrants, charging three to five times the usual rate for food and toiletries.
By the second week of September, thousands gave up the wait and pushed northward as Mexican authorities looked on.
For Nicko and Nayou, now stranded in the Acuña nightclub, deportation to Haiti is their greatest fear. But having come so far, being sent back to Tapachula is almost as unthinkable.
Amid the raids, there were also acts of mercy. Acuña’s residents, guided by their faith, rose up to help the strangers in their city. They gave up their homes, offered their food and shared their time and affection. Some roamed the streets picking up migrants, who stand out in northern Mexico because they are Black, before the police could get them.
Eventually, local religious and civic leaders negotiated a deal with Mexican immigration officials: We will house, clothe and feed the migrants if you do not deport them. In less than 72 hours, Mexican immigration officials and volunteers converted the abandoned nightclub into a sanctuary, erecting tent roofs, fans, tables, toilets and wash basins and vaccinating migrants against the coronavirus — more than anything the migrants had on the U.S. riverbank.
City officials have promised the Haitians they will have a chance at asylum in Mexico. But they’ve heard that before.
“They will always come.”
When Haitians describe what happened under the Del Rio bridge, the phrase they use in Spanish is “decepción total.” The literal English translation is disappointment, but it also carries with it a profound sense of deception and betrayal.
The people stuck in this migration limbo ask repeatedly, “What would you do?” It’s a question that resists an easy answer and for which current U.S. immigration policy offers little guidance. Haitians are a proud people, they say. Many cover their faces from cameras because it feels humiliating to think someone back home might see them living like this. Unable to return to a nation wracked by an earthquake and a political assassination in the space of five weeks this summer, and unwanted anywhere else. They say they are merely asking for a chance at something better.
Esaie Louis, 31, another Haitian migrant who traveled from Chile, does not know how long it will take to reach his final destination, but going back to Haiti isn’t an option. For now, the United States is off-limits. Staying in Mexico feels like giving up. It’s hard to know what to feel. Sometimes it’s shame. It’s always anxiety. Occasionally, it’s regret. A former high school math teacher, he cannot abide being pitied.
Esaie and Nicko and Nayou, and so many others like them, are stuck, unsure what would happen to them if they cross the river back into the United States. They wonder, if the Haitians had spread out instead of gathering in one spot, at one time, in one large group, would they have succeeded?
It’s only a matter of time before they try to cross again.
And they won’t be the last. Panamanian officials say more than 60,000 are on their way. One of the greatest displacements of the Americas will continue.