Haitians leave the U.S.-Mexico border to build new lives in Mexico as shelter closes – Houston Chronicle

A family walks among dozens tents at the Terraza Fandango shelter, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Ciudad Acuña. The shelter provided help to migrant families, mostly of Haitian origin, until they were moved to other Mexican towns.
Laila Mtanous, lead of the Terraza Fandango shelter, places her hand on the forehead of a migrant as the young woman thanks her for the support she received at the shelter before getting in a bus to another Mexican town, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.
For two months, a former dance hall in Acuña, Mexico — one mile from the Del Rio International Bridge — served as a concrete makeshift shelter for hundreds of Haitians who decided not to risk crossing into the United States for fear of being sent home.
Armed guards once stood outside the shelter where Haitians, including many small children, ate, suffered disease and slept in tents while deciding what was next for their families. Many had traveled thousands of miles and spent their entire savings in an effort to reach the United States, but decided not to cross into the country after hearing that families were being flown back to Haiti by U.S. officials.
The makeshift shelter shut down in late November, but for some Haitians that stayed there, its closure has led to new doors opening in Mexico: they’ve been given temporary work visas by officials and the opportunity to seek asylum in Mexico.
“When the Americans rejected us, they (Mexicans) took us in,” said Quettlie Fanfan, a Haitian asylum seeker in Spanish, “I don’t have words to express my gratitude.”
She and her husband were in chipper moods as they tended to their two young children on their last day in the Acuña migrant shelter. They were headed to Torreón, Mexico where they planned to look for housing and jobs, with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and local groups.
While waiting for their bus to depart the closing camp, Fanfan told the Houston Chronicle she hoped her family could find in Mexico what they’re looking for — a stable life, especially for her children.
“I want them not to go through the same things that their parents went through — that they’re stable, in a place where they can study, where they can build a life like they deserve — as a human being deserves — and that they’re useful to society,” Fanfan said late last month.
Like many Haitians, her family decided not to cross the Rio Grande into Del Rio, Texas and risk getting sent back to their country, one of the poorest in the world and where violence has intensified since the assassination of Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse in July.
“For now, I am afraid (to return) because there’s no peace or security,” Fanfan said.
Title 42: Human rights advocates criticize Biden’s treatment of Haitians
The United States had flown 8,898 people back to Haiti since Sept. 19 on 85 different incoming flights, according to figures from late November compiled by the International Organization for Migration statistics. Nearly 20 percent of the people returned are children.
U.N. human rights experts have condemned the Biden administration’s mass expulsion of Haitians as a likely violation of international refugee and human rights law. The Biden administration has continued a Trump-era policy allowing for the rapid expulsion of migrants without affording them a chance to apply for asylum, citing public health concerns arising from COVID-19. Still, some Haitians at the U.S.-Mexico bridge, located some 160 miles west of San Antonio, were allowed to temporarily enter the U.S. to seek asylum.
Tens of thousands of Haitians, after living in Chile and Brazil, decided to make their way for the United States during 2021, a dangerous journey that includes traveling on foot through the mountainous forest of northern Colombia and Southern Panama.
Panamanian immigration officials counted more than 75,000 Haitians crossing their southern border without authorization through October 2021. More Haitians have been apprehended while crossing north into Panama this year than in the entire previous decade, indicating a remarkable influx of Haitian migrants heading toward the U.S.
Del Rio Migrant Camp: Thousands of Haitians face harsh conditions waiting to enter the U.S.
And there’s some indication that the flow of Haitians northward may persist, despite a momentary drop in attempts to cross the border into Texas.
In October 2021, the number of Haitians encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Southwest border plummeted to around 900, compared to the more than 17,000 people found in September, when a massive camp with squalid conditions quickly developed underneath the Del Rio International Bridge. Images of Customs and Border Protection officers on horseback attempting to contain migrants as they stepped ashore prompted outrage among Democrats and a promise from President Joe Biden that “there will be consequences.”
Despite that drop, in October, authorities in Panama clocked more than 17,000 Haitians crossing their southern border headed north, according to officials.
“It seems that the Biden administration’s ramping up of expulsions of Haitians in response to the thousands who showed up in September has at least had a short-term deterrent effect on U.S. border crossings of Haitians, but that deterrent effect has not yet rippled through the region or made most people who were already on their way north turn back,” said Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Some migrating Haitians may make the same calculation as the hundreds of Haitians who decided not to cross into Del Rio and instead stayed in Acuña, Mexico in September 2021. As a result, some 1,000 Haitians, including 120 children, needed a place to live back in late September, according to Laila Yamille Mtanous, who helped coordinate the opening of Acuña’s temporary shelter.
“At first we didn’t know where to start,” she said in Spanish. Migrants had been sleeping in a nearby park, in desperate conditions.
With help from the Mexican government, the U.N., local officials and donations from Mexican and U.S. aid groups — such as San Antonio’s Uniting America Outreach — the short-lived shelter has helped hundreds of mostly Haitian migrants with food and shelter.
Now, through a reintegration program supported by the UNHCR, buses have taken willing Haitians to the Mexican cities of Saltillo and Torreón to be issued temporary work visas, start their asylum cases and start working.
Shant Dermegerditchian , the UNHCR coordinator in Mexico, said they’re helping 322 people — the vast majority being Haitians — integrate into Mexican society, through efforts like enrolling kids in schools and helping them find a job.
“The companies and businesses in Torreón have expressed interest in employing asylum seekers, so we felt that would be a good opportunity,” said Dermegerditchian.
Acuña shelter coordinator Laila Yamille Mtanous said she’s happy that the migrants she’s gotten to know over the past two months are finally getting the chance to restart their lives.
“They’re being treated like they should be – like human beings,” she said.
Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for the Houston Chronicle.
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