As the world watched U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents on horseback chase down Haitians to keep them from crossing the Rio Grande onto U.S. soil, Velnes Jean-Louis was experiencing it too — from the massive migrant camp under the infamous bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
Jean-Louis, his wife Ghislaine Jean-Pierre and their one-year-old daughter spent seven days under that bridge. Seven days, desperately hoping to leave the camp and the abuse behind.
“That’s what they were doing the entire time — chasing us with horses, trying to stop us from crossing,” said Jean-Louis, 35, who often crossed the river to bathe and find food. “They didn’t treat us like we’re humans.”
Speaking from a relative’s home in Queens, six days after being released from immigration processing, Jean-Louis and Jean-Pierre described their small family’s perilous 4,800-mile journey from Santiago, Chile. Weary, but hopeful, they also shared their experience at the teeming encampment under the Del Rio-Ciudad Acuña International Bridge.
While at the camp, the couple said, the family slept on the ground, had little access to clean water or food, and shared the few portable toilets available with thousands of others. All while facing triple-digit heat.
If he could have protected and provided for his family elsewhere, Jean-Louis said, he would not have accepted the mistreatment at the camp. However, he felt helpless after living for five years in Chile, where they faced constant racism. And for a whole year after losing their jobs in the Chilean capital, both Jean-Louis and Jean-Pierre searched fruitlessly for work.
That’s why the family used their savings, about $8,000, to leave Chile. The trio set off on Jul. 8, using information passed around the community of Haitian immigrants where they lived.
“The people who decided to live created a WhatsApp group to share the information,” Jean Louis said. “We got together and joined other groups at specific locations to find a guide that we paid to show us the way.”
The savings went to buying tickets for busses, night stays at hotels and bribes to local bandits to prevent being hurt, raped or killed.
“At every frontier, we met people who asked us for money,” Jean-Louis said. “I spent every penny that I had.”
“I had nothing left and I can’t do anything to protect my family,” Jean-Louis lamented.
While in Panama, about halfway to the journey, the couple’s daughter fell severely ill. At the same time, Jean-Pierre also began to feel the pain of the trip, most of which was on foot.
“My feet and my hips were numb,” Jean-Pierre, 40, said. “Our daughter got so sick that I told him to leave me and save her. I spent many nights sleeping by myself under the trees without any protection.”
To get professional care for their child, Jean-Louis carried the child ahead to a migrant camp at the Panama border. He knew he would be detained by immigration authorities, but had to risk it for the baby, he said.
For 10 days, Jean-Louis stayed at the Panama migrant camp, separated from his family.
“It was very sad for me,” Jean-Louis said. “I was crying and I was wondering how to raise my daughter if my wife doesn’t make it to the camp.”
Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre slowly made her way to the Panamanian border camp, with the help of other migrants. There, the family reunited and continued walking another 2,000 miles of jungles and back roads into Mexico, and then on to the frontier with the U.S.
“[When] I finally arrived at the border, I had a very difficult time,” Jean-Louis said. “ I had no food, no water for my family.”
At that camp, Jean-Louis said, Border Patrol agents routinely chased them with horses. The images widely shared of one group being corralled was just one of countless instances of abuse the migrants endured.
Every day, they breathed in the dust all day and slept in it at night. Each time a Border Patrol helicopter flew overhead at a low altitude, the children, new mothers and pregnant women felt even worse. When someone did get sick, Jean-Louis said, there was no medical assistance.
“I witnessed women giving birth to babies on the ground with no help at all,” Jean-Louis said. “They took them to hospital and [sent] them back right after in the dust. I saw a man having a seizure next to me, he was dying, and nobody helped him.”
With no food available on the U.S. side, many migrants including Jean-Louis, trekked back to Acuna on the Mexico side to buy food and bring it back to Del Rio. On several occasions, Jean-Louis said, he too was met by Border Patrol agents who tried to keep them at bay.
The family spent seven days under the bridge, then one day at an immigration detention facility for processing before being taken to a shelter. Neither Jean-Louis nor Jean-Pierre know in which city or state the shelter was located, but from there, they were able to connect with relatives, who brought them to Queens, New York.
All he wants now, Jean-Louis said, is protection and stability for his family.
The family has a notice to appear in immigration court within 90 days of their release. He has reached out to a local nonprofit, Solidarite Haitiano-Americaine de Long Island (SHALI), to seek help for his daughter and get advice about his asylum case.
“We are hopeful that something positive is on the way for us,” he said.