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DEL RIO — After leaving his native Haiti for Chile in 2018, Nicol struggled for years to find full-time work. Some days he worked as a construction worker, other days he would mow lawns or clean houses.
During his time there, he met his future wife, who had also come to Chile from Haiti looking for work. After she became pregnant in August and work options became fewer, 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 didn’t want to be interviewed, saw fellow migrants swept away while crossing a river and a female migrant being 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 out of fear of harming his chances to stay in the United States.
Since Sept. 9, 30,000 Haitians have arrived in Del Rio — migrants said they chose the small border city because they heard it was safer than other routes — and at one point as many as 15,000 were forced to camp beneath the international bridge when their numbers overwhelmed immigration officials.
The reason why thousands of Haitians decided to migrate to the U.S. now varies.
Federal officials have claimed there’s been misunderstanding by Haitians about who qualifies for a temporary protected status for Haitians after the assassination of Haiti President Jovenel Moïse on July 7. But that status was only granted for 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 relocated after the 2010 earthquake — as a result of the pandemic. Some couldn’t 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 toward Black people drove them out.
A week ago, all of the migrants had been cleared from the makeshift camp on the Texas side of the Rio Grande after the Biden administration deported 5,000 Haitians and more than 12,000 others were sent to federal immigration facilities across the southwest. Some were 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 unsuccessful.
Another 8,000 Haitians returned to Mexico out of fear they would be deported to Haiti if they stayed 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 fortunate ones: At the bridge they were given a yellow ticket by immigration officials — literally a ticket into the United States. He said he wasn’t told why they were allowed to claim asylum while thousands of others were turned away.
Last week, Nicol, a thin man wearing Nike sneakers with ripped blue jeans and white T-shirt, waited at a gas station next to a charter bus station with his wife and about 20 other Haitians. They were headed to San Antonio, where many of them would catch flights to other parts of the country. Nicol said he and his wife were making their way to Ohio, where he has a cousin.
As they waited, some patrons gave them food or Gatorade. Others appeared visibly annoyed. A man who was entering the store with a boy covered his nose with his T-shirt and waved his hand across his face, implying that the Haitians smelled. The boy imitated him.
“I’m used to that,” another Haitian migrant said in Spanish. “I saw a lot of that in Chile. It doesn’t bother me anymore, I’ve experienced worse.”
Nicol and his wife said they experienced much worse during their month-and-a-half journey through 10 countries.
More migrants are opting to leave Chile too after that country announced restrictions this month on how migrants can legally work there. Nicol said he remembers standing in line for a construction job among a group of Chileans and Haitians when a manager told the Haitians to go home and gave jobs to the Chileans. Incidents like that prompted him and his wife to leave, he said. He knew a group of Haitians in his neighborhood were planning to make the journey to the United States and he decided to follow them.
“We’re not wanted in Chile,” he said.
The couple started with a bus ride from Chile to Peru. From there, they took another bus into Ecuador and Colombia, staying in touch with a cousin and a family friend in Ohio via WhatsApp. The cousin would wire the couple money for food and hotels.
Then they came up against the Darién Gap, a 66-mile roadless stretch of jungle, mountains and rivers between Colombia and Panama.
The Darién Gap has been a thruway for thousands of migrants — and criminals are often waiting for them. Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian group, has recorded nearly 200 rapes against migrants since it arrived 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 by foot and canoe. As they crossed one river, he said he saw two men swept away by the current after they slipped trying to cross. Then their group was stopped by a group of what he estimated was 40 armed men.
They began to take money and other belongings from the migrants. A few of them raped a pregnant woman. Nicol said he was worried his wife was going to be raped too, 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 in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Acuña by bus and walked across the shallow Rio Grande into Del Rio on Sept. 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 a matter of time before Haitians migrated in such large groups, said Jean Eddy Saint Paul, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. Saint Paul, who is also the founding director of the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute, said the earthquake in August and the assassination of Haiti's president in July are just the most recent tragedies the country has experienced.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration negotiated a new trade agreement with Haiti that gave U.S. rice farmers subsidies if they sold their grain to Haiti. This essentially killed Haiti’s rice farming industry, leading to a mass loss of jobs, Saint Paul said.
The former president would later tell Congress in 2010 that was a mistake. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked,” Clinton said. “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did."
The trauma that many of the Haitians who fled South America experienced during their recent journey to the Texas-Mexico border has been compounded by the Biden administration’s unwelcoming response, said Taisha Saintil, legislative and communications director for Haitian Bridge Alliance, a San Diego-based organization that helps Haitians and other Black migrants.
“When people take that route, some crossing 11 borders with no money, food or water, that demonstrates the level of desperation they’re feeling,” she said, adding that the images of thousands of people huddled under the Del Rio bridge “is something that will forever leave a stain on this administration.”
Nicol said he is just grateful they survived the trip and he wants to leave those harrowing experiences in the past.
“Things are better here for immigrants, right?” Nicol asked, adding, “I just want to work, find a consistent job and find stability.”
The 2021 Texas Tribune Festival, the weeklong celebration of politics and policy featuring big names and bold ideas, wrapped on Sept. 25, but there’s still time to tune in. Explore dozens of free, on-demand events before midnight Thursday, Sept. 30, at tribfest.org.
Correction, Oct. 1, 2021: A previous version of this story misstated that migrants could still be deported if their asylum claims are successful. That is incorrect. Migrants to the United States could still be deported if their asylum claims are unsuccessful.