CIUDAD ACUÑA, MEXICO — A mounted U.S. Border Patrol agent shouted commands in a tense encounter with Haitian migrants wading through the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas.
As the Haitians tried to climb onto the U.S. side of the river Sunday afternoon, the agent shouted: "Let's go! Get out now! Back to Mexico!"
The agent swung his whip menacingly, charging his horse toward the men in the river who were trying to return to an encampment under the international bridge in Del Rio after buying food and water in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.
One migrant fell as he tried to dodge, others shielded their heads with their hands.
After a few minutes the agents retreated, allowing the migrants to return to the camp, where over 10,000 are waiting for the chance to open an asylum claim in the United States.
As Sunday wore on, U.S. and Mexican officials took a hard line to discourage Haitians from approaching the border and warned that those in the camp would face rapid removals to Haiti.
In Del Rio, Texas, federal and state authorities are mobilizing to move the thousands of people camped under the bridge as quickly as possible.
U.S. officials say the priority is to quickly process and deport the migrants and asylum seekers. In Mexico, authorities have tightened immigration controls, choking off the entry points to Ciudad Acuña to prevent more migrants from approaching the border.
The thousands of Haitians caught in between, both at the encampment and in Ciudad Acuña, are left with few options: try to stay in Mexico or turn themselves in and face the risk of deportation to the country they abandoned.
U.S. authorities remove Haitians from border camp
Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano, speaking at a Sunday news conference, said removal flights were already leaving Del Rio for San Antonio, where they would continue to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.
He said on Sunday alone over 2,000 people would be relocated from the bridge to other locations for processing.
"Two-thousand people is much better than what we were doing before, which we were only moving about 400," Lozano said.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul L. Ortiz said the agency is increasing the capacity of Title 42 flights, "to expel individuals to Haiti and other countries of origin."
While international law protects the right to seek asylum, public health ordinance Title 42, adopted by former President Donald Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic and continued by President Joe Biden, allows for rapid expulsions without the opportunity to seek asylum.
"Migrants attempting or considering making the journey to our border should know that we are still enforcing Title 42 order." Chief Ortiz said. "They will not be allowed to enter the United States. They will be removed and they will be sent back to their country of origin. Our partners in the State Department are working to ensure there is adequate support when they land in Haiti."
Mayor Lozano said that hot temperatures and the fluctuating level of the Rio Grande could make the camp dangerous. He also expressed fears of violence if the migrants were allowed to stay in Del Rio.
"If you have 10,000 people that begin to move in mass, it overwhelms every agent there," said Lozano. "Worst case scenario is if there are riots or an uprising."
The temperature in Del Rio has been in the high 90s and on Monday is forecasted to hit 105 degrees. Haitians interviewed said their primary concerns were securing enough food and water and having a place to sleep in the camp.
Journalists have been restricted from accessing the encampment and observing the living conditions. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also restricted the airspace over Del Rio, Texas.
At least three deportation flights arrived in Haiti on Sunday, with 145 passengers each. Earlier in the year, the Biden administration had suspended such deportation flights to Haiti.
Haitians run out of options
For the past week, thousands of Haitians and migrants of other nationalities crossed the Rio Grande at a low point in between Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio. They gathered under the international bridge to wait their turn to open an asylum claim. But by late Saturday, access was restricted and those crossing onto U.S. soil were turned away.
Macarena Vines and Jean Aeneord arrived in Ciudad Acuña on Saturday with their 17-month-old son. Earlier this year, they decided to head for the United States, in Vines' words, "to provide a better future for our child."
On Sunday, they tried to cross into the United States despite the risk of deportation.
"There's no other option," said Aeneord. "We came all the way here."
Aeneord migrated to Santiago, Chile, from Haiti three years ago. He was part of a wave of Haitian migration in the past decade to Chile and Brazil. There he met Vines, who is Chilean.
They crossed the river but the entire family was turned back to Mexico.
Charles Edirame was resting on Sunday in Ciudad Acuña with his wife and daughter. First they had crossed to the encampment, but when they heard about the deportations, they returned to Mexico. The Haitian family was deciding what to do next.
"We don't have money, we don't have anything. We spent two months getting here on foot," he said. "In Haiti, we don't have a president. There was just an earthquake. How can I go back to Haiti? If I go back, I could die the next day."
Mexican authorities crackdown on Haitians
For the past week, hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of migrants moved openly around the Ciudad Acuña. But on Sunday morning, the streets were quiet. The bus station, bustling with Haitian arrivals in recent days, was nearly empty.
Mexican officials activated at least four checkpoints in the state of Coahuila to prevent undocumented migrants from traveling north to Ciudad Acuña.
Coahuila State Prosecutor Gerardo Márquez Guevara said that the actions were coordinated with Mexico's National Guard, Army, state and federal police. While migration checkpoints are commonplace in Mexico, the crackdown in Coahuila was in direct response to the large number of migrants arriving in Del Rio.
Some residents of Ciudad Acuña expressed relief that Mexican and U.S. officials were taking action.
Jose Barra, a taxi driver, said he noticed more migrants arriving in Ciudad Acuña during the past week.
"This is a small town," he said. "It's not a big city. For so many people to show up in all these big groups, people were getting nervous."
At the Ciudad Acuña station, bus operators said that Haitians had been pulled off their buses. One driver said that even though his passengers were Mexican nationals, authorities stopped him from entering Piedras Negras, the next border city to the east.
In Mexico City on Saturday, the Mexican Interior Secretary and Foreign Affairs Secretary held a meeting with representatives of the Haitian Embassy.
In a news release, Mexican officials said they established a working group to address, "orderly, safe and regular migration and to attend to the economic and social issues that cause people to leave Haiti."
For migrants in Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, a sense of despair is settling in. Those in the camp say conditions are poor without easy access to food and water. For those in Mexico, fears of deportation are suddenly a cold reality.
"We can't turn back because we don't have any money left," said Vines, walking to the edge of the river while holding their son. "We want to enter legally."
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Haitian migrants face tough choices amid crackdown at US-Mexico border