CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico — Mexican authorities carrying rifles and flashlights combed through this city’s downtown early Wednesday, searching for the Haitians who were in hiding after being pushed to flee the US just days ago.
“If you send me to Haiti, I have no one there to help me,” said a father, holding a shard of glass to keep Mexican authorities from entering a hotel room holding his family. “I can’t go back.”
Returning to Mexico was a last resort for the Haitians after crossing the Rio Grande and setting up camp under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas. Food, water, and medicine were lacking. Border Patrol agents on horseback chased them. Children were getting sick. There was no avoiding COVID-19. President Joe Biden’s administration started loading people onto planes and flying them back to Haiti, a place many of the immigrants haven’t lived in for years.
Though Mexico has easier access to supplies and shelter (under the bridge, people slept on rocks, dirt, and cardboard), authorities there inflict nights of terror on those hiding from deportation. It’s the largely unseen impact of the Biden administration’s hardline handling of the Haitian immigration to the United States and years of Mexico being pressured by the US to stop immigrants from ever reaching the border.
They came to the Hotel Coahuila around 2 a.m. National Guard and Mexican immigration agents marched in wearing bulletproof vests and helmets and holding long guns. The quiet street below was suddenly filled with smashing sounds, then the crack of shattered glass and the shrieks of a Haitian family.
Hotel security footage viewed by BuzzFeed News shows part of what happened inside: a Haitian father, standing in the doorway of his hotel room — his son and wife inside — with authorities to his left and right in the hallway.
In his bloody hand is a large chunk of sharp glass. It was part of a dresser mirror, possibly used to try to block the tiny room’s wooden door that broke in the struggle between the family and the agents.
He used the glass, despite it digging into his skin, to hold at bay at least a dozen armed soldiers and agents in the narrow hallway.
There is nothing in Haiti for his family, he told them, while holding the glass with two hands close to his chest, sometimes using one hand to make a motion dismissing the agents. He kept his back to the group of officials to his left, down the hall, but frequently peered over his shoulder to see where they were. A bright beam from an agent’s flashlight lit up the floor.
The father held off the agents for about 10 minutes as raids were conducted throughout the hotel. He was successful. Eventually, the authorities left him and his family alone.
Others were not as fortunate. The agents sped off with two vans of other immigrants they had pulled out of about 10 rooms of the hotel.
Moments later, the father, carrying his son in one hand and dripping blood from the other, ran down the hotel’s small steps, followed by his partner and another couple with a child. They then ran to the front of the hotel and into the dark streets to hide again. They weren’t going to wait for Mexican authorities to return.
Inside the hotel, the doors of the rooms the Haitians were pulled out of were left open. The lights were still on, blankets were crumpled on the ground, and leftovers from dinners in styrene containers were left out. Inside the second-floor room where the father fended off the authorities lay a toppled broken dresser and shards of glass, and there was blood on the floor.
It was a scene that had been repeating itself in recent days after thousands of immigrants who were living underneath the Del Rio Bridge came to Mexico. During the day, caravans of local police, soldiers, and immigration agents patrolled the streets of Ciudad Acuña looking for immigrants who came to buy food or take out money family members had sent them. At night, armed Mexican authorities entered cheap motels, knocking on doors and asking for identification.
For many, being returned to Haiti is not an option. The island nation has been plagued by earthquakes, corruption, and poverty, forcing thousands to abandon their homes and leave behind family in search of better economic opportunities. The ones who have left are expected to be the main breadwinners for their families back in Haiti, who are relying on them making it to the US.
The search for immigrants continued in Ciudad Acuña on Wednesday afternoon, with trucks carrying National Guard troops rushing through narrow streets and immigration agents stopping people they suspected were immigrants.
Two agents demanded a Black woman show her documents proving she has some kind of legal status in Mexico, which she did. Still, the agents told the woman she had to go to their offices so they could review her ability to be in Mexico.
Outside the Ciudad Acuña offices of the National Institute of Migration, an 18-year-old Haitian woman, Helena, was turning herself in.
She asked to be sent to Tapachula, a city in Southern Mexico that’s a popular crossing area for immigrants. Tapachula is often described by immigrants as being a prison because Mexican authorities make it very difficult to leave.
Helena’s boyfriend had been sent there by Mexican authorities and she wanted to reunite with him, but the bus companies refused to sell her a ticket and she feared being on the streets alone.
“The situation here is tough, but it’s better than Haiti, even though that is my country,” Helena told BuzzFeed News moments before agents took her in. “All that is waiting for me in Haiti is poverty and misery.”
The Haitians who left Del Rio were joined in Mexico by some Venezuelans and Cubans. And there was Viviana, a 43-year-old single mother from the Dominican Republic, who traveled to the US–Mexico border with her cousin and his family.
She and her cousin were taken in by a Mexican family. She spends her days in the home’s courtyard and sleeps in a small room in the back. She asked to only be identified by her first name.
After about four days of living underneath the bridge, Viviana read the news that the Biden administration had flown people back to Haiti on planes, confirming what had only been a rumor at the camp.
Tiffany Burrow, operations director for the Val Verde Humanitarian Border Coalition’s migrant respite center, said more than 1,000 immigrants had been released in Del Rio since Monday. It’s unclear how the Department of Homeland Security decides which immigrants are allowed to stay in the US and which ones are put on flights to Haiti. Some of those who have been released include families with newborns and people who are pregnant.
The Biden administration has kept in place a Trump-era policy that allows them to expel some immigrants and asylum-seekers at the border without the opportunity to request protection. In addition to the policy, known as Title 42, US authorities are also using a process called “expedited removal” to deport recent undocumented immigrants more quickly.
Even if there’s a chance Viviana could be released into the US, the prospect of being sent back to the Dominican Republic — to her two sons and parents counting on her to lift them out of poverty — made her decide to go back to Mexico.
“No one wants to leave their country, it’s a tough choice,” Viviana told BuzzFeed News. “But I have people relying on me to feed them.”
Many of the immigrants under the bridge in Del Rio left for South America years ago after a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti. Haitians now at the border said it was hard to find a job that paid well because they were undocumented in countries like Brazil and Chile, which was made worse by the economic toll of the pandemic.
The number of Haitians encountered in the Del Rio sector of the border started to dramatically increase in June, reaching 4,094 — more than double that of May. In August, 5,196 Haitians were encountered by agents, according to data from Customs and Border Protection. In all of 2020, the Del Rio sector had only encountered 2,000 immigrants from Haiti.
On Sunday, the day the return flights to Haiti started, Viviana and her cousin waded across the Rio Grande into Mexico. They slept outside a church on the first night. The next day, Mexican police officers spotted them. They ran and hid in the front yard of a home. Viviana begged the owner to help hide them. She agreed.
“It’s scary out there, even for me, because it seems as if the military is on every corner waiting to catch people,” the owner, who declined to be identified, said. “I try to help the ones I can because you never know when it will be you who needs help.”
Viviana’s 22-year-old cousin, Christian, who is half Haitian and half Dominican, said they don’t know how long they’ll have to hide in the courtyard.
“We can’t stay hiding like this forever,” Christian told BuzzFeed News. “I have a son I want to give a better life to, an education.” ●