An unprecedented migrant encampment of more than 14,000 people — mostly from Haiti — is posing a new challenge for local and federal officials.
They are waiting under the International Bridge that connects Del Rio, Texas to Ciudad Acuna in Mexico in squalid conditions for their chance to seek asylum.
To some, this scene represents a broken immigration system that opportunistic migrants are taking advantage of. To others, it presents an opportunity for America to once again welcome people in need from around the world.
On Saturday, less than five miles from the Del Rio International Bridge, a line of Haitians, Cubans and Brazlians, among others, formed outside a convenience store. Some carried a bag or two. Most had nothing. Children clung tightly to their parents.
Not long ago, most of them were among the thousands gathered under the International Bridge. All told TPR they are seeking entrance to the U.S. — many looking for asylum. These are the fortunate few who've made it this far. Now, they wait for buses that will take them to new cities, where their asylum process will continue.
Yarioska Rondon said he and his partner came from Cuba fleeing dictatorship, violence, and hunger.
"You can't live in Cuba. You are a prisoner in Cuba," he told TPR in Spanish.
He and his wife were living in Juarez — right across the border from El Paso — for two years as they waited for their asylum case to be heard. They said they got frustrated, and decided to travel to Ciudad Acuña because they thought it was their best chance to move forward. The couple spent six days under the bridge before making it across. They are now on their way to Miami.
But many more at the migrant encampment under the Del Rio International Bridge are in limbo, including the thousands of people fleeing Haiti. The island nation experienced massive upheaval over the summer following the assassination of the country’s president and a devastating earthquake which killed more than 2,200 people.
One Haitian man across the river in Acuña said it had been a long journey to get here. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
"I'm originally from Haiti, and then I migrated to Brazil, traveled much of the country and then went on to Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico by foot," he said in Portuguese.
He said he witnessing violence and sexual assault against people in his community during the journey. But he said it’s all for the hope of a better life — one that feels quite far from reality here.
The Biden administration is sending thousands of people from this encampment on planes back to their home countries.
The flights are being conducted under a part of US Health Code called Title 42. The Trump administration enacted it at the start of the pandemic and began rapidly expelling migrants, claiming it would stop the spread of COVID-19 and Biden has continued it.
"There's broad consensus that sending people back on flights to Haiti via the use of a so-called public health expulsion order is absolutely illegal." said Clara Long, associate director with the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch. "It's an example of bad practice around the world in terms of cutting off the right to seek asylum in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic."
A federal judge blocked the Biden administration from using title 42 last week. That injunction is slated to go into effect at the end of the month. Nonetheless, the first expulsion flights landed in Haiti via San Antonio International Airport on Sunday.
Long said Biden's message has been confusing, both trying to be more welcoming to migrants and continuing some of Trump's hardline immigration policies.
"What’s happening now represents a missed opportunity for the Biden administration to do what it promised, which was to create a safe, dignified, welcoming border. To use the capacity it has across the border at ports of entry to allow people to make their claims." she said. "Instead, what is done is a mix of things continuing harsh Trump policies, stepping back from them in some ways. That is what’s causing the increased pressure on resources and capacity."
If it weren't for the help of aid groups, those who are allowed to remain in the U.S. are almost left on their own. Once processed by ICE, some groups of asylum seekers are brought to a day shelter about a mile from the border run by the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition.
"This is above and beyond anything that this organization has seen," said Tiffany Burrow, the group's operations director. "We have doubled, tripled, quadrupled our volunteers here, we have incredible generosity from the community."
At the shelter run by the coalition, about 50 people packed their in-take site as volunteers directed new arrivals, translated, and figured out their needs.
The vast majority were from Haiti. About a third are young children. Earlier, a group from Cuba and Venezuela arrived. The kids ranged in age, the youngest being infants. Others rode tricycles or played with cars. Many adults were on their phones trying to reach their families, arranging bus tickets and other travel arrangements.
"If you look at their ankles, they have ankle monitors. And so these families came from ICE. So they’re processed through CBP and taken to ice. And ICE is the one who brought them," said Burrow.
After a few hours in this room, they were taken to the bus stop.
There's no question this part of the border is under stress. On Friday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed the city's two ports of entry. There's no traffic at all between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña.
The basic needs of people are immense. Local restaurants are making sandwiches and other foods in mass quantities. The mayor of Del Rio said this is not sustainable for his town of 35,000 people. Federal officials are asking migrants not to come.
Back at the bus stop in Del Rio, Yarioska Rondon and his partner Leytianis Pena, waited for their bus. The couple can't wait. Leytianis is 9 months pregnant — due any day to deliver a baby boy.
"I'm excited for my baby. But when we were at the bridge, we thought we were never going to leave," she told TPR in Spanish. She said she's relieved to be here. It's been a long road, but a new chapter begins.
"All these years waiting for this moment," her partner said. "There is so much happiness I can't express it. I'm going to have a child born in this country. A free country."
This story originally appeared on Texas Public Radio. TPR was founded by and is supported by the community. If you value its commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.