On the Scene with Thousands of Haitian Migrants at Texas Border — amid Reports of Possible Whippings
Haitian migrants expressed fear and worries about their children as the U.S. reportedly moved to expel some 12,000 of them from Texas this week — flying more than 320 people to Port-au-Prince on Sunday, with more flights expected daily.
Mexican officials are mounting their own deportation operations across the Rio Grande, according to the Associated Press.
Many of the Haitian migrants are camped along the U.S.-Mexico border, including beneath a major bridge. They hope to receive asylum after fleeing a country that has been ravaged by earthquakes and political turmoil in the wake of the assassination of former Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.
For more on what's happening at the U.S.-Mexico border as many Haitian migrants seek asylum and other top stories, listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day.
But American officials, citing new immigration policy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, say the Haitians cannot stay.
The large-scale deportations — the latest chapter in an ongoing debate about immigration policy, one of the country's thorniest subjects — have drawn outcry from advocates, even as conservatives and local officials call for a swifter response to the influx of people.
The migrants at the center say they urgently need help.
While U.S. officials had provided food to some of those camped out in Texas, it ran out, the migrants say: "There's no food, no water, nowhere to sleep," one man told USA Today.
One migrant, Charlie Jean, told the AP he worried about feeding his three daughters, ages 2, 5 and 12.
"We need food for every day. I can go without," Jean said, "but my kids can't."
The AP reported that Jean — who is from Haiti — had been living in Chile for five years but recently began moving north toward the U.S.
Like Jean, many of the Haitian migrants had first traveled to South America, some getting jobs in Rio de Janeiro to coincide with the 2016 Summer Olympics. Once the Games were over, some migrated further north, ultimately arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
While the mayor of Del Rio, Texas, last week called the increase in migration a "real-time threat" to health and security, according to USA Today, there are also fears for the migrants.
Recent video appeared to show Border Patrol agents whipping some of the migrants, though officials disputed this.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged the footage, which she called "horrible to watch."
"It's obviously horrific, the footage," Psaki told reporters in her daily press briefing. "I don't have any more information on it, so let me venture to do that and we'll see if there is more to convey."
When asked for further details on the alleged whipping incident, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection referred PEOPLE to comments made by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a Monday press conference.
Mayorkas said the situation would be investigated but noted that "to ensure control of the horse, long reins are used." One photographer on the scene also noted he never actually saw anyone being struck by an object.
Haiti and its residents have struggled to progress financially since the devastating 2010 earthquake and 2016's Hurricane Matthew.
Then in July, further turmoil befell the Caribbean nation when its 53-year-old president, Moïse, who had served since 2017, was assassinated inside his home.
As 38-year-old migrant Fabricio Jean told the AP of his arrival in Texas with his wife and two children: "In Haiti, there is no security. The country is in a political crisis."
Riquet Terneus, 34, told USA Today that he fled from Haiti with his wife and 7-year-old daughter three months ago, because they were fearful of life in their home country.
"Haiti doesn't provide safety," Terneus said. "People are scared to go out on the street. If you need any services or a hospital, there's nowhere to go ... We hope the U.S. can help us."
With its expulsions of the Haitian migrants, the Biden administration is utilizing a public health policy enacted by former President Donald Trump in 2020, which states that migrants to the U.S. can be immediately expelled, without the ability to seek asylum, amid a pandemic.
On Sunday, the U.S. closed the Mexican border to Del Rio, where the number of migrants has drastically increased in recent days.
U.S. and Mexican officials have discouraged Haitians from approaching the border, with Secretary Mayorkas telling journalists in a recent conference call: "This is not the way to come to the United States."
The Haitian migrant expulsion comes just months after the Biden administration faced another influx of migrants from Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador earlier this year, with migrants and human rights advocates citing economic and social inequalities.
One reported factor in the influx was that some migrants believed it might be easier to get into the U.S. after Biden's election, given the empathy he displayed compared to Trump's "zero tolerance" approach and Trump's derogatory comments about Latin American migrants.
Biden has faced widespread criticism both from Republicans — who said he was ill-equipped and too permissive — and from progressive Democrats who have lambasted crowded border patrol facilities and the behavior of Border Patrol agents in dealing with the migrants.