For many Americans, the first sign of the crisis was the appearance of a large encampment of migrants under a bridge in the city of Del Rio, Texas. Accompanying images of border patrol agents on horseback corralling desperate people as they tried to cross the Rio Grande was seized upon as a symbol of a failed immigration policy.
But to those unlucky enough to be in the camp, the crisis began years before, many thousands of miles away. The crisis was not here, but in the country they left behind, and on the perilous road that brought them here.
“It was endless hunger,” says Andre, a 24-year-old Haitian who travelled for a month and a half to reach Del Rio with his wife and infant daughter. “We saw a lot of people die. We walked for days through the jungle.”
Andre’s journey was typical of the roughly 15,000 Haitians who arrived at the US-Mexico border last week. Their stories tell of a determination to reach America despite the overwhelming risk, and suggest that no amount of deterrence at the border will stop more from taking the journey.
Speaking to The Independent at a migrant transfer centre in Houston with his wife and child, Andre, who gave only his first name, recounts his harrowing journey to America, and a new life.
Most of the Haitians who were stranded under the bridge in Del Rio did not come directly from Haiti, but from countries in South and Central America, places to which they had fled from their home country years earlier. Many believed the chances of them being allowed to enter America had improved when Joe Biden became president – others simply could not afford to live in their temporary home any longer.
Andre came from Chile, where he has lived for five years since escaping Haiti. He left a country that was convulsed by insecurity, poverty and violence. In Chile, at least at first, he was able to find some work. More recently it became almost impossible, and so he decided to leave. It was a gamble: if he was caught, he might be sent back to Haiti. But he was struggling to earn enough to feed his family, which now included an infant daughter.
“There was no security [in Haiti]. It wasn’t safe for my family there – they don’t care about life,” Andre says. “In Chile it was a little better but it was not stable. I was always struggling to find work and I couldn’t go to school.”
They would have to travel more than 4,000 miles to the US border, but they were not alone – thousands of other Haitians were setting out on the same journey. The crossing from Colombia to Panama was the most treacherous, the family was forced to walk for days through dense jungle with hardly any food between them.
“At one point my friend had a can of soup and we shared it between six people. We were so hungry,” Andre says. “My baby would always tell me that she was hungry, but I had nothing for her,” he adds, as his two-year-old daughter plays around him.
Not everyone made it.
“There were too many dead people along the way. There was starvation and dehydration. If the river caught you, it caught you. Some people didn’t make it through the mountains. There were entire families that died,” he says.
It wasn’t just the treacherous terrain that threatened them. Andre and his family were robbed, subjected to threats of rape, and heard of killings by a group of thieves who were also Haitian.
“They said they were going to help us,” Andre says of the thieves. “Then they ordered us all to strip and if we didn’t have money they threatened to rape the women. We had $20 between us – I held $10 and my wife $10, so they left us alone. But a friend of mine was killed. He didn’t have any money.”
When Andre and his family made it to the Mexico-US border, they followed a crowd. A rumour spread on social media and by word of mouth that it was possible to cross at Ciudad Acuna. Hundreds set off in that direction, then thousands. When they reached Ciudad Acuna they decided to cross fast because they had heard that the Mexican authorities would treat them badly.
The family crossed the Rio Grande river in a large group, but when they got to the other side they were corralled under the International Bridge that connects the US to Mexico.
The sudden arrival of a large number of migrants and refugees at America’s border sparked a media firestorm. Some 15,000 people, mostly Haitians, were held there. They made shelter out of anything they could find – cardboard boxes, plastic and blankets.
Republican politicians rushed to the border for media appearances, pointing to the crowd as a symptom of an “open border” policy pursued by Mr Biden. Texas governor Greg Abbott instructed a convoy of state police vehicles to form a steel barrier at the border in a show of force for the cameras.
Andre and his family were unaware of the political fight that was raging over their arrival. He was just focused on staying alive.
“We didn’t eat for six days,” he says. “We couldn’t sleep because the ground was too hard. Some people came to donate food but the authorities would only give some of it out.”
For those six days, Andre and his family camped under the bridge. They did not see the border patrol guards on horseback corralling a group of migrants, photos of which went viral and prompted widespread criticism from Mr Biden and Democrats.
The Department of Homeland Security eventually processed the thousands who had been trapped under the bridge and Andre and his family were driven from the border to a nearby transfer centre run by a local charity. They were given bags of toiletries, food and welcomed. It was the first time he felt safe for more than a month. After a brief pitstop, a bus took them to another transfer centre in Houston. From here, migrants usually call family members to arrange flights across the country, where they continue their asylum claims.
Andre and his wife have no family in the United States – they will be starting out on their own. When asked why he decided to come to America, Andre says he “just wanted a life,” and to help his family back in Haiti, especially his widowed mother.
“I am the first person in my family to do this. Whatever money I make here will go to my family back home,” he says. “I have a lot of responsibility,” the 24-year-old adds.
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