Among the nearly 14,000 mostly Haitian migrants camped on the banks of the Rio Grande River, a few considered lucky were being processed by immigration officials and planned to head further north from the border town.
Walson Etienne waited at a Del Rio, Texas, gas station with a plane ticket in his hand. Pulling out his smartphone, he showcased his travel itinerary—a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, then to LaGuardia International Airport in New York City, where he said he planned to stay with family.
A Port-au-Prince native, Etienne worked as a construction worker in Chile before starting his journey north to the Mexico-United States border two months ago. He had lost his job last year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he could not fathom returning to Haiti.
“We had to come over here to try to find work so we can eat,” said Etienne, who traveled with his Dominican-born wife Jasmine Ramirez, who is five months pregnant. “My country is in bad shape. There was an earthquake. President Moïse was assassinated. We’re looking for a better life.”
As dusk fell Monday evening and Etienne awaited a ride to the airport, at least 6,000 migrants had already been removed from the camp. Some ended up back in Haiti on the multiple daily removal flights the U.S. intends to send to Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien. Etienne was in a group of about 20 migrants, mostly Haitian, who were released and given a court hearing for potential asylum, according to volunteers.
The migrants were heading to Missouri, New York, Florida and other states where they have relatives, said Valerie Rodriguez, a volunteer with the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition. Border officials released them after processing, giving them notices to appear at immigration hearings in their respective destinations, she said.
For Dumel Chery, that destination will be Bridgeport, Connecticut. Chery, also a former construction worker, shared a folded-up slip of paper with the name of the city and a relative’s phone number. “I traveled with my sisters and lived in Chile,” Chery said.
As Chery spoke, Rodriguez was busy darting around the parking lot, loading up those bound for the Del Rio airport into a van. The coalition has helped coordinate transportation out of town. Some migrants had flights leaving early Tuesday, she said
“Unfortunately there are no hotels at all tonight, so I’m going to take them to the airport, and they’ll just have to sit outside at the airport [until] it opens,” Rodriguez said late Monday. “A lot of them were able to get on the train.”
U.S. officials on Monday still planned a swift removal of the thousands of migrants waiting at the Del Rio border crossing. Armed policemen and National Guard members stood at the gates of a long, metal border fence prohibiting people from approaching the encampment, underneath the International Bridge. One journalist who was inside the fence hours earlier reported that few, if any people are crossing the Rio Grande, after law enforcement blocked off part of the riverbank.
Six deportation flights were scheduled to travel to Haiti on Sept. 21, despite the deepening political and humanitarian crises resulting from the president’s assassination, earthquake and persistent gang violence.
“There are only two careers in Haiti, politics and gangs,” said Etienne, the New York-bound migrant. “I don’t want to carry guns. That’s why I left my country to come here.”