Downstream From Del Rio

Photograph Source: Ken Mayer – CC BY 2.0

A large encampment of mainly Haitian migrants appeared abruptly in September at a border crossing in the town of Del Rio, Texas. The reactions to it of United States immigration authorities created a media storm that shone a harsh light on racist brutality by the Border Patrol and contradictory responses to asylum seekers by the Joseph Biden administration.

Del Rio, which is across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, hosts a smaller border crossing than those 350 miles downriver in the lower Rio Grande valley and those 400 miles upriver around El Paso. In early September, thousands of Haitian and other Latin American migrants began arriving and crossing the shallows of the river to set up an improvised camp under a bridge. By mid-month, the camp had grown to a maximum of some 15,000 people, without adequate water and sanitation. The migrants were blocked from entering the town to buy food and supplies, which forced them to cross the river to buy them in Ciudad Acuña. Conditions in the encampment were called “deplorable” by the United Nations.

On September 19, Border Patrol officers on horseback tried to physically block families with children crossing the river to bring supplies back to the camp, which had previously been allowed. Videos of the aggressive use of force against peaceful migrants went viral and provoked widespread condemnation as an echo of historical racist aggression against Black people. The Biden administration disavowed the enforcement operation and initiated an investigation, which is ongoing as of early January.

As the political controversy grew, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas quickly mobilized large-scale federal and state resources to dismantle the camp and resolve the migrants’ immigration status. On September 24, Mayorkas announced at a White House press conference that the camp had been completely dismantled and all of the migrants there had been moved to other locations. A large majority had been processed by immigration authorities and either flown to Haiti or accepted into the asylum process.

Ultimately, Mayorkas’s statements and subsequent media coverage revealed that some 8,700 Haitian migrants were eventually expelled back to Haiti; 13,000 were accepted into the asylum process, of whom 10,000 were released to family members or sponsors around the country and 3,000 were still in immigration detention as their asylum cases proceeded; 8,000 had “voluntarily” returned to Mexico and avoided the U.S. immigration system; and another 4,000 were still being processed as of Mayorkas’s speech.

Most of the 8,700 Haitians expelled back to Haiti had left their home country after a devastating 2010 earthquake to migrate to South America. In the past year, the already impoverished country had been wracked by another earthquake that killed over 2,000, a hurricane, the assassination of the president and dissolution of the legislature and much of the police force, and the takeover of large areas of the capital by warring gangs who kidnapped at will and brought the battered economy to its knees. The United Nations and human-rights organizations forcefully criticized the expulsions. Two veteran U.S. diplomats resigned in outrage that the government would send asylum seekers back to a place so mortally dangerous, given that the purpose of asylum is to protect people against having to return to places they left because of persecution. Debates over the handling of the Del Rio migrants revealed acute disputes over immigration policy within the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats.

Nevertheless, the acceptance of 13,000 migrants into the asylum process, nearly 50 percent more than those sent back to Haiti, suggested that advocates of respect for asylum laws still exerted some influence within the administration.

Under Biden, border enforcement has continued to operate under a controversial statute known as Title 42. The Donald Trump administration had launched this public-health emergency provision early in 2020, using it to summarily expel nearly all border-crossers back to Mexico without the possibility of a hearing, effectively shutting down most immigration and denying any chance to request asylum. Public health and human rights authorities inside and outside of the government protested that protecting against the pandemic did not necessitate shutting down immigration and asylum.

The Biden government had already exempted children from Title 42 expulsions, and some families as well – in part because Mexico did not accept the return of families in some border areas. Biden had reduced the use of Title 42 to about 50 percent of cases by mid-2021, while Trump had expelled nearly 90 percent under it in late 2020. For the Del Rio migrants, 40 percent of those processed were expelled, while 60 percent were allowed to enter the normal, pre-pandemic asylum process.

The full report, Downstream from Del Rio, fleshes out the details and context of what happened at Del Rio and analyzes the controversies unleashed and their outcomes so far. It finishes by exploring potential policies and strategies to end the violations of immigrants’ human rights at the border, and reform the asylum system to meet the realities of the 21st Century.

Peter Costantini is a Seattle-based analyst who has covered Latin America for the past three decades.