Pedro Fisime wasn't given any answers.
Along with his 10-year-old daughter, Reyna, the Haitian migrant, who had spent the last six days in a chaotic and squalid encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande, was simply handed a numbered blue ticket by Border Patrol agents, bused into the border town of Del Rio, given a notice to report to immigration authorities and the opportunity to stay in the United States legally.
“It’s a very difficult process for all of us,” said Fisime, 24, a slim graphic designer wearing a T-shirt, shorts and green high-tops. “I had faith and I made it to the U.S. You have to try.”
For the thousands of Haitian migrants at the U.S. border, news of the release of some into the U.S. by the Biden administration only added to their confusion in an escalating crisis. Some were flown back to Haiti. Others were still in the camp under a bridge. Still others, trying to avoid being sent back, crossed the treacherous river to stay in Mexico for the time being, some with blue and yellow tickets they were unaware would entitle them to enter the U.S. legally.
Then there were those like Fisime who were plucked from the camp by U.S. authorities based on their color-coded tickets. Those with blue tickets, issued to families, would be allowed in. So would those with yellow tickets — pregnant women. Red tickets for single men and green tickets for single women meant they were likely to be sent back to Haiti.
In Del Rio, hundreds of Haitian migrants climbed out of U.S. Customs and Border Protection vans Wednesday, clutching children, backpacks and federal paperwork that allowed them to leave the massive camp on the U.S. banks of the Rio Grande and remain in the country legally.
But the real keys to their escape were the blue and yellow numbered tickets.
U.S. officials released more than 1,000 migrants this week from the massive camp, even as they promised to expel them. Tiffany Burrow, operations director of the town’s only migrant shelter, Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, said it received more than 400 migrants on Wednesday, 388 migrants on Tuesday and 277 on Monday.
“These are very large numbers for us,” Burrow said of the center, which received 3,649 migrants last month.
When migrants arrived at the camp, the Border Patrol issued them the color-coded, numbered tickets, then called their numbers and loaded them aboard buses and vans, some for expulsion flights, others for release. Migrants were called for processing by color and number, with families and pregnant women prioritized for legal entry while most single men were expelled, according to migrants and Nana Gyamfi, executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
This month, a federal judge in San Diego ruled that the Border Patrol's daily cap on asylum applications was unconstitutional. The practice, known as “metering,” forced migrants to return to Mexico and try to enter the U.S. at a later date.
Gyamfi said that the Border Patrol's ticket system at the Del Rio camp is equivalent to metering and that immigrant advocacy groups are investigating whether the practice can be challenged, although by the time anything is done, thousands would already have been sent back to Haiti. Already, Gyamfi said, some Haitian fathers were being separated from their spouses and children during processing.
“It's like they're taking a page out of the Trump administration playbook,” she said. “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
Some Haitians released from the camp received notices to report to immigration officials at their destinations within 60 days. Others received notices to appear in immigration court. A few were released with ankle monitors. U.S. immigration officials did not explain to the migrants why they were treated differently, nor did they answer questions about the ticket system.
Burrow said the Border Patrol notified her each morning of the number of migrants expected to be released in Del Rio, and Wednesday was the most so far: more than 400.
There had been 10 flights carrying up to 135 migrants each from the camp since Sunday, with five more scheduled Wednesday, said Lewis Owens, chief executive for surrounding Val Verde County.
Owens, who visits the camp daily, said the number of migrants there had dropped to 5,381 Wednesday from a high of 16,000. He said that only families with young children were being released, and that the camp could be emptied by Saturday. He said conditions were primitive and there was only so much three dozen medical staffers could do in their tent.
“They delivered a baby yesterday morning here at the camp, could not get her to the tent fast enough,” he said.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas has stepped up expulsion flights to Haiti and insisted that those at the Del Rio camp face removal under a pandemic health rule invoked by then-President Trump and extended by President Biden.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for Homeland Security acknowledged in a statement that some Haitian migrants were being released in the U.S., although he would not say why or how many.
Before the migrants were released, Border Patrol agents ran a background check, collected fingerprints, photos, phone numbers and an address in the U.S. They did not test the migrants for COVID-19, Burrow said.
Those dropped at the shelter Wednesday were greeted by Burrow and a Creole interpreter who helped explain what would happen next.
“There’s a bus that takes you from here to a migrant center in Houston,” Burrow told several dozen migrants lined up outside the center.
Once the migrants arrived in Houston six hours later, another nonprofit group would greet them, Burrow said. Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition is working with two separate nonprofits, in Houston and San Antonio, to help the migrants as they travel there.
“They will provide you with a meal. You will be in close proximity to an international airport and a bus station. There are no free tickets. But volunteers in Houston will help you navigate,” she told the migrants.
Sometimes buses transported migrants to San Antonio or Dallas instead, then onward to their ultimate destinations, many in Florida and New York. Burrow stressed that there were limited buses out of Del Rio, a border city that’s so small — just 35,000 people — there’s not even a bus station. Three Greyhound buses stop at a gas station daily, the last one departing about 6 p.m.
“It’s very important you are first on the bus,” Burrow emphasized to the migrants, who listened intently. “You do not want to lose your place.”
The migrant shelter doesn’t house migrants overnight. Those who didn’t board buses would probably struggle to find a taxi or a place to stay the night, Burrow said. Most rental cars and hotels in town were booked by Texas law enforcement and National Guard troops sent to secure the border. Those that had space had increased their prices, she said.
“There have been instances in Del Rio where families were on the streets at night,” Burrow said.
Migrants who were released Wednesday said they had not been told at the camp whether they would be freed or expelled.
Several hundred migrants have left the Del Rio camp, crossing the Rio Grande to a park in Ciudad Acuña, afraid that if they stayed, they would be expelled. Some of those released Wednesday said they had stayed at the camp only because they didn’t speak Spanish and feared for their safety in Mexico. Some bought others' tickets with higher numbers, hoping to wait and see whether they would have the opportunity to stay legally.
Claudy, who asked to be identified by his first name because of safety concerns for relatives in Haiti, said other migrants offered to buy his ticket — No. 11,202 — for $150 to $200.
Claudy, 31, had just $120 to provide for his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son. He had been living in Chile for several years, working construction, but left hoping to enter the U.S. legally. Now he regretted migrating. The prospect of being sent back to Haiti made him feel suicidal. Still, he refused to sell his ticket.
“That’s my number, that’s my blessing,” he said.
And it was. On Wednesday, he watched as other single migrants were zip-cuffed and loaded on a bus for removal, while his and other families boarded a van to the shelter. Border Patrol agents fitted him with an ankle monitor and told him to report to immigration Oct. 16.
“I was praying, and God made a way,” he said before boarding the bus to Houston, where he planned to contact relatives to purchase flight tickets to Miami.
Rosamaria Bernardo, 19, a day-care worker, said she had spent 12 days at the camp with her parents and brother before she was released. She wasn’t sure whether they had been released too. Bernardo said she hoped to reunite with her family in Boston. Standing in line for the bus Wednesday, blue-blond braids loose around her shoulders and suitcase in tow, she looked stunned.
“I came prepared to have to leave,” she said, especially after news spread of expulsion flights, so being released was “a shock.”
At 5:30 p.m., the last bus to San Antonio pulled into the Stripes gas station, prepared to transport 44 migrants.
Ralfson, 27, a construction worker, was among the last to board with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, headed for Orlando, Fla. He said he didn't understand why his family was allowed to leave while others were not.
"We don't know how they are deporting so many of us, and then this happened to us," he said.
Border Patrol agents dropping off the last group were late, and arrived with only 24 migrants. The bus driver had to leave without the last 20 migrants, who never showed.
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Del Rio and Castillo from Washington.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.