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CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico — Mexican authorities have begun rounding up Haitian migrants here in a crackdown that involved law enforcement at every level of government.
Convoys of local police, Coahuila state investigative agents, Mexico's federal immigration agency and the National Guard patrolled the streets of Ciudad Acuña on Monday and early Tuesday, chasing down dozens of people and loading them into vans.
Haitian migrants had begun fleeing an encampment on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande on Monday, in Del Rio, Texas, amid food scarcity and fears they could be returned to Haiti after the Biden administration began processing the migrants for expulsion flights.
The migrants found a newly hostile environment on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
Downtown, around midday on Monday, Mexican law enforcement agents exited a convoy on foot multiple times to apprehend people who appeared Haitian. Agents chased down several men.
Once apprehended, the agents loaded them into a van emblazoned with the insignia for Mexico's National Migration Institute, or INAMI.
More than a half dozen Mexican agents were seen attempting to board one Haitian man into an immigration van as he pushed back and could be heard shouting in Spanish, "mi mochila! Mi mochila! Mis papeles están en la mochila," yelling that his identification papers were in a backpack that agents refused to hand over.
The agents pushed the man into the van.
INAMI chartered flights to transport Haitian migrants
Coahuila's Vanguardia newspaper reported Tuesday that INAMI had chartered flights to transport migrants, including numerous Haitians, from the border town of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, to Tapachula, Chiapas — where Mexico has one of its largest migrant detention centers.
Mexico's foreign ministry didn't respond Tuesday to multiple requests for information regarding the apparent round-ups or reported flights to Tapachula.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told reporters in a morning news conference that he had been in touch with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding the "significant, notable recent flow of Haitian nationals that are coming from Brazil and Chile, not Haiti."
He didn't address Mexico's response at the northern border, but said that Haitians were receiving false information about opportunities in the U.S.
"They aren’t asking for refugee status in Mexico, except a small percentage of them," Ebrard said. "They are basically asking for the freedom to travel to the United States."
After the Department of Homeland Security extended permission to apply for Temporary Protected Status to Haitian nationals living inside the U.S. as of July 29, "people in the Haitian network told their people in Brazil and Chile, ‘you need to go to the United States quickly,'" Ebrard said. "They are tricking them."
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday said Blinken and Ebrard discussed "the common goal of promoting safe, orderly, and humane migration" as well as "the need for a coordinated regional effort to stem the flow of irregular migration."
'We can't turn back': Haitian migrants face massive expulsion amid crackdown at US-Mexico border
Nearly 19,000 Haitian nationals applied for refugee status in Mexico during the first eight months of 2021, three times the roughly 6,000 Haitians who applied for refugee status in all of 2020, according to data from Mexico's refugee agency, known as COMAR.
COMAR's capacity to process applications has been outstripped by demand for refugee status by Haitians, Cubans, Central Americans and other migrants in recent years. The federal government last year suspended a rule that required COMAR to resolve applications within 45 days.
Many applicants have been waiting months.
Although Mexico provides applicants with a constancia, or receipt, that affords them provisional legal status in the country, it's only good if they stay in the state where they originally applied — for the majority, that's Mexico's southern Chiapas state, said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
"So if Mexican authorities apprehend a Haitian migrant who applied for status in Tapachula (in Chiapas) somewhere else, they would be considered to have abandoned their application," he said. "That is significant because those with conditional status could be deported."
Mexico has had a repatriation agreement with Haiti since 2016.
Last week, Coahuila's top prosecutor, Gerardo Márquez Guevara, said in a statement that his office would "provide medical attention and realize patrols in coordination with the three levels of government" at the border.
Márquez Guevara said in the Sept. 17 statement that his agency, the Fiscalía General del Estado, would work in coordination with INAMI to review foreigners' documentation to confirm whether they have legal status in Mexico. He said there would be "checkpoints" and "mixed operations with lookouts in the streets and on the outskirts of the city."
In Ciudad Acuña, spokesman for the municipal government Jaime Escamilla said local police weren't engaging in immigration enforcement but were assisting federal immigration authorities under an agreement.
Before the encampment in Del Rio swelled to more than 15,000 people and became a thorny issue for the U.S.-Mexico relationship, businesses in Ciudad Acuña had catered to the newcomers, selling food and drinks and places to stay.
The migrants, many of whom have refugee or provisional status in Mexico, went largely unmolested by Mexican authorities even as their numbers swelled in this border city of about 124,000 people.
The international bridge connecting Acuña with its sister city of Del Rio, population 35,668, has been closed since Friday, angering residents and the business community.
The sudden shutdown choked off cross-border legal traffic in both directions, blocking residents and commercial trucks and sending people an hour southeast to the crossing at Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said in a news conference on Monday that CBP needed to redirect personnel to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the migrant camp.
Haitians among more diverse groups looking to migrate to the U.S.
Although Haitian migration hasn't dominated the U.S.-Mexico relationship in the way Central American migration has in recent years, it's emblematic of a more diverse movement of people across the hemisphere from countries around the world, Ruiz Soto said.
"Haitian migrations hasn’t been a principal diplomatic issue, per se, but extra-continental migration has," he said. "We are seeing a larger share of migrants coming from other parts of the world, coming more and more often and that has been a point of bilateral negotiations."
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, speaking to reporters while traveling back to D.C. from New York, was asked if the Biden administration has asked anything specific of Mexico on Haitian migration.
"We are of course continue to be in close touch with the Mexican government about how to address a challenging situation at the border, including with the number of Haitians who have come across the border," Psaki said.
"But this is not about one country, or individuals coming from one country," she said. "It is a part of a broad and ongoing conversation with the Mexican government about how we can continue to work together to address the migration situation at the border."
USA Today reporters Maureen Groppe, Joey Garrison and Courtney Subramanian in Washington contributed to this report.
Lauren Villagran can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Mexico cracks down on Haitian migrants in Ciudad Acuña