John Lafontant had lost his wallet.
Gone were his last 500 pesos, or roughly $25 in cash; a Border Patrol-issued number that held his place in what he thought was a line to seek asylum in the U.S.; and a tiny card with his brother’s address in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Despair welled up in the most desperate of places.
Lafontant, 33, had spent the last 48 hours in a sprawling migrant encampment in Del Rio, Texas, in mid-September. Thousands of Haitians had found safe passage and a chance at a life in the United States through Del Rio in previous months; their success spurred Lafontant and others to try, as well.
Lafontant had hoped to find a door in Del Rio to the United States, which he called “the greatest country in the world.”
Nothing prepared him for the welcome he found: more than 14,000 people, including families with children, waiting outdoors for days or weeks without adequate shelter, food or potable water but with Border Patrol tickets in hand.
“I thought the U.S. would receive a migrant another way,” he said. “But receive us like a dog, like a pig? Not like that. Not like that.”
He had arrived too late. Corralled in squalid conditions on U.S. land between the Rio Grande and the border wall, the encampment flew in the face of the Biden administration's promise that the country could have "an orderly, secure, and well-managed border while treating people fairly and humanely."
The national political uproar — a mix of anger from the left over the treatment of Black migrants and frustration from the right at the number of migrants seeking entry — drove the administration to crack down, hard.
They would send the Haitian migrants back to Haiti, a country plunged deep into political chaos and violence. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported processing more than 6,800 Haitians in September and October under the Title 42 pandemic rule that allows the government to return migrants to Mexico or their country of origin.
Lafontant worried about what to do next.
After two nights sleeping on cardboard in the camp, sleeping in the Texas humidity, he woke up trembling with a fever.
Still, he lined up for another Border Patrol number and held on to the new red-and-white ticket like something in a raffle to be lost or won. Agents were calling up more people each day, pulling them out of the camp and into custody. To what end, he didn't know.
Then his brother called with an urgent message.
“He told me, ‘They are deporting people! Get back to Mexico,’” Lafontant said.
“I went back so they didn’t deport me, too," he said. "But all of the friends I knew in the camp were deported to Haiti with their women, their children, everyone.”
Shifting ground for Haitians
Lafontant, gentle and gregarious, had left Haiti nearly a decade before.
He learned Spanish in the Dominican Republic: “I’m no professor,” he said, “but I can defend myself.” He worked a grueling job in Chile, pouring the preservative sulfur dioxide into vats of wine. He had crossed 10 countries overland to reach the U.S. border and still could laugh about the many indignities on the journey — a survival instinct.
It was while working at the Chilean winery, alongside dozens of other Haitian laborers, that he first heard about the border crossing between Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in 2020 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He had worked the job for three years and believed the sulfuroso, a chemical listed as sulfites on bottles of wine, “damages the lungs, it damages everything. If you smell it, it can kill you. If it gets in your eye, you can lose your eye. It’s dangerous.”
The ground was shifting for Haitians who had immigrated to Chile.
Briefly a South American land of opportunity for Haitians, life in Chile had become harder. The right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera was cracking down on immigrants, refusing to renew visas and work permits granted under the previous, left-leaning administration of Michelle Bachelet. The pandemic dried up many of the jobs available to the newcomers.
Word spread person to person, on Facebook and WhatsApp that there were opportunities in Mexico — and potentially in the U.S.
Dozens, eventually hundreds and then thousands, of Haitian people began trying their luck at the crossing between Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio. Many were granted an opportunity to make their case to stay in the U.S.
“People were saying Acuña was the best border,” la mejor frontera, he said, “where you could cross and they wouldn’t bother you; they would forgive you.”
He wanted something more. For his 4-year-old son in Haiti. For himself.
A few of his 19 brothers and sisters had emigrated to the U.S. in years past; one brother reached the U.S. border but decided to make a life in Tijuana, at Mexico's northwestern frontier. Lafontant and his brother in Tijuana shared a religion as Seventh Day Adventists, but Lafontant was quick to say that he has never left his fate entirely in God's hands.
"Everything that I have, I give thanks to God," he said, "but I am always trying to be courageous, siempre luchando, luchando," always struggling, fighting for something better.
He told his employer in Chile he needed permission to leave, lying that he planned to return to Haiti for his child, who he supported with his earnings. He kept photos of the boy on his cell phone wearing pressed shirts and clean sneakers and a serious expression.
Lafontant packed a backpack with three changes of clothes and deodorant. No matter what happened, he said, he would need a clean change of clothes.
"You can be low on money but if you look clean cut, if you look well-dressed, you can meet anyone," he said.
On May 23, he got on a bus to Bolivia. The route he would take north to Ciudad Acuña had been mapped in mensajitos, in messages over social media, by an ever-growing network of migrants who had made the journey before him.
Mexico migration agents crack down, then let up
Nine countries later, he arrived in Tapachula, Chiapas — Mexico's own Ellis Island.
What it took to get there: More buses than he can remember. Walking four days through mountainous jungle linking Colombia to Panama. Facing criminals who robbed him and did worse to many others.
“I spent a month on the road,” he said. “It is truly dangerous. When someone can’t walk anymore, the river takes them. I only lost two toenails, but many people die. Many people die.”
Through the spring and summer, thousands of Haitians were making the journey from Chile to Mexico at great financial and personal sacrifice. Tapachula was full of those who had survived the journey, everyone in need of the same things at once: shelter, a job and legal documents to work and travel in Mexico.
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All were in short supply.
The country’s refugee agency, the Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados known as COMAR, couldn’t help the migrants fast enough. From January to September, COMAR would accept more than 26,000 applications from Haitian nationals, a sharp increase from fewer than 6,000 applications in all of 2020.
Lafontant submitted his application and burned through $2,000 waiting in Tapachula for four months, with no response.
Three times he tried to leave Tapachula without the papers he needed to travel legally in Mexico. Twice, immigration agents and police picked him up and returned him to Tapachula.
The third time, on the week of Mexico’s Independence Day festivities, he and other Haitians boarded an overnight bus to Mexico City.
In the middle of the night, somewhere on the monstrous city’s outskirts, immigration agents climbed aboard. Lafontant said they pulled every Haitian off the bus, saying they would have to come to the offices of the Instituto Nacional de Migración, the National Migration Institute, to prove their status.
“They were trying to arrest me, and I said to them, “How, if I’ve been living here in Mexico for two years? I cannot be arrested. And I convinced them.”
“That was at 1 o’clock in the morning. Around 4 p.m. the next day they let me go,” he said. “And I left for Acuña.”
Haitians had been arriving at the Southwest border steadily for years but they began to arrive in increasing numbers in the spring. U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered or apprehended more than 1,200 people in April. The number more than doubled in May, then doubled again in June to more than 5,900.
In September, when Lafontant successfully made it out of Tapachula, the U.S. reported encountering 17,638 Haitians at the Southwest border. The majority of them, including Lafontant, had gone to Del Rio.
'I can't go back to Haiti'
He arrived at the Ciudad Acuña bus station just after dawn on Thursday, Sept. 16, and took a taxi to the river's edge.
On the other side he found a city in the dust.
People were wading by the hundreds through the Rio Grande to the U.S. They built lean-to shelters with stalks of Carrizo cane, an invasive species growing wild. They draped blankets and clothes to fashion roofs and laid cardboard for the floor. Those with means and foresight popped up nylon tents. There wasn’t enough food or fresh water. People were bathing in the river and going to the bathroom on the ground, before the U.S. government eventually brought in portable toilets and potable water.
“Never in my life did I face a struggle like that — never,” he said.
Those on a migrant's journey often say they go with God, that their faith gives them the endurance to survive adversity. Haitians came fortified, too, with the power of their history, hailing from a country founded by former slaves who liberated themselves. They rebelled against a colonial power, won and founded their own nation.
Lafontant held onto a belief that the U.S. would greet Haitians as a people who had fought for their independence, as Americans had.
“We may be the poorest nation but the greatest history of Haiti, everyone knows,” Lafontant said. “The U.S. should receive us for the history we made.”
Lafontant dove into the encampment’s makeshift economy, crisscrossing to Mexico for food, bottled water and diapers to sell in the encampment for a fee ― earning the 500 pesos tucked in the wallet he lost.
When it went missing, he asked around for it. Someone said someone else had it and would turn it over for 200 pesos, about $10. The wallet never turned up.
The Biden administration began sealing off the route that had drawn so many to the rural Texas crossing.
The Department of Homeland Security shut down the Del Rio port of entry on Friday, Sept. 17, closing the international bridge to traffic. On Saturday, Sept. 18, the agency issued an advisory: It would "accelerate the pace and increase the capacity of removal flights to Haiti" over the next 72 hours. The administration drew on the powers afforded it under Title 42, the rule still in effect that allows the government to quickly expel migrants, including asylum seekers.
Multiple repatriation flights began departing daily, leaving El Paso, San Antonio and other Texas airports.
“I can’t go back to Haiti,” he said.
Things weren't getting better in his country, which had plunged into chaos following the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The government at every level had disintegrated. Gangs were running the streets of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The State Department in November would issue a dire security alert urging U.S. citizens to leave the country and warning them that the government would be unable to help them if they stayed.
“There is no security," he said. "If they can kill the president of the country, with all his armed guards, what of regular men?”
Going to Tijuana, 'to see if life might change'
Having heeded his brother's warning, Lafontant found himself stuck in Ciudad Acuña. He was out of money and hungry.
Lafontant believed he had one last, best chance in Mexico. One of his 19 brothers had settled in Tijuana after coming to the U.S.-Mexico border in an earlier wave of Haitian migration.
"I thought I would get to Baja California, to Tijuana," Lafontant said, "to see if life might change."
Lafontant called friends in Chile and relatives in the U.S. to scrounge up the bus fare to Mexicali via Monterrey, a regional transportation hub. The ticket cost 2,362 pesos, or $115, plus another 330 pesos, or $16, for the last leg to Tijuana. He spent everything he had on the bus tickets. It was Tuesday, Sept. 21. He hadn't eaten in three days.
A bus driver took pity on him, gave him money for a meal — the low point, Lafontant said. He can't forget what it felt like to be that hungry.
One week later, he had a place to sleep in a room off a Seventh Day Adventist Church undergoing a messy remodeling in a hilly working class neighborhood on the city's east side. He found a job at a maquiladora factory polishing metal for automotive and industrial parts.
He worked 5:45 a.m. to 3:45 a.m. five days a week for 2,000 pesos, or about $100.
He burst out laughing at the absurdity: $400 for a month's work in a city where rent easily runs that much and more.
But no one in Tijuana bothered him or called attention to the color of his skin. Mexico's perennial immigration crackdowns — focused on preventing migrants from reaching the U.S. border — often exempted Tijuana, which had become something of a safe haven. Thousands of Haitians before him had set down roots in the city south of the California border, working or studying while waiting for opportunities in the U.S. His brother, the Adventist, planned to stay in Tijuana and would soon be married.
Lafontant organized his papers to present again to COMAR. For now, he was starting life over in Mexico.
Among the memories of his 48 hours in Del Rio was a photo on his phone: the second, red-and-white Border Patrol ticket on which he briefly hung his hopes, now worthless and lost somewhere on the road to Tijuana.
Lauren Villagran can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Haitian migrant shares survival tale from Del Rio border crisis