How did 14,000 Haitians travel across Mexico without the government noticing?


It started with a trickle. A dozen people one day, maybe 20 the next day. Then several busloads in the weeks after. People noticed the presence of Black people in the bus stations of cities like Saltillo and Monclova in the Mexican state of Coahuila, but they didn’t pay much attention.

Until one day last week, 14,000 Haitian immigrants converged in the city of Acuña, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio. The imperceptible trickle of weeks became a humanitarian crisis overnight, and people started asking, “How did this happen?”

The question seeks to explain why there is a crisis like this when the Mexican government agreed to stop the flow of migrants to the U.S. at Mexico’s southern border. That is why we regularly see in the news images of the Mexican National Guard breaking up migrant caravans in the state of Chiapas, right after the migrants cross to the border from Guatemala.

But this time, the flow of migrants is not in caravans. Instead, it is Haitians coming into Mexico from different countries where they had been refugees for years, particularly since the devastating 2010 earthquake. After another earthquake hit amid a political and economic crisis earlier this year, many gave up hope of returning to their homeland and made their way to the United States.

They came in small groups, not in a large caravan, through different points of entry into Mexico, and made their way north. A tip spread by word-of-mouth that the city of Acuña is a better environment for migrants than other Rio Grande towns, safer than the border cities of Tamaulipas and less surveillance by the National Guard than in Piedras Negras. Also, the Rio Grande is shallower in this area and easier for crossing. Authorities are also exploring the possibility that many were lured there by organized crime groups.

And yet this doesn’t answer the question of how the migrants arrived. Because they had to cross almost the length of Mexico to get to Acuña without being detected or stopped.

This is something the governor of Coahuila, Miguel Ángel Riquelme, would like to know.

“It’s clear the federal government did not make an effort to contain them,” he told me. “Because they were traveling for some time. How did they cross the country? How long were they traveling?”

To get to Acuña from Mexico City by land, a person must travel through five states. Even though the National Guard polices bus stations, has checkpoints in the highways of Coahuila and has surveillance in railroads, these migrants were not stopped.

Over the past month, migrants came to Acuña and crossed to Del Río, where the Border Patrol caught them and put them in a makeshift camp under the bridge. And yet people kept coming until more than 14,000 migrants were spread out under the bridge and in shelters in Acuña and surrounding towns. A camp of 14,000 people equals almost 10% the population of Acuña and almost half the population of Del Rio. Border agents sorted people, allowing some to apply for asylum and deporting others, eventually dispersing the camp.

This is not the first time a migrant crisis has hit the Coahuila-Texas border. At different moments of 2019 and 2020, thousands of people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were stranded in Piedra Negras and Acuña. Just a couple of months ago it was an influx of Venezuelans. But this most recent group of Haitians is by far the largest. The largest number of migrants congregated at the border before this week never surpassed 5,000.

Gov. Riquelme told me the main objective now is preventing migrants from dispersing across towns in northern Coahuila, where they will be harder to find. So far, the migrant crisis has not developed into a health or safety crisis. Many residents of Acuña are responding by giving migrants food, clothing or hygiene supplies, after people left the bridge camp and crossed back to Acuña because there was nothing to eat. Other residents have taken migrants into their homes or they have donated to shelters.

In the rest of the country the issue of immigration is one that comes and goes in the news but does not provoke the political excitement as in the United States. This is not to say that people don’t notice. From time to time in cities across the country, immigrants show up more frequently. Their skin is often darker than the local residents, in some cases bearing the trait of African descent.

In my hometown of Torreón, halfway between Mexico City and Ciudad Juárez, hundreds of Central American immigrants pass by each month. Some stay for a few days or weeks to make some cash, showing up at street intersections where they wipe windshields, sell trinkets, or ask for food or money.

Local people notice and sometimes they are wary, fearing perhaps that the presence of immigrants will drive up crime. To others, the thought that the migrants are only passing, that their goal is to reach another country, is reassuring. But whatever anti-immigrant fear might exist is kept in check because it is not stoked for political purposes, unleashing xenophobic panic.

However, immigration does turn into a political problem, because after failing to prevent migrants from reaching the border, the Mexican government must face the logistical nightmare of sending them back. Haitians are being taken to shelters and then put on flights to Port-au-Prince, even though many migrants have not been there in almost a decade. U.S. authorities are doing the same, flying people from San Antonio.

Already there are reports that Haitians on their way north are stopping their journey seeking shelter in cities along the way as they learn about the situation at the border. They will bide their time until the current crisis subsides, and then they will resume their journey and head to the border in a trickle.

Javier Garza Ramos is a journalist in Coahuila, Mexico, and co-host of the Expansión Daily podcast. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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