Feeling trapped, migrants’ fears grow in Mexican border city

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A man carries a boy across the Rio Grande river as migrants, many from Haiti, leave Del Rio, Texas to return to Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, early Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, some to avoid possible deportation from the U.S. and others to load up on supplies. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico (AP) — After more than a week at this crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border, Haitian migrant Nelson Saintil felt like the walls were beginning to close in on him and his family.

Saintil was along the banks of the Rio Grande on Wednesday morning with his wife and four children, ages 5, 10, 13 and 16. They had returned to Ciudad Acuña the day before after eight days in the squalid camp in Del Rio, Texas, where as many as 14,000 migrants had gathered.

Reports of U.S. deportations to Haiti had pushed them back to Mexico, but the situation remained fluid. The family constantly reevaluated its situation based on imperfect information.

“I don’t want to be like the mice who don’t know about the trap and get caught, because returning to Haiti is like being buried alive,” Saintil said.

At the same time, he and others feared straying far from the growing river camp on the Mexican side, because Mexican immigration agents continued picking up migrants around town and conducting overnight raids at the small hotels where some stayed. The threat of possible deportation on both sides of the border created the sensation of an open-air jail, he said.

Without the sort of overwhelming show of force deployed by the United States and Texas on the north side of the border, Mexico has been ramping up efforts to relieve migrant numbers at this segment of the border.

National Guard troops accompanied immigration agents on operations during recent nights. Sometimes they picked up migrants from the street and loaded them into vans. In other cases they raided hotels.

Well before dawn Wednesday, a couple of immigration vans pulled up outside a small hotel in Ciudad Acuña with National Guardsmen carrying rifles. Soon, shattered glass rained down from a second floor window and a woman screamed. Several migrants were led out with their hands secured behind their backs and loaded into a van.

Inside, an AP journalist found blood — whose was unclear — spattered on the tiled floor of the room in which they had been staying.

Bodlet Manaasse, 27, was the only migrant not taken from the hotel in the raid.

“I was sleeping, they knocked on the door and I didn’t open,” he said. “The owner opened it, and they told me, ‘you have to go with me’.”

They didn’t ask to see any documents, but he told them he was sick and had to see a doctor, showing his swollen belly. He was the only one they left, he said.

The rest of the hotel exploded in shouts, scuffles and breaking glass. One family tried to hide in the bathroom, but authorities broke down the door. A couple families wielded shards of glass to ward off agents and managed to dash out of the hotel with their children and run into the night.

The hotel manager, shaken by the event, would only say that he witnessed part of the action and had never seen anything like it.

On Tuesday, Mexico flew the first planeload of migrants from the border city of Piedras Negras — just downstream from Ciudad Acuña — to the southern city of Villahermosa. More flights were expected, including to Tapachula, near the Guatemala border.

At the same time, Mexico was trying to keep more migrants from reaching the northern border. Bus lines were reminded not to sell tickets to migrants without proper documentation. On Monday, immigration agents in the northern city of Monterrey, a key transportation hub for travel to the border, detained about 100 migrants at the bus station who were then flown to Tapachula.

In Monterrey, the number of Haitian migrants arriving at a local shelter had grown exponentially since Sunday.

Some 1,500 Haitian migrants had arrived to the shelter since Sunday. The shelter, which has a capacity of 700, has expanded outside with tents for the overflow.

“The wave started with the deportation from from the United States, which has been done inhumanely,” said José Jaime Salinas, administrator of the Casa INDI shelter. “It is the new United States president’s first error, because this is being seen around the world.”

Selomourd Menrrivil, 43, left Tapachula to head to Monterrey with his family after seeing the situation developing in Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio. He and his wife arrived in Monterrey Sunday with their two teenage daughters.

Their plan is to regularize their status in Mexico and find work, even though he conceded that their ultimate destination remains the United States.

“Without work we can’t do anything,” said the Cap-Haitien native who lived for five years in Santiago, Chile before heading north. “We want documents here.”

Mexico also plans to begin direct flights to Haiti, which would initially target Haitian migrants already in Mexico’s detention centers who have not applied for asylum. Those with open asylum cases would be flown or bused to Tapachula, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Little by little the migrant camp in Ciudad Acuña was growing beside the Rio Grande. Small tents and tarps were sprouting to provide shelter for several hundred migrants, mostly families, in a scene reminiscent of camps that have appeared in other border cities like Matamoros, Reynosa and Tijuana in recent years.

On Wednesday morning, Antonio Pierre, 33, listened to the news on a friend’s cellphone.

“They are releasing some, but they are very few,” he said. His wife and daughter were across the river in Del Rio. He had waded back across the river through waist-deep water just to charge his cellphone, but said it was possible the whole family would join him in Mexico before the day was through.

The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said in a statement Wednesday that it had been in Ciudad Acuña since Monday offering services to the migrants.

“The situation of dozens of thousands of migrants in Mexico, as well as the U.S., is unsustainable and of an extreme vulnerability due to the failure of asylum policies and continual deportations,” it said.

___

AP photographer Felix Marquez in Ciudad Acuña and writer Marcos Martínez Chacón in Monterrey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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