Examining the recent Haitian migrant surge at the U.S. border with Mexico How did 15,000 Haitian migrants, over a five-day span, reach the U.S.-Mexico border last month unimpeded? The answer involves, crime, law enforcement and politics.

Examining the recent Haitian migrant surge at the U.S. border with Mexico

Examining the recent Haitian migrant surge at the U.S. border with Mexico

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How did 15,000 Haitian migrants, over a five-day span, reach the U.S.-Mexico border last month unimpeded? The answer involves, crime, law enforcement and politics.


How did 15,000 migrants travel more than 1,500 miles through Mexico without being detected or detained? That question remains unanswered after thousands of Haitian migrants showed up in a tiny Texas border town last month, all within days of each other. The answer may lie in the intersection of crime and law enforcement and politics. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It was the days before Mexico celebrates its biggest national holiday, Independence Day, September 16. That's when the buses started arriving in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Acuna. Most just call it Acuna.


KAHN: Jose Fidencio buffs a pair of black boots at his small shoeshine stand on the corner of the town's central plaza, just one block from a Acuna's main bus station.

JOSE FIDENCIO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Fidencio says over a five-day period, there were dozens and dozens of buses from 7 in the morning to 7 at night. The buses kept coming. Acuna's bus station is really just a covered parking lot beside an open waiting room with one ticket counter and bathrooms.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This man who works at the station was nervous and would only speak to me if I didn't use his name. He said his bosses didn't give him permission to talk about those hectic five days in mid-September, when he says 70 buses a day arrived in tiny Acuna, 40 more than usual. And there wasn't enough room for them all.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We just let people out in the street," he says, "and in the back lot where the buses are washed." He says it felt as if all of Haiti had come to his town, about 3,000 Haitians a day. Once off the buses, the migrants headed straight for the U.S. border. There's a shallow point in the Rio Grande River here, where one can easily wade across to Del Rio, Texas. Once across, the migrants set up camp in the shade of the international bridge. Under the eyes of U.S. Border Patrol helicopters, the encampment grew. At the start of the week, hundreds were under the bridge. By Saturday, September 18, U.S. officials said there were nearly 15,000. So how did so many Haitians at one time make it through Mexico so quickly? Were Mexican officials overwhelmed by the numbers, especially coming through during a holiday? Tonatiuh Guillen, a former head of Mexico's immigration agency, doesn't believe Mexican officials were caught off guard.

TONATIUH GUILLEN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This was an operation performed on a grand scale, well-structured and planned out, says Guillen. He says he can't say for sure that authorities were complicit in this operation.

GUILLEN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But what is clear is that this organization was given a wide, open space to move through the country, says Guillen. On the Mexican side, officials didn't announce any operations to stop buses from reaching Acuna until Friday, the 17. It would be another five days before President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador warned bus companies to stop transporting migrants through the country.



KAHN: At his morning press conference, Lopez Obrador said what the companies were doing was illegal. Only migrants with proper travel documents can transit through Mexico. U.S. authorities are focusing their investigation on traffickers rather than Mexican authorities. A Department of Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said the agency has been, quote, "systematically identifying individuals associated with smuggling networks." But there have been no major arrests announced. Maureen Meyer with the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental think tank, says smugglers are only part of the story.

MAUREEN MEYER: The U.S. government is wanting to work with the Mexican government and Central American governments on, you know, addressing these smuggling rings. But that can't happen unless you also address some of this corruption within these agencies.

KAHN: For his part, Mexican President Lopez Obrador has repeatedly asked the U.S. for more humanitarian help for the migrants. Fifteen thousand Haitians on the Texas border clearly got Washington's attention. Andrew Selee, with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says intentionally or not, that gave the Mexican government a bargaining leg up.

ANDREW SELEE: The Mexican government clearly benefits - clearly gains leverage with the U.S. government when migration at the border becomes the center of conversation.

KAHN: Last Friday, on a visit to Mexico, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is committed to spending $4 billion in the region. But he also warned Haitians not to listen to smugglers who are spreading false information that they will get into the U.S.


ANTONY BLINKEN: They put themselves at tremendous risk along the entire route. And they will not be able to come to the United States. So we're working to make sure that we're communicating that effectively.

KAHN: But that message is competing with what migrants are seeing on social media. Anderson Cherry is 24 years old and from Haiti.

ANDERSON CHERRY: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

KAHN: He says he made it to the camp in Del Rio following maps and tips on WhatsApp and Facebook. But once he heard U.S. officials were deporting people back to Haiti, he waded back to the Mexican side. I talked to him in a provisional camp in a riverside park in Acuna. Twenty-eight-year-old Fritz Cajuste, also from Haiti, told me social media were abuzz the week before Mexican Independence Day. I talked to him in Tijuana, where he has lived for two years.

FRITZ CAJUSTE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: (Speaking Spanish).

CAJUSTE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says dozens of his friends left Tijuana across the border from San Diego toward Acuna. They flew there or took buses, Cajuste said. And officials in Latin America say tens of thousands of Haitians continue to make their way North.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Acuna, Mexico.


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