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The U.S. Is Using The Pandemic As Grounds For Deportation Of Haitian Migrants

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin tonight with the latest from the Texas-Mexico border, where local and federal officials are struggling to cope with a migrant encampment of more than 14,000 people, many of them from Haiti. The migrants are waiting in squalid conditions under the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, for a chance to seek asylum. But it's not clear how many will get the chance before being deported. Texas Public Radio's Joey Palacios has this report from Del Rio.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

JOEY PALACIOS, BYLINE: Less than five miles from the Texas-Mexico border, Haitians, Cubans and Brazilians, among others, form a single-file line outside a convenience store. Some carry a bag or two. Most have nothing. Children cling tightly to their parents. That announcement you hear in Spanish is that the next bus will arrive at 1 a.m. That's about nine hours from now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PALACIOS: Not long ago, most here were part of the thousands of people gathered under the Del Rio International Bridge, all seeking entrance to the U.S., many looking for asylum. These are the fortunate few who have made it this far. They await buses that will take them to new cities, where their process will continue.

YARIOSKA RONDON: (Non-English language spoken).

PALACIOS: Yarioska Rondon says he and his partner came from Cuba, fleeing dictatorship, violence and hunger. He says, you can't live in Cuba. You're a prisoner in Cuba. He and his wife have been living in Juarez, right over the border from El Paso for the last two years, waiting for their case to be heard. They got frustrated and decided to travel to Acuna because they thought it would be their best chance to move forward. They spent six days under the bridge, but today, they made it. And now they're on their way to Miami. But many here at the encampment under the bridge are in limbo. One Haitian man across the river in Acuna, Mexico, said it's been a long journey to get here. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Portuguese).

PALACIOS: Speaking in Portuguese, he said he's originally from Haiti. And he migrated to Brazil, traveled much of the country and went on to Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico by foot. He says the journey has been dangerous, witnessing violence and sexual assault against his community. But it's all for the hope of a better life, one that feels quite far from reality here. That's because the Biden administration announced it will be sending people back from this encampment on planes to their home countries.

CLARA LONG: What's happening in Del Rio right now - it's not a welcome with dignity.

PALACIOS: Clara Long is with Human Rights Watch. She says the flights are being conducted under Title 42. It's a seldom-used part of U.S. code that deals with public health. The Trump administration enacted Title 42 at the start of the pandemic, claiming the expulsion of migrants would help stop the spread of COVID-19. Biden has continued it.

LONG: It's an example of bad practice around the world, in terms of cutting off the right to seek asylum in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

PALACIOS: Long says Biden's message has been confusing, both trying to be more welcoming to migrants and continuing some of Trump's hard-line immigration policies. But there's no question this part of the border is under stress. On Friday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed the port of entry. There's no traffic at all between Del Rio and Acuna. The basic needs of people are immense, with local restaurants making sandwiches and other foods in mass quantities. The mayor of Del Rio says this is not sustainable. And federal officials are asking migrants not to come.

Back at the bus stop in Del Rio, Yarioska Rondon and his partner, Leytianis Pena, are waiting for their bus. The couple can't wait. Leytianis is nine months pregnant, due any day to deliver a baby boy.

LEYTIANIS PENA: (Non-English language spoken).

PALACIOS: She says she's excited for her baby. But when they were at the bridge, they thought they were never going to leave. She's relieved to be here. It's a long road, but a new chapter begins.

RONDON: (Non-English language spoken).

PALACIOS: All these years waiting for this moment, says her partner Yarioska. He says there's so much happiness, he can't express it. He's going to have a child born in this country, a free country, he says. For NPR News, I'm Joey Palacios in Del Rio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.