Takeaways from the Del Rio Migrant Camp Crisis: What Now?

By Todd Bensman on September 29, 2021
Acuna bus station
Haitian from camp in Acuna showing his bus ticket south, away from the border. Photo by Todd Bensman.

DEL RIO, Texas — The migrant encampment under the international bridge here has been liquidated and the 15,000 mostly Haitian illegal migrants who had pooled under it have moved on to different futures (most paroled into the United States, but others flown to their home country of Haiti). Bulldozers have erased all evidence that anything of note ever happened here.

Except that much of note did happen here during the September 12-24 migrant camp crisis in Del Rio, including two lessons from the White House, which saw this as a political canker sore and therefore put a swift end to it. If retained and refined, these lessons could both prevent new such camps from forming and, perhaps more importantly, douse the far wider mass-migration crisis from which this one spawned.

The Del Rio camp — with its 15,000 temporary inhabitants and all of the media attention it attracted — needs to be viewed in proper context as a relatively minor event in a far wider crisis that brings in 50,000 immigrants every single week (on track for 1.7 million for FY 2021) across hundreds of miles of America’s southern border, and yet weirdly attracts little media attention.

The 15,000-person Del Rio camp, however shiny a bauble it was for network news cameras, amounts to a typical morning’s migrant traffic on any given day, so vast is the crisis that spawned their riverbank shantytown.

The two main takeaways from Del Rio that the White House, Congress, and the U.S. media should know, study, and actually apply to significantly temper the crisis that birthed Del Rio, are that:

  • Del Rio revealed a deeply troubled U.S.-Mexico diplomatic relationship that requires a radically different American approach; and
  • Rolling out repatriation flights to home nations as a credible threat proved to be a magic pill for sharply reducing mass illegal immigration.

Trouble in Paradise: A U.S.-Mexico Relationship Clearly on the Rocks

The Mexican government caused the Del Rio camp to form, the Center for Immigration Studies has concluded from interviews with immigrants in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, just across from Del Rio. The camp’s formation reveals that Mexico neither respects nor fears the Biden administration’s carrots-based approach to diplomacy with it, feeling free to renege on diplomatic bargains. In this case, the Mexican national interest in setting loose thousands of migrants toward the American border on September 12 seemed especially trivial: creating a nicer environment for Mexico’s El Grito national independence holiday celebrations the week of September 16.

Consider what CIS learned from interviews with dozens of the Del Rio camp’s inhabitants against the backdrop of Joe Biden’s election and opening presidential moves on immigration policy.

It was clear by February that Biden’s first immigration actions had sharply spurred mass migration. So Biden’s State Department went to Mexico and that asked Mexico to slow this migration down. The administration offered Mexico and Central American nations billions in aid, for instance, as well as coronavirus vaccines. In return, Mexico agreed to Biden’s request to keep a Trump-era Mexican national guard deployment of 9,000 on its southern border with Guatemala. Specifically, the troops would enforce a Mexican plan to require that arriving immigrants secure Mexican asylum or other legal permissions as a precondition to traveling out of the country’s southernmost provinces. But approvals were slow-rolled, often for months.

Thousands backed up in and around the southern Chiapas State city of Tapachula — more than 20,000 Haitians, for instance, applied for Mexican asylum through July. Those who didn’t hire smugglers to bypass the new requirements were made to wait months for approvals.

By the first week of September, frustration boiled into violent clashes, as mostly Haitian immigrants formed caravans and tried to break through the national guard. They and guard formations repeatedly clashed in southern Mexican towns and cities as Mexico tried to keep its end of the bargain with the American administration. The Mexican government forces were still battering the caravans by the second week of September, clubbing men, women, and children into vehicles for transport back south.

But then, on September 12, the Mexican government suddenly caved, according to migrants who later reached the Del Rio camp.

Government officials in Mexico’s deep south had told them all: “Never mind the papers.” They gave the Haitians a three-day grace period to clear out of Tapachula. An exodus of thousands promptly moved northward that day, mostly by bus — toward Del Rio, Texas, a day or two’s ride away.

The reason local government officials gave to the immigrants for this gift was the onset of El Grito.

Mexico has never publicly confirmed this, but it seems likely that the government wanted to grant the immigrant-weary people of southern Mexican states a reprieve from violent clashes that seemed poised to ruin the coming week-long El Grito festivities of parades and cook-outs.

“The government allowed us to leave,” one of those Haitian migrants, who gave his name as Kelson, told CIS. He was with a small group that had just gotten off a bus that departed from Tapachula.

“We don’t know why, but a lot of the offices were going to be closing for the holiday,” he said.

He said thousands of Tapachula migrants left town as soon as they could and headed for Ciudad Acuna and Del Rio.

Another Haitian, who wrote his name as Donley Vainqueur, said he and his family were forced to wait in Tapachula for months, applying for what he termed “passports” to the rest of Mexico. He said every day he would go to immigration to check on the status of his application.

Then, all of a sudden one day, “They [Mexican immigration officials in Tapachula] said, ‘okay, you can cross for three days because of the days of festivities.'”

Why did they go to Del Rio and not other, more trammeled parts of the Texas-Mexico border? Because it’s free to cross the Rio Grande there, and safe; Mexican cartels in the region are largely uninvolved in human smuggling, according to prior CIS reporting in March 2021 from Del Rio and across the river in Ciudad Acuna.

True to El Grito, Mexican authorities in Ciudad Acuna at the main Rio Grande crossing into the camp told CIS they were under orders not to interfere with the Haitians pouring over the Rio Grande into Del Rio. State police and the national guard could be seen passively observing as hundreds of migrants moved back and forth over the river within feet of them.

One State of Coahuila police officer said they were stationed there only to keep order and prevent crime.

By mid-week of the Del Rio camp crisis-within-a-crisis, however, the Mexican government was somehow made to realize its diplomatic affront.

Mexico’s central government ordered a sharp about-face with a series of tough enforcement moves, shutting off almost entirely the incoming spigot of migrants, which shows how critical Mexican involvement is to U.S. border security.

After days of purposefully letting all migrants cross into Del Rio, the state police manning the main crossing closed it under new orders, which the officers told CIS were: “Let no one through.”

Not that any migrants wanted to go through by then, because the Biden administration had just begun shipping the migrants back to Haiti aboard ICE air flights. This tactic, politically unpalatable to the Biden administration, but reluctantly acknowledged as highly effective, sent thousands of the Del Rio camp migrants fleeing back into Mexico, many boarding southbound commercial buses, to avoid the threat of being flown back to Haiti.

In Ciudad Acuna, national guard and immigration officials began running systematic raids on all hotels, rousting immigrants and putting them on daily flights out of the Acuna airport and back, at least, to the southern Mexican provinces from which they came, members of the national guard told CIS. Some credible media reports said that Mexico would begin its own repatriation flights to Haiti. Meanwhile, national guard roadblocks went up in central Mexico to turn around northbound buses carrying migrants.

Did the Biden State Department make some angry and demanding phone calls? That isn’t known for certain, but it undoubtedly happened. Whatever the Americans told Mexico to do, it did. And this diplomacy amply demonstrates the sheer power that a more robust American approach to Mexico can have on mass illegal immigration.

None of this should surprise anyone. When he was president, Donald Trump did not rely on paying aid or giving medicines to the Mexican government to do his bidding; he threatened economically destructive trade tariffs on all Mexican exports if Mexico did not cooperate with his policies and demands to slow migration on its southern border.

That’s why Mexico originally deployed its troops on the Guatemala border and at the northern border to block illegal immigration and deport most southward if they did not apply for asylum. And it worked for all of the time those threats remained on the table, as CIS reported from Tapachula in January 2020.

It’s a safe bet that Mexico would never have considered unleashing thousands of migrants for El Grito had President Trump been in office with his stick-based diplomacy about the border.

While it’s unclear whether the Biden State Department threatened Mexico mid-week to get its side of the camp under control, the key takeaway from the Del Rio camp experience is that a different, more aggressive American approach would go far to eliminate the broader mass migration crisis along all of the U.S. southern border.

The Repatriation Flights

Perhaps no tactic proved more impactful in ending the Del Rio camp than the Biden administration’s politically unpalatable resort to the Trump-era policy of repatriation flights to Haiti. Especially in conjunction with Mexico’s (probably forced) repatriation flights, hotel raids, border closures across from Del Rio, and removal operations of other varieties mid-way through the camp crisis.

Some estimates suggest that as many as 5,000 of the Del Rio camp’s original residents fled back into Mexico. Migrants leaving on southbound buses and in a public park on the Mexican side across from Del Rio told CIS they were leaving in abject fear of the deportation flights. Only about 2,500 of the 15,000 were flown to Haiti, but no matter. Those 2,500 texted and emailed warnings back to those still in the camp: “Leave! Get out! Don’t go near the (ICE) buses! They’re going to deport you!”

Wholesale repatriation by air did not seem necessary, just a small percentage was enough to send Haitians fleeing from even a small chance of such deportation, dozens of migrants told CIS in Ciudad Acuna, to which they initially fled.

Asked why he was going back to Tapachula, one migrant who’d fled Del Rio answered, with a touch of anger: “Because Biden said all Haitians coming will be returned to their country. We spent much money to come here. Much, much, much money. And we get nothing now. This is very sad for me.”

Of course, the Trump administration succeeded in reducing a mass migration episode that erupted in early 2019, in large part by using air repatriation to home countries. The Trump administration deported 50,000 Guatemalan immigrants in a bid to increase the risk to others that their smuggling fees and effort would not pay off. Many stopped trying to come, unwilling to take that risk.

It remains unclear how long the Biden administration will use the repatriation flight option. Other important questions about it remain unanswered, too, such as whether its use will be extended to the rest of the border or apply to the many other nationalities crossing the southern border in large numbers.

The important takeaway is that, even in this one, limited use, repatriation flights proved highly impactful as a deterrent that reduced the camp’s population almost immediately. Air repatriation was the single most effective tool the administration brought to bear in liquidating the camp.

If such flights were ever applied border-wide and to a greater number of nationalities, the broader border crisis might be very significantly attenuated.

Many of those who fled the Del Rio camp said they planned to disappear into Mexico City or Monterrey or Tapachula to get their Mexican asylum, work, and bide their time until one thing happens and one thing only: The Biden administration stops the repatriation flights.

Then, they will return to cross the U.S. border.