Haitian Migrants at Texas border
A little girl holds her stuffed animal high above the water as migrants, many from Haiti, wade across the Rio Grande river from Del Rio, Texas, to return to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, Monday, September 20, 2021, to avoid deportation. The U.S. is flying Haitians camped in a Texas border town back to their homeland and blocking others from crossing the border from Mexico. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Over the weekend, Fox News and the Republicans continued their vicious, dishonest campaign against the approximately 12,000 migrants, most of them Haitian, who are camped under a bridge in the remote border town of Del Rio, Texas. The ongoing propaganda onslaught, and the larger fear that the migrant camp is politically dangerous, has frightened the Biden administration into restarting mass deportations to Haiti, a nation suffering under a violent, U.S.-backed regime—and also still reeling from last month’s earthquake. Biden officials have to race to deport, because a federal judge on September 16 said they can no longer misuse a 19th-century public health statute to expel the migrants. The judge gave the government 14 days before the removals must stop.

Here are the facts. The migrants under the Del Rio bridge are 70 percent Haitian, but they have not come directly from Haiti, and they will not be followed by millions more. The Biden administration is not soft on migrants and refugees. In fact, it has been deporting tens of thousands of mostly Central Americans under the questionable health statute that Judge Emmet Sullivan just invalidated. And, as Richard Senecal, a veteran Haitian film director who has made a valuable documentary on his country’s diaspora, told me, “One of the roots of the problem is that the U.S. continues to interfere in Haitian political life. Until that changes, desperate people will continue to leave Haiti.”

Fox News’s anti-migrant onslaught is extreme even by its own low standards. The network regularly has complained that federal authorities prevented it from flying its camera drone over the encampment, so it could continue to titillate its viewers by showing endless video of the refugees. Its reporter Bill Melugin repeatedly and wrongly said that crossing the border and requesting asylum is “illegal.” Senator Ted Cruz also chimed in melodramatically, trying to look tough in dark glasses: “I am on the ground in Del Rio, Texas tonight. As of this moment, there are 10,503 illegal aliens under the Del Rio International Bridge. This man-made disaster was caused by Joe Biden.”

The Haitians arrived at the border after an extraordinary trek. In some cases, they journeyed more than 5,000 miles, mostly by land, from Chile and Brazil, where they had traveled legally a few years ago to work. Richard Senecal’s film, Birth of a Diaspora, is a penetrating look at some of the 100,000 Haitians who flew directly to Chile in 2017 and 2018; that number was 1 percent of the country’s total population, the equivalent of 33 million Americans. (Unfortunately, the film’s subtitles are only in French.) The Haitians who appear on camera are mostly young, and many are skilled and educated. One tells Senecal, “We left because of our social and political system. Haitians are tired of the lying; they realize that there’s no future.”

Senecal, who spoke by phone from Haiti, explained that the atmosphere in Chile and Brazil turned bad for Haitians after right-wing governments came to power in both countries. So they started traveling north, mostly by land. Almost unbelievably, some 40,000 crossed the dangerous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama on foot. There are no roads through 100 miles of rain forest, which is a favorite route for armed drug smugglers. Senecal said he heard that other Haitians took boats around the gap and then continued by land.

Even longtime border experts are astonished at how the Haitians persevered, although some people did die along the way. Somehow, they made it up through Mexico, keeping in touch by cell phone with migrants ahead of them, who recently told them Del Rio was a better place to cross into the U.S. and ask for asylum. For years, northern Mexico has been dangerous for migrants on the move. On September 17, Mexican police at San Fernando in the state of Tamaulipas stopped 15 buses carrying 500 Haitians; they immediately started walking onward. In August 2010, a drug smuggling gang kidnapped and murdered 72 other migrants in the same area. A regional Mexican paper reported that locals sympathized with the Haitians—and “gave them water and food, and offered to drive them to their destination.”

One report, in The New York Times, says the U.S. plans to make four deportation flights a day. After last month’s earthquake, Biden officials had stopped kicking Haitians out. The deportation planes have a capacity of 135, so the U.S. still has time to remove up to 7,500 people during Judge Sullivan’s 14-day grace period.

Even outside the Fox/Republican media ecosphere, much of the mainstream U.S. coverage has been less than adequate. Sullivan’s ruling passed nearly unnoticed amid the alarmist photos and videos of the Del Rio bridge encampment. Some reports emphasized the political “challenge for Biden,” instead of the humanitarian challenge for the Haitians.

But the mainstream media’s biggest failure is that it ignores U.S. complicity in the chronic crisis in Haiti, especially in the decade since the devastating 2010 earthquake. Bill Clinton, who headed the international so-called effort to “Build Back Better” after that disaster, is particularly disliked there, because Haitians have seen no evidence of reconstruction, aside from a couple of luxury hotels. Instead, the U.S. State Department continues to prop up a corrupt, violent, undemocratic regime, interfering in Haiti by using America’s tremendous economic and political power, including deciding who in the Haitian political and business class gets a visa to visit the U.S. and who doesn’t. Meanwhile, the American media and State Department policy makers continue to ignore the broad-based pro-democracy anti-corruption movement, which over the past three years has carried out mass demonstrations despite the danger.

Senecal is pessimistic for now. He said that violent criminal gangs have become even more powerful, especially since the unsolved assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7. Haitians are now afraid to march. But he also blames American officials, like Special Envoy for Haiti Daniel Foote and U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison. (Haitians, especially in the capital and among the better educated, can always name whoever the U.S. ambassador is at any given time.) Senecal said, “Haitians see that the Americans ignore us, so people don’t believe that protest can change anything.” He told me that, behind the scenes, U.S. officials have always supported politicians they can control. “It’s in the State Department’s DNA,” he said. “They don’t want people in power who can say no.”

Meanwhile, the deportation flights have started landing in Haiti. But one U.S. official, hiding behind anonymity, offered reassurance: “To help repatriated Haitians who have not lived in the country for years, non-profit organizations and some American officials will be stationed at the Port-au-Prince airport when they deplane.”

Not everyone has forgotten that the Haitians are human beings. The humanitarian chef José Andrés was in Del Rio, cooking for the migrants, while another branch of his team has been in Haiti, feeding the victims of last month’s earthquake. Clearly, they can see what too many of our fellow Americans cannot: that these people aren’t the monsters Fox News, in the interest of its ratings, makes them out to be.

James North

Follow James on Twitter @jamesnorth7. James North has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for 46 years. He lives in New York City.