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Taina Saint Hilaire and Christbert Germain hold their son, Sebastiano, on the shores of the Rio Grande, on Sept. 23, 2021, uncertain whether to cross to the U.S.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Christbert Germain and Taina Saint Hilaire stood on the muddy Mexican shores of the Rio Grande and hesitated. Before them, waist-deep waters moved slowly. A rope strung across the river offered support for the crossing. Just 75 metres of stony bottom separated them from the United States, the object of their hopes for a more prosperous future.

They knew they could get there. Hundreds of others slipped up the banks of the opposite side, past a row of U.S. Border Patrol agents who watched but did not intervene.

In fact, Mr. Germain, 33, and Ms. Saint Hilaire, 28, had already set foot in the U.S. For four nights, they slept with their toddler son beneath the bridge in Del Rio, Tex., where, days earlier, 15,000 people had congregated, many Haitians like them.

Then the couple retreated, knowing that roughly 10 per cent of those who gathered beneath the bridge have already been deported back to Haiti, the birthplace whose endemic poverty and instability they have spent years trying to escape. But they also knew that the U.S. has allowed others to make asylum claims.

So they hesitated.

While Mr. Germain held their two-year-old son, Sebastiano, Ms. Saint Hilaire waded into water up to her calves and stood a few minutes in the pull of the river. Then she picked her way back onto Mexican soil, to the border town of Acuna – though she knew this, too, was hardly safe harbour, as Mexican authorities have begun to haul off hundreds of migrants for deportation.

“We are thinking about what to do. We don’t know if we should go right now, or tomorrow,” Ms. Saint Hilaire said, looking across the water.

Sebastiano held a toy truck without wheels, one of two playthings he carried with him from Chile, past the bandits in the jungles of Panama and through the 10 countries they passed to get to this spot – only to find themselves now racked with indecision.

“Only God knows,” Mr. Germain said.

Like tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of others, they were a family caught in between. Between the policy vacillations of a White House seeking to stanch the flow of people while promising a more humane approach to immigration – an approach that has received widespread condemnation, including from the U.S. Special Envoy for Haiti, who quit this week.

Between the ebullience of a U.S. economy recovering from COVID-19 and the pandemic-stricken ill fortunes of much of Central and South America. Between Hollywood visions of American wealth and the reality that those simply looking for a better life are not typically granted asylum.

Between taking a gamble on a U.S. system that might deport them and abandoning a trip that had already cost Mr. Germain and Ms. Saint Hilaire more than US$7,000, including US$2,500 in debt.

“Nobody knows what to do,” said Wisny Andre, 23, another Haitian who had retreated from the U.S. to contemplate his options. “Even my family has been asking me what I’m going to do. I don’t know.”

In Mexico, the answer to that question is growing clearer. Under pressure from the U.S., authorities who long turned a blind eye to crossing migrants are now taking action. The state of Coahuila has set up check stops and warned of criminal consequences for drivers who transport those without proper documentation.

“People who don’t have their papers cannot stay here,” Sonia Villarreal, Coahuila’s Secretary of Public Security, said in an interview.

At least 350 migrants have already been sent some 1,500 kilometres away to Tabasco for processing and likely deportation, said Fernando de Las Fuentes Hernandez, Coahuila’s Interior Secretary. Hundreds remain in Acuna, drifting between Mexico and the U.S. as they seek to divine the best place to be. “It’s a huge problem; it’s an issue that we have to solve,” he told The Globe and Mail.

Local administrators say the U.S. is using economic pressure to push Mexico, too, to dispatch migrants, threatening it will not reopen the bridge between Acuna and Del Rio – a crucial economic link for the Mexican side – unless most new arrivals disappear.

“If the U.S. counts more than 100, they are not going to reopen the international bridge,” Felipe Basulto, the Acuna town clerk, told The Globe and Mail.

Migrants who refuse to move on, to the U.S. or elsewhere in Mexico, will be pursued by national immigration agents “to rescue them,” he said, using a common euphemism for arrests that often lead to deportation. Earlier this week, Mexican agents “rescued” 37 migrants from hotels in Acuna.

(Neither the Texas Governor’s office nor U.S. Customs and Border Protection responded to requests for comment.)

Such tactics have come under intense new scrutiny, especially after Daniel Foote, the U.S. Special Envoy for Haiti, resigned with an unsparing letter that was made public Thursday. Haiti, he wrote, cannot be burdened with thousands of “returned migrants lacking food, shelter and money without additional, avoidable human tragedy.”

President Joe Biden, who earlier this year condemned Donald Trump’s immigration policies as a “stain on the reputation” of the U.S., has so far failed in Congress and the courts to push through immigration reforms that, he had promised, would show the country as one that “welcomes immigrants.”

Instead, the Biden White House has maintained and defended some of the more iron-fisted actions taken under Mr. Trump, including the use of a public-health provision that, on pandemic grounds, allows for deportation without giving any resort to the asylum process. The “majority of migrants” are being expelled on that basis, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Monday.

Nearly 10,000 people have already been removed from beneath the bridge in Del Rio, and the White House has vowed up to three deportation flights a day. To date, however, most have been bused or flown to processing centres in other parts of Texas. At least a thousand have been released in Del Rio itself, the Texas town of 36,000 where humanitarian groups have struggled to help them find transportation elsewhere.

Pressure across the U.S. border with Mexico has intensified this year. A surge of people has been propelled northward from Central and South America, away from economic circumstances made more tenuous by the pandemic and toward the warmer intonations from Mr. Biden after years of Mr. Trump’s bombast.

In the past 11 months, U.S. authorities have already apprehended 1.5 million migrants along the country’s southern border, placing it on track to reach a two-decade high in seized migrants.

Authorities at the border say strong measures – including the controversial use of agents on horseback to block arriving migrants – are needed to avert even greater numbers.

Leaders in Acuna have been warned that 10,000 migrants have gathered at the border into Mexico from Guatemala. Tens of thousands more are believed to be on the move in Colombia and other South American countries, officials there have said. If their progress can’t be stopped, “we’re going to have an endless problem,” said Mr. Basulto, the Acuna administrator.

He cast doubt on the notion that those coming are penniless.

Video: Haitian migrants deported as pressure builds on Biden

Haitian migrants say U.S. plans to speed up deportations won’t be a deterrent: ‘We are all looking for a better life’

Among the Haitians are tradespeople, construction workers, farmers, cosmetologists and university students who left work – although poorly paid and often undocumented – in places such as Chile, Brazil, Guyana and French Guiana, they said in interviews conducted by The Globe.

Many spent all they had to arrive here. Still, lines have formed at banks, currency exchange shops, restaurants and convenience stores in Acuna. “People say they are coming without resources, without money. That’s not true. They have money,” Mr. Basulto said.

People have fled Haiti in search of less impoverished frontiers for at least a century, and remittances from the country’s diaspora today represent about a third of GDP, said Mathias Pierre, a cabinet minister in Haiti who is in charge of elections.

More recently, political instability and natural disasters have given new cause for flight. Among those now at the U.S. border are people who first left for neighbouring countries after the 2010 earthquake flattened homes and fractured lives.

“But Haitians are looking for heaven, and heaven is the United States,” Mr. Pierre said. He expects those deported back to Haiti won’t remain in the misery they are likely to find. “They’re going to work their way again, and try to go back,” he said.

That is particularly true for those who perceived, in the Biden administration, a new opening. This summer, the White House provided Haitians in the U.S. a special temporary protected status allowing them to remain in the country.

That status does not apply to new arrivals. Many Haitians nonetheless saw it as an invitation.

Their first taste of the U.S. was less welcoming. Beneath the bridge in Del Rio, migrants have slept on the ground, struggling to secure enough food and water.

With the exception of the perilous hike through the undeveloped Darien Gap – the Panamanian jungle where migrants have been killed by snakes, cliffs, rivers and thieves – the nights on U.S. soil were the worst Mr. Andre had experienced in his months of travels.

“I never thought it would be like that – living under a bridge,” he said. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve lived like that.”

Elsewhere, Del Rio witnessed very different scenes.

At a centre run by the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, water dripped out from a portable shower unit and Haitians queued for food. Those here had been issued temporary documents, some granting 60 days to make an asylum application. It was a tenuous foothold on the U.S., but those documents gave them reason not to abandon hope, even as they considered the toll of getting here.

Thomas, 34, a Haitian migrant, ran his hand just above his collarbone, where an angular scar marks the place a bullet passed through the base of his neck. His family was repeatedly attacked in Panama, he said. His 13-year-old daughter was raped.

“But President Joe Biden, he welcomes people. He understands misery and said, ‘Come find work,’ ” Thomas said. The Globe is not using his full name to avoid identifying a victim of sexual assault.

Much uncertainty remained. A tracking bracelet was clamped to his ankle, a physical reminder that though he was in the U.S., he was not free. Some time in the next few weeks, he would be called upon to convince authorities he and his family deserved asylum.

Still, standing among other Haitians also granted temporary reprieve, he could not suppress a feeling of joy. Where others were deported, he had a chance.

“I don’t know why. It’s luck,” he said. “God has given it to me.”

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