U.S. immigration officials released a few dozen Haitians from detention Monday in Del Rio, Texas, a small border town making headlines because of an influx of migrants hoping to enter the United States.
"Thank God we're here!" Micheline Baptiste told VOA Creole. "I'm thrilled — it's a blessing. We fought hard to get here." She had been living in Chile before heading to the United States and said the journey on foot took 2½ months.
"A lot of misery. Many people died. We were walking over dead bodies. Some people drowned. Others were trying to escape robbers when they fell into the water and drowned," she said. "Children were left motherless, fatherless. It was really tough."
Baptiste is one of the lucky few to gain entry into the U.S., where she will have to appear in court with a lawyer to petition for asylum.
According to Guerline Jozef of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, about 300 people were released from deportation and not all were Haitians. They were considered vulnerable and had to give authorities a U.S. address where they would be living with a relative who is a legal U.S. resident. And they had to commit to returning to court with a lawyer to petition for U.S. residency.
The Biden administration announced Saturday it would deport migrants massed in a makeshift camp under the Del Rio International Bridge, on the Texas border with Mexico. Three deportation flights carrying hundreds of Haitian migrants traveled back to Port-au-Prince on Sunday, and three more left Monday.
WATCH: More than 12,000 Migrants Look for Asylum in Texas
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reiterated his message to migrants.
"We are communicating, as we have now for months, loudly and clearly, that irregular migration, the perilous journey, is not the journey to take," Mayorkas said Monday during a visit to Del Rio. "We have been, we are and we will continue to exercise the public health authority of the Centers for Disease Control in light of the fact that this country and this world is confronting a pandemic."
U.S. officials say 2,000 migrants were transferred out of Del Rio on Friday to various locations where they will be processed and deported. Officials plan to ramp up deportation flights this week to as many as 10 per day.
Jozef is a Haitian American immigration activist and the president of Haitian Bridge Alliance, an advocacy group for Haitian immigrants. She told VOA that Haitian migrants should not try to cross the border. Her alliance is the only Black and Haitian group working on the border.
"For now, the deportations will continue even though we are fighting that. There are a lucky few who have been released from detention, and we have welcomed them, but most of those people gave birth two or three days ago, so they are extremely vulnerable," Jozef said from Del Rio.
"I tell everyone that the border is closed. If someone tells you the border is open, it's a lie. That's why you see all this happening here," she added.
In Port-au-Prince, Prime Minister Ariel Henry addressed the situation of Haitian migrants in a national speech.
"It's been painful to watch on social media, on television and to listen on the radio the trials and tribulations our brothers and sisters are enduring on the Mexico-U.S. border," Henry said. "Their images trouble our hearts and impact the dignity of all Haitians, no matter what their beliefs are or where they are currently living."
The prime minister pledged his full support to all organizations working to help the migrants.
"After an earthquake and hurricane, people in the south are suffering,” said Serge Bonhomme, head of Providence International Ministries, a human rights organization in Orlando, Florida. "To the American government, especially the Department of State, you should consider that a humanitarian reason exists not to continue to deport these Haitians," he told VOA.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the administration's immigration policy Monday.
"One, our immigration policy is not about one country or discriminating against one country over another," Psaki said during the daily press briefing. "We want to end that and put, and hopefully put, an end to what we saw over the last four years."
The U.S. continues to deport those who illegally cross the border under Title 42, a 1944 health statute invoked under the Trump administration by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the coronavirus outbreak and continued by Biden. The law prevents migrants from gaining entry into the U.S. for public health reasons.
"There are a range of programs that people who are in the country can apply for or may be eligible for, including TPS (Temporary Protected Status) for Haiti, which is something that we still are continuing to look at and review," Psaki said.
The Department of Homeland Security said in August that Haitians who had been living in the U.S. since July 29, 2021, would be eligible to apply for TPS. Haitians have 18 months to apply for benefits that include legal residency and permission to work in the United States.
At the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, three Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flights landed Monday afternoon. The migrants aboard were angry about how they had been treated while in U.S. custody after a long, arduous voyage.
"I left Chile three months ago," a woman, who declined to give her name, told VOA, holding back tears. "… It's only by God's grace that I arrived in Mexico (after getting lost on the road)."
The woman told VOA that she had arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border on Saturday.
"When I got there, they called my number and then sent me to a prison, where they took my fingerprints,” she said. “They took pictures of me and my family. They took pictures of my children. They made me sign papers. Why?" she asked.
The woman said she had been transferred to another prison and then told Sunday night that they would be sent to a religious home, where they could talk to family members living in the U.S. who could purchase airline tickets for them to travel on to other cities. She said there were about 50 families with children held as a group. Instead of being sent to the religious home as promised, she and her family were put on a plane and sent back to Haiti.
Psaki, the press secretary, acknowledged that migrants were being returned to Haiti at a time when the country was dealing with multiple challenges.
"We certainly support and want to be good actors in supporting Haiti during a very difficult time," she said, "with a government that is still working to get back to a point of stability with recovery from an earthquake.”
White House correspondent Anita Powell, Jimmy Jacques in Miami, Yves Monpremier in Orlando, and Yves Manuel in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.