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Confined to US border camp, Haitian migrants wade to Mexico for supplies

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico — The treacherous waters of the Rio Grande rushed by as Isnac Joseph admitted he didn’t know how to swim. But the 31-year-old father of a hungry 2-year-old son in the migrant border camp nevertheless braved the river — joining a daily pilgrimage of hundreds of other Haitians — leaving the U.S. side to buy food, water and other necessities in Mexico.

According to the migrants, they’ve been forced to traverse the river daily to buy food because they’re not allowed to cook in the camp and the U.S. has failed to provide any real sustenance. The camp has grown during the last week to more than 14,000.

On Monday morning, Texas state troopers parked along the U.S. side of the river looked on as migrants picked their way down the muddy banks toward Mexico, some toting babies. Many said the only food their families received at the camp each day was a sandwich, bottle of water and a few cookies.

Mostly men crossed the hazardous stretch of river, about half the length of a football field, because few at the camp knew how to swim.

“My child is hungry, but the water is fast. I’m afraid,” said Joseph, who was crossing to buy milk for his son.

“It’s a sacrifice,” said Makendi Charles, 29, who also didn’t know how to swim and crossed to get $300 that relatives in Haiti had sent to a bank so he could buy food for his wife and 3-year-old son. “I have to get something for my son because it’s so hot. He tells me, ‘Papa, my belly hurts and my nose, too.’ He has a cold, a cough.”


The migrants clung to a yellow rope strung across the river, teetering on river rocks and stumbling at times in the weeds. They were in a hurry. Temperatures have been rising above 100 degrees in the afternoons, taking a toll on pregnant women and children.

On Sunday, at least one woman at the camp passed out and had to be removed by National Guard troops. Children lay limp and listless in the arms of parents who said they couldn’t afford medicine from Mexican pharmacies. There’s no clinic at the camp.

Migrants also hurried to retrieve supplies Monday because they knew the Rio Grande would rise chest high by 4 p.m., with currents one man compared to an anaconda, squeezing as it sucks you under. On Sunday, a woman and baby were briefly swept underwater, according to several migrants who witnessed the close call. Both survived, they said.

Once in Acuña, Mexico, the migrants faced other obstacles. Many spoke Spanish, having spent years living in South America, but they stood out in the sleepy border town of about 160,000. Some complained of price gouging, not just by vendors on the riverbank, but also by taxi drivers and stores in town. Many had exhausted their savings paying for their journey north, which they said cost $5,000 to $11,000 per family.


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