MORGAN DEL RIO: Three hours after being freed from a giant migrant camp under an international bridge, Mackenson Veillard stood outside a gas station and took stock of his sudden good fortune as he and his pregnant wife waited for a Greyhound bus to take them to a cousin in San Antonio.
The couple camped with thousands for a week under the bridge in Del Rio, Texas, sleeping on concrete and getting by on bread and bottled water.
"I felt so stressed," Veillard, 25, said this week.
"But now, I feel better. It's like I'm starting a new life."
Many Haitian migrants in Del Rio are being released in the United States, according to two U.S. officials, undercutting the Biden administration's public statements that the thousands in the camp faced immediate expulsion to Haiti.
Haitians have been freed on a "very, very large scale" in recent days, one official said Tuesday.
The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and thus spoke on condition of anonymity, put the figure in the thousands.
Many have been released with notices to appear at an immigration office within 60 days, an outcome that requires less processing time from Border Patrol agents than ordering an appearance in immigration court and points to the speed at which authorities are moving.
The releases come despite a massive effort to expel Haitians on flights under pandemic-related authority that denies migrants a chance to seek asylum.
A third U.S. official not authorized to discuss operations said there were seven daily flights to Haiti planned starting Wednesday.
Ten flights arrived in Haiti from Sunday to Tuesday in planes designed for 135 passengers, according to Haitian officials, who didn't provide a complete count but said six of those flights carried 713 migrants combined.
The camp held more than 14,000 people over the weekend, according to some estimates.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, during a visit Tuesday to Del Rio, said the county's top official told him the most recent tally was about 8,600 migrants.
U.S. authorities have declined to say how many have been released in the U.S. in recent days.
The Homeland Security Department has been busing Haitians from Del Rio, a town of 35,000 people, to El Paso, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border, and this week added flights to Tucson, Arizona, the official said.
They are processed by the Border Patrol at those locations.
Criteria for deciding who is flown to Haiti and who is released in the U.S. are a mystery, but two officials said single adults were a priority.
If previous handling of asylum-seekers is any guide, the administration is more likely to release those deemed vulnerable, including pregnant women, families with young children and those with medical issues.
The Biden administration exempts unaccompanied children from expulsion flights on humanitarian grounds.
The system is a "black box," said Wade McMullen, an attorney with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, who was in Del Rio.
"Right now, we have no official access to understand what processes are underway, what protections are being provided for the migrants."
On Wednesday, more than 300 migrants had been dropped off in Border Patrol vans by early afternoon at a welcome center staffed by the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition.
They waited for buses to Houston, a springboard to final destinations in the U.S.
Many were required to wear ankle monitors, used to ensure they obey instructions to report to immigration authorities.
"Hello. How are you?" volunteer Lupita De La Paz greeted them in Spanish.
"We will help you. You have arrived in Del Rio, Texas. It's a small town. There are not many options. We will help you get to another place."
Rabbiatu Yunusah, 34, waited with her 3-year-old daughter Laila, was headed to settle with an uncle in Huntsville, Alabama.
She felt "very happy to be in this country, to be free."
Jimy Fenelon, 25, and his partner, Elyrose Prophete, who is eight months pregnant, left the camp Tuesday and were headed to Florida to stay with an uncle.
"Everyone has their luck. Some didn't have luck to get here." Fenelon said.
Accounts of wide-scale releases, some observed in Del Rio by Associated Press journalists -- are at odds with statements Monday by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who traveled to Del Rio to promise swift action.
"If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned, your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family's life," he said at a news conference.
Homeland Security, asked to comment on releases in the United States, said Wednesday that migrants who are not immediately expelled to Haiti may be detained or released with a notice to appear in immigration court or report to an immigration office, depending on available custody space.
"The Biden Administration has reiterated that our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey," the department said in a statement.
"Individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including expulsion."
Meanwhile, Mexico has begun busing and flying Haitian migrants away from the U.S. border, signaling a new level of support for the United States as the camp presented President Joe Biden with a humanitarian and increasingly political challenge.
The White House is facing sharp bipartisan condemnation.
Republicans say Biden administration policies led Haitians to believe they would get asylum.
Democrats are expressing outrage after images went viral this week of Border Patrol agents on horseback using aggressive tactics against the migrants.
Immigrants have described a screening process at the camp where people were given colored tickets for four categories: single men; single women; pregnant women; and families with young children, McMullen said.
The vast majority of immigrants he and other advocates have interviewed and who have been released into the U.S. have been families with young children and pregnant women.
Wilgens Jean and his wife, Junia Michel, waited in Del Rio this week for relatives to send the $439 in bus fare to get to Springfield, Ohio, where Jean's brother lives.
Michel, who is pregnant, huddled under the little shade the parking lot had to offer from the brutal heat.
Her only request was for sunscreen that she softly rubbed on her pregnant belly.
On the concrete in front of them lay two backpacks and a black garbage bag which held everything the couple owns.
The pair left in Haiti in April and were in the Del Rio camp for five days.
Jean said because his wife is expecting, they were released from the camp on Monday.
"I entered by crossing the river," Jean said.
"Immigration gave me a ticket."
After an initial stay with family in San Antonio, Veillard eventually hopes to get to New York City to live with his sister.
He will take any job he can find to support his growing family.
Veillard and his wife left Haiti four years ago and had been living in Brazil until they began their journey to the United States in June, much of it on foot.
"I don't know how I'm going to feel tomorrow but now I feel lucky," he said.
WhatsApp, social posts helped lead Haitian migrants to Texas
For the final leg of his journey from Chile to the United States, Haitian migrant Fabricio Jean followed detailed instructions sent to him via WhatsApp from his brother in New Jersey who had recently taken the route to the Texas border.
His brother wired him money for the trip, then meticulously mapped it out, warning him of areas heavy with Mexican immigration officials.
"You will need about 20,000 pesos (about $1,000 U.S. dollars) for the buses. You need to take this bus to this location and then take another bus," recounted Jean, who spoke to The Associated Press after reaching the border town of Del Rio.
What Jean didn't expect was to find thousands of Haitian migrants like himself crossing at the same remote spot.
The 38-year-old, his wife and two young children earlier this month joined as many as 14,000 mostly Haitian migrants camped under a Del Rio bridge.
A confluence of factors caused the sudden sharp increase at the Texas town of about 35,000 residents.
Interviews with dozens of Haitian migrants, immigration attorneys and advocates reveal a phenomenon produced partly by confusion over the Biden administration's policies after authorities recently extended protections for the more than 100,000 Haitians living in the United States.
It also reflects the power of Facebook, YouTube and platforms like WhatsApp, which migrants use to share information that can get distorted as it speeds through immigrant communities, directing migration flows.
That's especially true for tight-knit groups like the Creole-and-French-speaking Haitians, many of whom left their homeland after its devastating 2010 earthquake and have been living in Latin America, drawn by Brazil and Chile's once-booming economies.
In extending protections for Haitians this spring, the Biden administration cited security concerns and social unrest in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the temporary protections were limited to those residing in the U.S. before July 29, but that condition was often missing in posts, leading Haitians outside the United States to believe they, too, were eligible.
Mayorkas acknowledged that this week, saying "we are very concerned that Haitians who are taking the irregular migration path are receiving misinformation that the border is open," or that they qualify for protected status despite the expired deadline.
"I want to make sure it is known that this is not the way to come to the United States," he said.
Thousands of Haitians have been stuck in Mexican border towns since 2016, when the Obama administration abruptly halted a policy that initially allowed them in on humanitarian grounds.
Online messages touting the Mexican town of Ciudad Acuña, across from Del Rio, started after President Joe Biden took office and began reversing some of the Trump administration's immigration policies.
Ciudad Acuña has been spared the drug and gang violence seen elsewhere along the border.
Some of the social media posts recommending it appear to have come from human smugglers seeking to drum up business, according to immigrant advocates.
Haitians began crossing there this year, but their numbers ballooned after a Biden administration program that briefly opened the door to some asylum seekers ended, said Nicole Phillips, of the San Diego-based Haitian Bridge Alliance, which advocates for Haitian migrants.
The program allowed in a select number of people deemed by humanitarian groups to be at high risk in Mexico.
Once it ceased in August, people panicked, and the messages recommending Ciudad Acuña "went viral," Phillips said.
"That's why they rushed at this time to get in," she said.
"They realized they wouldn't be able to get in legally through a port-of-entry like they were hoping."
Del Rio is just one example of how technology that has put a smartphone in the hands of nearly every migrant is transforming migration flows, according to advocates.
Migrants often monitor the news and share information on routes.
The most popular platform is WhatsApp, which connects 2 billion people worldwide.
In 2020, after Turkey announced that the land border with Greece was open, thousands of migrants headed there, only to find the gates closed on the Greek side.
Something similar happened this spring in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, in North Africa, when thousands of people were allowed to cross from Morocco into Spain, which promptly sent most of them back.
Last week, in a Facebook group for Haitians in Chile with 26,000 members, one member posted specific instructions on routes through Mexico.
It included paths to avoid and recommended certain bus companies.
"Good luck and be careful," said the post, written in Haitian Creole.
Another member shared a different route in the comments.
The group's members have since relayed stories of horrific conditions in Del Rio and risks of being deported.
The International Organization for Migration found most of the 238 Haitians who were surveyed in March after passing through a 60-mile (100-kilometer) stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama known as the Darien Gap received route information from family or friends who had made the dangerous trek.
About 15% said they saw instructions on the internet.
Agency spokesman Jorge Gallo said the instructions led the migrants to believe crossing the gap was "difficult but not impossible."
But just as similar messages drew many Haitians to Del Rio, news of the Biden administration deporting hundreds on the Texas border caused some to change their plans.
A 32-year-old Haitian woman who made it to Del Rio with her two teenage children bought bus tickets to Mexico City after receiving a cousin's audio message via WhatsApp.
She previously lived in Chile for four years.
"Wait in Mexico until this month is over. They will pick up everyone under the bridge. After that, they will give me the contact to enter Miami," said the recording in Creole, which she played for an AP reporter.
The AP is withholding the woman's name to protect her safety.
Facebook Inc., which owns WhatsApp, allows people to exchange information about crossing borders, even illegally, but its policy bars posts that ask for money for services that facilitate human smuggling.
Robins Exile said he and his pregnant wife, who left Brazil after he lost his job amid the pandemic-wracked economy, headed to Tijuana, Mexico, instead after seeing warnings via YouTube and WhatsApp from fellow Haitian migrants.
"A lot of Haitians are advising now not to come to Acuña. They say it's no longer a good place," he said.
On Wednesday, Antonio Pierre, 33, who was camped in Del Rio with his wife and daughter, listened to the news on his friend's cellphone.
"The U. S. is releasing some but just a few," he said, referring to U.S. officials who told the AP on Tuesday that thousands of Haitians in custody were being let go and ordered to report to an immigration office, contradicting the Biden administration's announcement that all Haitians camped in the town would be expelled to Haiti.
Nelson Saintil and his wife and four children had been camped in Texas but moved back to Mexico as they awaited word on where to go next to avoid deportation.
"I do not want to be like mice who do not find out that they are falling into a trap," he said.
"Because returning to Haiti is to bury a person alive."