The Biden administration was working on plans on Saturday to return many of the thousands of Haitian immigrants who gathered in a Texas border town to their home countries, a swift response to the huge influx of people who suddenly crossed Mexico and gathered under and around a bridge.
The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement it had moved around 2,000 migrants from Del Rio to other locations on Friday for processing and possible deportation.
This was a swift response to the sudden arrival of thousands of Haitians in a relatively remote part of the border that lacks the capacity to accommodate and process large numbers of people.
By Monday morning, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) plans to have at least 400 officers and agents in the Del Rio area and is ready to send more, DHS said.
A US official told The Associated Press on Friday that Haiti’s operational capacity and willpower would determine the number of flights. The official said progress was being made in negotiations with Haitian authorities.
Another official expected a maximum of two flights a day and said all migrants would be tested for Covid-19.
The international bridge in Del Rio, Texas, where thousands of Haitian migrants have set up a makeshift camp, remains closed on Saturday. Photography: Eric Gay / AP
CBP said it was closing the Del Rio border crossing with Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, to meet urgent safety and security needs. Travelers were directed to a level crossing at Eagle Pass, 57 miles away.
Haitians crossed the Rio Grande in a continuous stream on Friday, passing between the United States and Mexico through knee-deep water, some carrying children. Unable to obtain supplies in the United States, they returned to Mexico to seek food and cardboard to settle under or near the international bridge of Del Rio, a city of 35,000 inhabitants severely affected by the flow of migrants.
The migrants pitched tents and built shelters from giant reeds known as the carrizo cane. Many have bathed and washed in the river. The vast majority of migrants on the bridge were Haitians, Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens said. Some families had been under the bridge for six days.
The litter piles were 10 feet wide and at least two women had given birth, including one who tested positive for Covid-19, Owens said. County Sheriff Frank Joe Martinez estimated the crowd at 13,700 and said more Haitians were crossing Mexico by bus.
Aerial footage shows scale of makeshift migrant camp under Texas Bridge video
The flight plan, while potentially massive, depends on how Haitians react. They may have to decide whether to stay at the risk of being sent back to their impoverished homeland or returning to Mexico. Unaccompanied minors are exempt from accelerated deportations.
About 500 Haitians have been ordered to get off buses by authorities in Tamaulipas, about 120 miles south of the Texas border, the state government said. They continued on foot to the border.
Haitians have migrated to the United States from South America for several years, with many leaving after a devastating earthquake in 2010. After jobs dried up since the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro Janeiro, many made the journey on foot, by bus and by car to the US border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
It is not known how such a large number amassed so quickly, although many Haitians have gathered on the Mexican side of the border, including in Tijuana, across from San Diego.
The US Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
We will respond accordingly, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told MSNBC.
Migrant asylum seekers from the United States bathe in the Rio Grande River in Del Rio, Texas. Photograph: Go Nakamura / Reuters
A Biden administration official said the theft plan did not specifically target Haitians and did not reflect a change in policy. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, said federal officials told him the migrants would be moved by the Department of Defense to Arizona, California and elsewhere on the Texas border.
Some Haitians in the camp have lived in Mexican towns for a while while others arrived after being stranded near the Mexican border with Guatemala, said Nicole Phillips, legal director of the Haitian advocacy group Bridge Alliance. . A sense of desperation spread after the Biden administration stopped admitting asylum-seeking migrants deemed particularly vulnerable.
People are panicking about the way they seek refuge, Phillips said.
Edgar Rodriguez, lawyer for the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, north of Del Rio, noticed an increase in the number of Haitians two or three weeks ago and believes disinformation may have played a role.
Biden quickly dismantled the Trump administration’s policies seen as cruel or inhumane, including the one requiring asylum seekers to stay in Mexico pending court hearings. The U.S. Supreme Court last month left an order from judges to restore the policy, though Mexico must agree. The Justice Department said this week that discussions are ongoing.
A pandemic-related order to immediately deport migrants without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum remains in place, but unaccompanied children and many families have been exempted.
The US government has been unable to deport many families because Mexican authorities have largely refused to accept them. Mexico has agreed to take only families expelled from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, creating an opening for Haitians and other nationalities.
In August, US authorities arrested migrants nearly 209,000 times at the border, a record close to 20 years. Families were arrested 86,487 times, but less than one in five encounters resulted in eviction. The rest were treated under immigration laws, usually released with a court date or notification to be reported to authorities.
U.S. authorities arrested Haitians 7,580 times in August, a figure that has increased every month since August 2020, when they arrested just 55.
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