DEL RIO, Texas (AP) – The Biden administration worked Saturday on plans to remove several of the thousands of Haitian immigrants who have gathered in a Texas border town in their Caribbean homeland, in a swift response to the huge influx of people who suddenly crossed the border from Mexico and gathered under and around a bridge.
Details were not yet finalized but would likely involve five to eight flights a day that would begin on Sunday, according to an official with first-hand knowledge of the plans who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke with the Associated Press on condition of anonymity. San Antonio, the major city closest to Del Rio, where the migrants have congregated, could be among the departure cities.
The official said on Friday that Haiti’s operational capacity and willpower would determine the number of flights, but that “good progress” was being made.
Another administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity expected two flights a day, at most, and said all migrants would be tested for COVID-19.
U.S. authorities closed both vehicle and pedestrian traffic on Friday at the only border crossing in Del Rio after the chaotic influx of migrants presented the administration with an immediate new challenge as it attempts to manage a large number of asylum seekers who reached American soil.
US Customs and Border Protection said they were closing the border crossing with Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, “to meet urgent safety and security needs.” Travelers were directed to a passage at Eagle Pass, 57 miles (91 kilometers) away.
Haitians crossed the Rio Grande freely and in a constant current on Friday, back and forth between the United States and Mexico in knee-deep water, with some parents carrying young children on their shoulders. Unable to obtain supplies from the United States, they briefly returned to Mexico to collect food and cardboard to settle, at least temporarily, under or near the bridge in Del Rio, a city of 35,000 that was severely strained by the flow of migrants in recent months.
The migrants pitched tents and built makeshift shelters from giant reeds known as the carrizo cane. Many bathed and washed clothes in the river.
The vast majority of migrants on the bridge on Friday were Haitians, said Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens, who is the county’s top elected official and whose jurisdiction includes Del Rio. Some families had been under the bridge for six days.
The garbage piles were 3.1 meters wide and at least two women had given birth, including one who tested positive for COVID-19 after being taken to hospital, Owens said.
County Sheriff Frank Joe Martinez estimated the crowd at 13,700 and said more Haitians were crossing Mexico by bus.
The flight plan, although potentially massive, depends on the response of Haitians. They may have to decide whether to stay there at the risk of being sent back to an impoverished homeland ravaged by poverty and political instability or to return to Mexico. Unaccompanied minors are exempt from accelerated deportations.
About 500 Haitians have been ordered to get off buses by Mexican immigration authorities in the state of Tamaulipas, about 200 kilometers south of the Texas border, the state government said on Friday in a statement. Press release. They continued on foot towards the border.
Haitians have migrated to the United States in large numbers from South America for several years, many having left their Caribbean countries after a devastating earthquake in 2010. After jobs have dried up since the Olympic Games d he summer of 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, many made the dangerous journey by foot, bus and car to the US border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
It is not known how so many amassed so quickly, although many Haitians have gathered in camps on the Mexican side of the border, including in Tijuana, across from San Diego, to wait before deciding. whether or not to attempt to enter the United States.
The US Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment. “We will respond to them accordingly,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on MSNBC on Friday.
An official in President Joe Biden’s administration who was not authorized to address the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity said the action was not aimed specifically at Haitians and did not reflect a change in policy, just a continuation of normal practices.
The Federal Aviation Administration, acting at the request of a border patrol, has restricted drone flights around the bridge until September 30, generally prohibiting operations at 305 meters or less, except for security or enforcement reasons. of the law.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican and frequent critic of President Joe Biden, said federal officials told him migrants under the bridge would be moved by the Department of Defense to Arizona, California and elsewhere on the border from Texas.
Some Haitians in the camp have lived in Mexican towns along the US border for some time, often moving between them, while others have recently arrived after being stranded near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, said Nicole Phillips, legal director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance advocacy group. . A sense of desperation spread after the Biden administration ended its practice of daily admitting asylum-seeking migrants deemed particularly vulnerable.
“People are panicking about the way they seek refuge,” Phillips said.
Edgar Rodríguez, lawyer for the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, north of Del Rio, noticed an increase in the number of Haitians in the area two or three weeks ago and believes disinformation may have played a role . Migrants often make decisions on false rumors that policies are about to change and that enforcement policies vary from city to city.
U.S. authorities are under severe strain after Biden quickly dismantled Trump administration policies that Biden considered cruel or inhumane, including requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico pending U.S. court hearings in the United States. ‘immigration. These migrants have been exposed to extreme violence in Mexico and have encountered extraordinary difficulties in finding lawyers.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court left a judge’s order to restore the policy open, though Mexico must agree to its terms. The Justice Department said in a court file this week that discussions with the Mexican government were ongoing.
A pandemic-related order to immediately deport migrants without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum that was introduced in March 2020 remains in place, but unaccompanied children and many families have been exempted. During his first month in office, Biden chose to exempt children traveling alone for humanitarian reasons.
The US government has been unable to deport many families from Central America because Mexican authorities have largely refused to accept them in Tamaulipas, which sits across the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings. The administration said on Friday it would appeal a judge’s ruling on Thursday that prevented it from applying Title 42, as the authority related to the pandemic is known, to all families.
Mexico has agreed to only accept families deported from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, creating an opening for Haitians and other nationalities as the United States does not have the necessary resources. to detain and expel them quickly on flights to their country of origin.
In August, US authorities arrested migrants nearly 209,000 times at the border, which was near a 20-year high, even though many stops involved repeat transgressors as there are no legal consequences to be deported under the authority of Title 42.
People crossing as a family were arrested 86,487 times in August, but less than one in five encounters resulted in a Title 42 deportation. The rest were treated under immigration laws, which resulted in usually means they were released with a court date or notice. report to immigration authorities.
US authorities arrested Haitians 7,580 times in August, a figure that has increased every month since August 2020, when they have arrested only 55. There has also been a significant increase in the number of Ecuadorians, Venezuelans and other nationalities outside the traditional countries of origin of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. and El Salvador.
Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press editors Ben Fox, Alexandra Jaffe and Colleen Long in Washington, Paul Weber in Austin, David Koenig in Dallas, and Maria Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.