Seen from the air, more than 10,000 primarily Haitian migrants were bivouacked in a squalid camp under a bridge in southern Texas on Saturday (September 18), as hundreds more headed toward the border in a growing humanitarian and political challenge for U.S. President Joe Biden.
U.S. authorities moved some 2,000 people to other immigration processing stations on Friday (September 17) from the Texas border town that has been overwhelmed by an influx of Haitian and other migrants, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said.
While some migrants seeking jobs and safety have been making their way to the United States for weeks or months, it is only in recent days that the number converging on Del Rio, Texas, has drawn widespread attention.
DHS said that in response to the migrants sheltering in increasingly poor conditions under the Del Rio International Bridge that connects the Texas city with Ciudad Acuña in Mexico, it was accelerating flights to Haiti and other destinations within the next 72 hours.
DHS added it was working with nations where the migrants began their journeys – for many of the Haitians, countries such as Brazil and Chile – to accept returned migrants. Officials on both sides of the border said most of the migrants were Haitians.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection was sending 400 additional agents to the Del Rio sector in the coming days, DHS said, after the border agency said on Friday that due to the influx it was temporarily closing Del Rio’s port of entry and re-routing traffic to Eagle Pass, 57 miles (92 km) east.
Del Rio’s mayor, Bruno Lozano, said in a video on Saturday night that there were now just over 14,000 migrants under the bridge.
As it became clear U.S. authorities were sending migrants back to their homelands, Mexican police officers began asking migrants who were buying food in Ciudad Acuña to return to the American side of the river on Saturday morning, according to Reuters witnesses. The migrants argued they needed supplies, and police eventually relented.
On the Texas side, Haitians have been joined by Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans under the Del Rio bridge, where migrants say conditions are deteriorating.
Typically, migrants who arrive at the border and turn themselves in to officials can claim asylum if they fear being returned to their home country, triggering a long court process. The Trump administration whittled away at protections, arguing many asylum claims were false.
A sweeping U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public health order known as Title 42, issued under the Trump administration at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, allows most migrants to be quickly expelled without a chance of claiming asylum. President Joe Biden has kept that rule in place though he exempted unaccompanied minors and his administration has not been expelling most families.
A judge ruled Thursday the policy could not be applied to families, but the ruling does not go into effect for two weeks and the Biden administration is appealing it in court.
A mass expulsion of Haitians at Del Rio is sure to anger immigration advocates who say such returns are inhumane considering the conditions in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
(Production: Go Nakamura, Adress Latif, Njuwa Maina)