By JUAN A. LOZANO, ERIC GAY and ELLIOT SPAGAT
DEL RIO, Texas (AP) — The United States could begin flying some of the thousands of Haitian migrants who have crossed from Mexico into a Texas border camp back to their poverty-stricken homeland on Sunday, hoping to deter others from crossing into the country.
Many of the migrants have lived in Latin America for years but now are seeking asylum in the U.S. as economic opportunities in Brazil and elsewhere dry up. Thousands have been living under and near a bridge in the Texas border city of Del Rio, and many of them said they will not be deterred by the U.S. plans.
Some said the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse make them afraid to return to a country that seems more unstable than when they left.
“In Haiti, there is no security,” said Fabricio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian who arrived in Texas with his wife and two daughters. “The country is in a political crisis.”
A U.S. official told The Associated Press that the U.S would likely fly migrants out of the country starting Sunday on five to eight flights a day. Another official expected no more than two flights a day. The first official said operational capacity and Haiti’s willingness to accept flights would determine the number of flights. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Scores of people waded back and forth across the Rio Grande on Saturday, re-entering Mexico to purchase water, food and diapers in Ciudad Acuña before returning to the Texas encampment.
Junior Jean, a 32-year-old man from Haiti, watched as people cautiously carried cases of water or bags of food through the knee-high river water. Jean said he lived on the streets in Chile the past four years, resigned to searching for food in garbage cans.
“We are all looking for a better life,” he said.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry wrote Sunday on Twitter that he is concerned about conditions at the border camp and that the migrants would be welcomed back.
“We want to reassure them that measures have already been taken to give them a better welcome upon their return to the country and that they will not be left behind,” he tweeted. Henry did not provide details about the measures. A Haitian government spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Department of Homeland Security said Saturday that it moved about 2,000 migrants from the camp to other locations Friday for processing and possible removal from the U.S. A statement from the agency also said it would have 400 agents and officers in the area by Monday morning and would send more if necessary.
The announcement marked a swift response to the sudden arrival of Haitians in Del Rio, a Texas city of about 35,000 people roughly 145 miles (230 kilometers) west of San Antonio. It sits on a relatively remote stretch of border that lacks capacity to hold and process such large numbers of people.
Haitians have been migrating to the U.S. in large numbers from South America for several years, many having left their Caribbean nation after a devastating 2010 earthquake. After jobs dried up from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, many made the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car to the U.S. border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed off vehicle and pedestrian traffic in both directions Friday at the only border crossing between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña “to respond to urgent safety and security needs” and it remained closed Saturday. Travelers were being directed indefinitely to a crossing in Eagle Pass, roughly 55 miles (90 kilometers) away.
Crowd estimates varied, but Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano said Saturday evening there were more than 14,500 immigrants at the camp under the bridge. Migrants pitched tents and built makeshift shelters from giant reeds known as carrizo cane. Many bathed and washed clothing in the river.
It is unclear how such a large number amassed so quickly, though many Haitians have been assembling in camps on the Mexican side of the border to wait while deciding whether to attempt entry into the U.S.
The number of Haitian arrivals began to reach unsustainable levels for the Border Patrol in Del Rio about 2 ½ weeks ago, prompting the agency’s acting sector chief, Robert Garcia, to ask headquarters for help, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Since then, the agency has transferred Haitians in buses and vans to other Border Patrol facilities in Texas, specifically El Paso, Laredo and Rio Grande Valley. They are mostly processed outside of the government’s pandemic-related authority, meaning they can claim asylum and remain in the U.S. while their claims are considered. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes custody decisions, but families can generally not be held more than 20 days under court order.
Homeland Security’s plan announced Saturday signals a shift to use of pandemic-related authority for immediate expulsion to Haiti without an opportunity to claim asylum, the official said.
The planned flights, while potentially massive in scale, hinge on how Haitians respond. They might have to decide whether to stay put at the risk of being sent back to an impoverished homeland or return to Mexico. Unaccompanied children are exempt from fast-track expulsions.
Homeland Security said in a statement that, “our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey.”
“Individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including expulsion,” the agency wrote.
U.S. authorities are being severely tested after President Joe Biden quickly dismantled Trump administration policies that Biden considered cruel or inhumane, most notably one requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for U.S. immigration court hearings.
A pandemic-related order to immediately expel many migrants without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum that was introduced in March 2020 remains in effect.
Lozano reported from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers Ben Fox, Alexandra Jaffe and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.