Biden administration speeds up deportation flights for Haitians in growing Texas migrant camp

Makeshift shelters at a temporary migrant camp under the international bridge in Del Rio on Sept. 17, 2021.

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DEL RIO — The Biden administration said Saturday it was accelerating deportation flights and sending 400 federal agents to Del Rio to seize control of an escalating crisis as thousands of mostly Haitian immigrants continued streaming to the Texas city’s border, camping out in squalid conditions under its international bridge.

Customs and Border Protection temporarily shuttered its ports of entry there late Friday and re-routed international traffic 57 miles east to the nearby city of Eagle Pass, a move local officials worried could cost millions in trade losses if the closure lasts.

CBP is coordinating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard to move migrants from Del Rio to other processing locations, Department of Homeland Security officials said in the statement Saturday. About 2,000 had already been transferred, but overnight the camp grew to more than 14,600 migrants — the most Val Verde County has ever seen at once, local officials said. DHS said it was securing extra transportation to expedite deportation flights to Haiti and other countries in the next 72 hours.

The situation in Del Rio, nearly three hours west of San Antonio, spiraled this week as more than 15,000 migrants, many of them from Haiti, arrived at the border in recent days, settling in a makeshift camp under the bridge as they waited for CBP agents to process their petitions to stay in the United States. Conditions quickly deteriorated, and Gov. Greg Abbott sent National Guard and Department of Public Safety troopers to assist federal agents in securing the area. The number of migrants arriving there nearly doubled over the past few days, said Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens, a Democrat.

“The numbers are just staggering,” he said.

He said 10 more buses carrying migrants arrived at the border city overnight and two more Saturday, blaming his Mexican counterpart in Ciudad Acuña for not doing more to stop through-migration on that country’s side. Most of the migrants are of Haitian origin, with the remainder largely from Cuba, Venezuela and Honduras, he said.

“We have 15,000 people here and why did they come to Del Rio? They came to Del Rio and crossed to Del Rio because the Mexican government allowed it to happen on the Mexican side,” Owens said. “Nobody has ever seen something like this here, in terms of the scale.”

Acuña Mayor Roberto De los Santos Vásquez could not immediately be reached for comment.

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a San Antonio Republican whose south Texas border district includes Del Rio, said the Biden administration’s processing of 2,000 migrants in 24 hours was a remarkable feat and praised its decision to speed up expulsion flights. He said as many as 10 flights from Del Rio were planned for the next week.

But he urged the White House to rapidly re-implement a controversial Trump-era policy known as “Remain in Mexico,” or the Migrant Protection Protocols, that forced migrants to wait in Mexico while they pursued their asylum cases in the U.S. Biden had rescinded the policy, but a string of recent court rulings have ordered the administration to implement it once more.

“The sooner the administration can reinstall the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, that will help alleviate some of that stress in Del Rio, and I think the administration is going to have no choice,” Gonzales said.

He said many of the migrants arriving in Del Rio were originally from Haiti but had fled after that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake and lived elsewhere in Central and South America, complicating their quick return to Haiti. He noted the organized nature of this recent migration wave, in which Haitian migrants were arriving by busloads and with specific instructions sent through Whatsapp.

“This goes well beyond Haiti and goes well beyond Del Rio,” Gonzales said. “It's kind of a blueprint for the next border community and the next foreign community coming here.”

The Biden administration’s efforts Saturday to quickly return these migrants come as the White House continues to use a pandemic health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year and known as Title 42 to rapidly expel migrants to Mexico or their home countries without the opportunity to ask for asylum. A federal judge last week blocked the Biden administration from using Title 42 to expel migrant families but stayed the order for 14 days. The Biden administration appealed that ruling Friday.

“The majority of migrants continue to be expelled under CDC’s Title 42 authority. Those who cannot be expelled under Title 42 and do not have a legal basis to remain will be placed in expedited removal proceedings,” DHS officials said in Saturday’s statement. “The Biden Administration has reiterated that our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey.”

Late Saturday, law enforcement had set up barricades on the state road heading toward the bridge. Parked Department of Public Safety patrol cars blocked any traffic.

Fleets of law enforcement and emergency vehicles drove around throughout the day retrieving migrants, some of whom passed out from dehydration in the camp, local officials said. In the past week, at least five migrants from the camp have given birth in Del Rio Hospitals, the Val Verde County judge said.

Migrants have arrived in Del Rio in past years, but this is the first time the city has seen so many at once, officials and residents here said. The situation has aggravated tensions here between those who want to help migrants and those who want them immediately sent back. A few dozen residents waving U.S. and Trump flags, including Alma Arredondo Lynch, protested Saturday about what she called the diversion of local resources to help migrants.

Many migrants who are released only pass through Del Rio, taking flights or charter buses to their final destinations across the country to reunite with their families already in the U.S.

Santiago Pardo, a volunteer with the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, said he flew from Chicago to help because he said it was his “responsibility to protect those who request protection and treat humans as humans.”

“Everyone is an immigrant. For some of us it's one generation back, for some people it’s like 20 generations back,” he said.

Some say Del Rio is a welcoming town but simply doesn’t have the resources to accommodate so many migrants.

“We want to help, but at the same we have to realize our capabilities and capacity,” said Francisco Lopez Jr., chair of the Val Verde County Republican Party.

Stelin Jean, 29, has been camping underneath Del Rio’s international bridge since earlier this week with his wife, their daughter and his wife’s son. The Haitian family fled their country for Bolivia in July before making the trek to the U.S.

Jean said he hopes that relatives in New York find an immigration attorney who can help them find a way to stay in the U.S.

“I’m afraid,” Jean said. “We have two children and there’s no quality of life” in Haiti.

The Caribbean island nation was battered by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August shortly after its president was assassinated in July, the latest episode in years of political instability and turmoil. The Biden administration extended a type of provisional residency known as temporary protected status to Haitians who arrived in the United States before May and briefly stopped their deportation flights. Plans to expel them again have angered advocates.

The crisis in Del Rio prompted a fresh round of criticism from Republicans, including Abbott, who has hammered Biden repeatedly for this year’s record border crossing attempts. Many migrants are immediately sent back under the health order but increasingly more have been allowed to stay in the United States pending the resolution of their immigration cases.

Speaking in Fort Worth Friday, Abbott said the U.S. Department of Defense and DHS have told the state that many migrants will be temporarily relocated to Arizona, California and perhaps Laredo to relieve pressure in Del Rio.

“But one thing that we know for a fact and that is, there's nothing but uncertainty and indecision by the Biden administration about exactly what they're going to do,” Abbott said.

Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano also declared a local state of disaster Friday and requested assistance from the state to help deter more migrants from entering the city. He said the city of 35,000, which already has seen an unprecedented spike in attempted border crossings this year, expects 8,000 additional migrants to arrive in the coming days.

The Del Rio sector, which spans 47 mostly rural counties, is the second-busiest CBP sector. Nearly 215,000 migrants have been apprehended there since October, and Val Verde County was the first to start prosecuting migrants for criminal trespassing under a state deterrence initiative Abbott started this summer.

Lozano did not immediately return a call seeking comment Saturday but told the Washington Post that the situation was “no longer sustainable or acceptable.”

“We now have [the equivalent of] one-third of the population of the city of Del Rio, Texas, in a confined space under the international bridge,” he said. “I had thought the alarm was set on Monday but this is a nuclear bomb alarm.”

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Correction, Sept. 18, 2021: U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio is a Republican. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified him as a Democrat.