US begins deportation flights for Haitians camped at Texas border town

The US has begun flying Haitians camped in a Texas border town back to their homeland and blocking others from crossing from Mexico, in the beginning of what could be one of America’s swiftest, large-scale expulsions of migrants or refugees in decades.

More than 320 migrants arrived in Port-au-Prince on three flights on Sunday. Haiti said six flights were expected on Tuesday. US authorities were moving to expel many of the more 12,000 migrants who camped around a bridge in Del Rio, Texas after crossing from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.

Some people arriving on the first flight into Haiti covered their heads as they walked to a large bus parked next to the plane. Dozens lined up to receive a plate of rice, beans, chicken and plantains.

All were given $100 and tested for Covid-19, though authorities were not planning to put them into quarantine, said Marie-Lourde Jean-Charles with the Haitian Office of National Migration.

Gary Monplaisir, 26, said his parents and sister lived in Port-au-Prince but to reach their house he, his wife and their five-year-old daughter would have to cross a gang-controlled area called Martissant where killings are routine.

“I’m scared,” he said. “I don’t have a plan.”

He said he moved to Chile in 2017, as he was about to earn an accounting degree, to work as a tow truck driver. He paid for his wife and daughter to join him. They tried to reach the US because he thought he could get a better job and help his family in Haiti.

“We’re always looking for better opportunities,” he said.

Some said they were planning to leave Haiti again as soon as possible. Valeria Ternission, 29, said she and her husband want to travel with their four-year-old son back to Chile, where she worked as a bakery cashier.

“I am truly worried, especially for the child,” she said. “I can’t do anything here.”

The US plans to begin seven expulsion flights daily on Wednesday, four to Port-au-Prince and three to Cap-Haïtien, according to a US official. Flights will depart from San Antonio but authorities may add El Paso, a federal official said.

The only obvious parallel for such an expulsion without opportunity to seek asylum was in 1992 when the US coast guard intercepted Haitian refugees at sea, said Yael Schacher, senior US advocate at Refugees International.

Similarly large numbers of Mexicans have been sent home during peak years of immigration but over land and not so suddenly.

Central Americans have also crossed the border in comparable numbers without being subject to mass expulsion, although Mexico has agreed to accept them from the US under pandemic-related authority since March 2020. Mexico does not accept expelled Haitians.

When the border was closed on Sunday, the migrants initially found other ways to cross until they were confronted by law enforcement. An Associated Press reporter saw Haitian immigrants crossing the river into the US east of the previous spot, but they were stopped.

Mexico said on Sunday it would also begin deporting Haitians. A government official said the flights would be from towns near the US border and the border with Guatemala, where the largest group remains.

Haitians have been migrating to the US in large numbers from South America for several years. Many make the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.

Some of the migrants at the Del Rio camp said the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of the president, Jovenel Moïse, made them afraid to return.

Since Friday, 3,300 migrants have been removed from Del Rio to planes or detention centers, the US border patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, said on Sunday. He expected to move 3,000 of the approximately 12,600 remaining migrants within a day, and aimed for the rest to go within the week.

“We are working around the clock to expeditiously move migrants out of the heat, elements and from underneath this bridge to our processing facilities in order to quickly process and remove individuals from the United States consistent with our laws and our policies,” Ortiz said.

The rapid expulsions were made possible by a pandemic-related authority adopted by the former president, Donald Trump, allowing for migrants to be immediately removed without an opportunity to seek asylum. The Biden administration exempted unaccompanied children but let the order stand.

Any Haitians not expelled are subject to immigration laws, which include rights to seek asylum and other humanitarian protection. Families are quickly released in the US because the government cannot generally hold children.

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