The Biden administration on Saturday was working on plans to send many of the thousands of Haitian immigrants who have gathered in a Texas border city back to their homeland, a swift response to the huge influx of people who suddenly crossed from Mexico and congregated under and around a bridge.
Details were not finalized but would likely involve five to eight flights per day from Sunday, according to an official speaking on condition of anonymity. San Antonio could be among the departure cities.
The official said operational capacity and Haiti’s willingness would determine the number of flights, but that “good progress” was being made.
Another official expected two flights per day at most and said all migrants would be tested for Covid-19.
US Customs and Border Protection said it was closing the Del Rio border crossing with Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, “to respond to urgent safety and security needs”. Travelers were being directed to a crossing in Eagle Pass, 57 miles away.
On Friday, Haitians crossed the Rio Grande in a steady stream, going between the US and Mexico through knee-deep water, some carrying children. Unable to buy supplies in the US, they returned to Mexico for food and cardboard to settle under or near the International bridge in Del Rio, a city of 35,000 severely strained by migrant flows.
Migrants pitched tents and built shelters from giant reeds known as carrizo cane. Many bathed and washed in the river. The vast majority of the migrants at the bridge were Haitian, said Val Verde county judge Lewis Owens. Some families had been under the bridge for as long as six days.
Trash piles were 10ft wide, and at least two women had given birth, including one who tested positive for Covid-19, Owens said. The county sheriff, Frank Joe Martinez, estimated the crowd to be 13,700 and said more Haitians were traveling through Mexico by bus.
The flight plan, while potentially massive in scale, hinges on how Haitians respond. They might have to decide whether to stay at the risk of being sent back to their impoverished homeland or return to Mexico. Unaccompanied children are exempt from fast-track expulsions.
About 500 Haitians were ordered off buses by authorities in Tamaulipas, about 120 miles south of the Texas border, the state government said. They continued to the border on foot.
Haitians have been migrating to the US from South America for several years, many having left after a devastating earthquake in 2010. After jobs dried up from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, many made the trek by foot, bus and car to the US border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
It is unclear how such a large number amassed so quickly, though many Haitians have been assembling on the Mexican side of the border, including in Tijuana, across from San Diego.
The US Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
“We will address it accordingly,” the homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, told MSNBC.
An official in the Biden administration said the flights plan was not targeting Haitians specifically and does not reflect a policy shift. Texas governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, said federal officials told him migrants would be moved by the defense department to Arizona, California and elsewhere on the Texas border.
Some Haitians at the camp have lived in Mexican cities for some time while others arrived after being stuck near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, said Nicole Phillips, legal director for advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance. A sense of desperation spread after the Biden administration stopped admitting asylum-seeking migrants deemed especially vulnerable.
“People are panicking on how they seek refuge,” Phillips said.
Edgar Rodriguez, lawyer for the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, north of Del Rio, noticed an increase of Haitians two or three weeks ago and believes misinformation may have played a part.
Biden quickly dismantled Trump administration policies considered cruel or inhumane, most notably one requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for court hearings. The US supreme court last month let stand a judge’s order to reinstate the policy, though Mexico must agree. The justice department said this week discussions were ongoing.
A pandemic-related order to immediately expel migrants without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum remains in effect, but unaccompanied children and many families have been exempt.
The US government has been unable to expel many families because Mexican authorities have largely refused to accept them. Mexico has agreed to take expelled families only from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, creating an opening for Haitians and other nationalities.
In August, US authorities stopped migrants nearly 209,000 times at the border, close to a 20-year high. Families were stopped 86,487 times, but fewer than one out of five of those encounters resulted in expulsion. The rest were processed under immigration laws, typically released with a court date or a notice to report to authorities.
US authorities stopped Haitians 7,580 times in August, a figure that has increased every month since August 2020, when they stopped only 55.