The United States says it will step up the number of “removal flights” for thousands of migrants who have arrived in the Texas border city of Del Rio.
The migrants, many of them Haitian, were being held in an area controlled by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) beneath the Del Rio International Bridge, which carries traffic across the Rio Grande river into Mexico.
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Video footage showed thousands of people under and around the bridge. US media put the total figure at close to 14,000.
CBP has dispatched 400 additional personnel to “improve control of the area,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement on Saturday, unveiling its plans to contain the situation.
The port of entry at Del Rio has been temporarily closed, and traffic is being rerouted to relieve the bottlenecks that had formed at the bridge.
Homeland Security said it would “secure additional transportation to accelerate the pace and increase the capacity of removal flights to Haiti and other destinations in the hemisphere within the next 72 hours”.
It said it had moved about 2,000 people out of Del Rio to other locations on Friday for processing and possible removal from the US.
The statement also said the administration of President Joe Biden was taking action to “reduce crowding and improve conditions for migrants on US soil”, and working with “source and transit countries in the region” to accept those who previously lived in those countries.
CBP has been overwhelmed by the number of migrants crossing the border from Mexico seeking admittance to the US, as well as an influx of people from Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of that country.
Political pressure had mounted on Biden to address the issue of immigration, with both Republicans and his fellow Democrats calling for quick action.
The US government processed and mostly expelled more than 200,000 people at the border in both July and August, the highest numbers in more than a decade.
‘People are panicking’
The number of Haitians crossing the southwest border into the US has been surging for months.
Many come from South America, where they may have migrated to years ago, especially after the country’s January 2010 earthquake.
Some Haitians at the camp have lived in Mexican cities along the US border for some time, moving often between them, while others arrived recently after being stuck near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, said Nicole Phillips, the legal director for advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance. A sense of desperation spread after the Biden administration ended its practice of admitting asylum-seeking migrants daily who were deemed especially vulnerable.
“People are panicking on how they seek refuge,” Phillips said.
Edgar Rodríguez, lawyer for the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, north of Del Rio, noticed an increase of Haitians in the area two or three weeks ago and believes that misinformation may have played a part.
Some critics said Biden’s decision in late July – after Haitian President Jovenel Moise’s assassination – to allow Haitians without US visas at the time to remain in the country offered an incentive for others to come.
In a tweet on Thursday, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz said, “10,503 illegal aliens are under this bridge tonight because Joe Biden made a political decision to cancel deportation flights to Haiti”.
But in Saturday’s statement, the Department of Homeland Security said “regular expulsion and removal flights” were continuing to Haiti, Mexico, Ecuador, and countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
A US official told The Associated Press news agency on Friday that operational capacity and Haiti’s willingness will determine the number of flights. The official said progress was being made on negotiations with Haitian authorities.
The official had direct knowledge of the plans but was not authorised to discuss them publicly and spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity.
CBP said the “majority of migrants” would be expelled under the government’s Title 42 policy curtailing immigration due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Those who cannot be expelled under Title 42 and do not have a legal basis to remain will be placed in expedited removal proceedings,” CBP said.
Biden promised a more humane approach to immigration as compared with his predecessor, Donald Trump, but the veteran Democrat has fought to stem the tide of migrants crossing the border since he took office in January.
Most are sent back, but many families and almost all unaccompanied minors are permitted to stay.