More than 12,000 Haitian migrants have been camped under a bridge in Texas after wading across Rio Grande from Mexico.
A Texas border encampment where about 15,000 migrants had set up makeshift shelters has been cleared, as authorities continued a controversial policy of expelling asylum seekers from the United States.
Workers on Friday finished removing the last debris of impromptu shelters and tents in Del Rio, Texas, as state troopers lined the banks of the Rio Grande, on the border with Mexico, to discourage new crossings.
US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said “there are no longer any migrants in the camp underneath the Del Rio International Bridge”.
Nearly 30,000 migrants, many of them from Haiti, had been camping underneath Del Rio International Bridge in the past two weeks.
According to Mayorkas, more than 12,000 migrants will have a chance to make their case for protection before US immigration judges, an estimated 8,000 voluntarily returned to Mexico, and 2,000 had been expelled.
More could be expelled in the coming days under pandemic powers that deny people the chance to seek asylum. A US official with direct knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press news agency six flights were scheduled to Haiti on Friday, with seven planned on Saturday and six on Sunday, though that was subject to change.
Democratic lawmakers and human rights groups have slammed the repatriation of Haitian migrants to a troubled country that some left more than 10 years ago.
Images of a border guard using reins as whips to contain Haitian migrants sparked outrage earlier this week.
“We know that those images painfully conjured up the worst elements of our nation’s ongoing battle against systemic racism,” Mayorkas said at a news conference, promising a swift inquiry into the matter.
Bruno Lozano, the mayor of Del Rio, has praised agents for trying to provide food and medical care and said there were no deaths.
He said his officials were searching the brush along the Rio Grande to ensure nobody was hiding before reopening the international bridge, which would take place on Sunday night at the earliest.
President Joe Biden said the way the agents behaved was “horrible” and that “people will pay” as a result.
“It’s an embarrassment, but it’s beyond an embarrassment — it’s dangerous, it’s wrong, it sends the wrong message around the world and sends the wrong message at home. It’s simply not who we are,” Biden said.
The agents have been assigned administrative duties while the administration investigates. The images have prompted the resignation of the US special envoy to Haiti.
Haitians who crossed back to Mexico in recent days were met by Mexican officials who urged them to return to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala to request asylum there.
The Mexico office of the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) released a statement saying it was looking for countries where some Haitians have residency or where their children have citizenship as an alternative to allowing them to be deported to Haiti.
On Friday, Reuters news agency reported that the IOM had formally asked Brazil to receive some of the Haitians from the camp, according to two sources with knowledge of the request.
Washington in May extended temporary protection from deportation to Haitians in the US, citing political crisis, rights abuses, crime and lack of access to food, water and healthcare in the deeply impoverished country.
However, the Biden government has kept up deportations using a policy enacted by former President Donald Trump in March 2020, called Title 42, that allows for restrictive immigration policies as part of an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
A federal judge last week found the policy to be improper and gave the government two weeks to halt it. The Biden administration has appealed the decision.