CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas arrived in Del Rio, Texas, on Monday with 400 agents and officers as state and federal officials mobilize to move thousands of refugees camped under a bridge back to Haiti.
More than 14,500 migrants — the vast majority of whom are Haitian, according to Del Rio officials — are facing high temperatures and poor conditions at a camp under a bridge. Haitians, many of whom have been living in Latin America for years, have been crossing into the isolated city for weeks.
In response to the rapid arrival, the United States closed the Mexican border Sunday to Del Rio, a city of about 35,000 people located roughly 145 miles west of San Antonio. Mexican authorities tightened immigration controls, cut off the entry points to Ciudad Acuña to stop more migrants from reaching the border, and announced it would also begin deporting Haitians.
About 3,300 migrants from the camp have already been relocated to planes or detention centers, said Border Patrol Chief Raul L. Ortiz at a press conference.
At least three deportation flights with 145 passengers each arrived Sunday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, and Haiti said six flights were expected Tuesday.
The move signals a shift to using a pandemic-related law to immediately expel migrants without allowing them to claim asylum, a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly told the Associated Press.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday also sent a letter to President Joe Biden requesting a federal emergency declaration for the state. Abbott said he declared a disaster and has taken action under state law but "supplementary federal assistance is necessary to lessen the threat of disaster, save lives, and protect property, public health and safety."
'We can't turn back':Haitian migrants face massive expulsion amid crackdown at US-Mexico border
Here's what we know:
How did Haitian migrants get to Del Rio, Texas?
Haitians have been crossing from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, into Del Rio, Texas, for almost three weeks.
Some Haitians at the camp lived in Mexican cities on the U.S. border for some time, 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. Many have been waiting in camps in Mexico before deciding whether to cross the border.
Many left Haiti in the wake of a devastating 2010 earthquake and lived in South America for years. As jobs from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro vanished, many traveled by foot, bus and car to the U.S. border.
It is not clear how the large group amassed so quickly, but misinformation may have played a role, according to Edgar Rodríguez, lawyer for the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, south of Del Rio. Migrants often make choices after hearing false rumors that policies are going to change or that cities have different enforcement policies.
In his letter to Biden on Monday, Abbott said the number of migrants increased from around 4,000 on Wednesday to over 16,000 migrants by Saturday.
What is it like at the border?
Despair is settling in for migrants on both sides of the border.
In the camp, there is no easy access to food and water and trash piles are 10 feet wide.
Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano said that hot temperatures and the fluctuating level of the Rio Grande could make the camp dangerous. The temperature in Del Rio has been in the high 90s and on Monday is forecast to hit 105 degrees.
Migrants have pitched tents and built makeshift shelters under the bridge while others bathe and wash clothing in the river. At least two women have given birth, one of whom later tested positive for COVID-19, said Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens, the county's top elected official.
Haitian migrants must decide whether to stay put and risk being deported to the country they left or return to Mexico.
Some of those waiting in Mexico, like Charles Edirame, said they are afraid to return to Haiti after the recent devastating earthquake and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
Edirame and his wife and daughter crossed the border to the encampment but returned to Mexico when they heard about the deportations. The Haitian family was deciding what to do next.
"We don't have money, we don't have anything. We spent two months getting here on foot," he said. "If I go back, I could die the next day."
Migrant shelter in El Paso prepared to receive refugees
El Paso's Annunciation House on Monday prepared to receive Haitian refugees even as flights deporting hundreds of Haitians were scheduled to depart San Antonio for Por-au-Prince.
Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso's Annunciation House migrant shelter, on Monday said that authorities had asked the shelter to be prepared to receive refugees, but so far no Haitians have been released in El Paso.
"It’s really unpredictable because you see all the different things they are doing like expelling people directly to Haiti," he said. "Sometimes I am told to get ready, and so we ramp up and nothing happens.
"Right now, we haven’t gotten anybody," he said. "I know they are using a lot of buses, that they started arriving on Friday. We are on standby. We are prepared."
An El Paso spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Why is the US deporting asylum seekers?
While international law protects the right to seek asylum, public health ordinance Title 42, adopted by former President Donald Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic and continued Biden, allows for rapid expulsions without the opportunity to seek asylum.
Unaccompanied children and many families have been exempt, but on Friday, the administration said it would appeal a judge's ruling that ordered it from using Title 42 to expel migrant families.
The U.S. government has been unable to expel many migrant families because Mexican authorities have only agreed to accept expelled families from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, creating an opportunity for Haitians and other people of other nationalities.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a judge's order to reinstate a Trump-era policy requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for their U.S. immigration court hearings, but Mexico has not yet agreed to its terms.
Contributing: Lauren Villagran, El Paso Times; The Associated Press