CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico — An additional 600 Homeland Security personnel have been sent to the border in Del Rio, Texas, as thousands of refugees camped under a bridge are being taken back to Haiti, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said Monday.
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 have been crossing into the isolated city for weeks, but the number of migrants reached new levels in recent days, Mayorkas said.
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 3,500 migrants from the camp have already been relocated, and 3,000 more were expected to be relocated to another processing facility Monday, Mayorkas said.
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.
'We can't turn back':Haitian migrants face massive expulsion amid crackdown at US-Mexico border
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."
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.
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.
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.
Mayorkas and other Homeland Security officials stressed the role misinformation has played in leading to the current surge. "It is tragic to see families, vulnerable individuals who have been deceived by treacherous and exploitative smuggling organizations," Mayorkas said.
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.
Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said part of what has caused such dire circumstances is that the Del Rio community is much smaller than some other areas along the border and resources are limited.
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."
On Sunday, photos and video emerged showing CBP agents chasing Haitian migrants on horseback. The agents charged migrants carrying only food and water and the clothes on their backs as they tried to scramble onto the U.S. side of the river.
"Let's go! Get out now! Back to Mexico!" agents shouted. One man stumbled and fell as he tried to dodge an agent.
Democrats decry images of border enforcement
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday said the images are "horrific," adding more information on the situation is needed.
"I've seen some of the footage, I don't have the full context. I can't imagine what context would make that appropriate, but I don't have additional details, and certainly ... I don't think anyone seeing that footage would think it was acceptable or appropriate," Psaki said at a news briefing.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., said on Twitter that the border patrol agents' actions were "human rights abuses, plain and simple. Cruel, inhumane, and a violation of domestic and international law."
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, also expressed her concern, saying the actions were "absolutely unacceptable."
"No matter how challenging the situation in Del Rio is right now, nothing justifies violence against migrants attempting to seek asylum in our country," Escobar said on Twitter.
A use of force policy document from CBP dated January 2021 says: "The use of excessive force by CBP law enforcement personnel is strictly prohibited." But the document also says that agents "may use 'objectively reasonable' force only when it is necessary to carry out their law enforcement duties," adding that the "reasonableness" of any particular situation varies with the conditions.
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