As the first repatriation flight arrived in Haiti on Sunday, US border agents are removing groups of primarily Haitian migrants from a massive makeshift camp they had established after wading across the Rio Grande between Mexico and the United States.
The enormous camp beneath the international bridge attracted more than 12,000 migrants at one point, posing a new challenge for US officials, who have been trying to stem the flow of Central Americans, and now many Haitians fleeing poverty, gang violence, and natural disasters in their homeland.
Since Friday, US authorities have transferred 3,300 migrants from Del Rio, Texas, and announced a new daily flight schedule to Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. Some officials expressed alarm on Sunday about a possible massive inflow of returning migrants in the coming days.
“Our goal over the next six to seven days is to process the 12,662 migrants we have underneath that bridge as quickly as possible,” US Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said at a news conference in Del Rio, Texas.
He said the US was working with countries where the migrants had passed through to urge them to take individuals awaiting immigration processing under the bridge connecting Del Rio and Ciudad Acua, Mexico.
Despite increased security on the US side, which included horse-mounted agents on Sunday, one of whom was spotted throwing a rope at a person wading in the Rio Grande, migrants continued to cross the river over the weekend.
According to one Venezuelan migrant who begged to remain anonymous because he was afraid of jeopardizing his asylum application, many Haitians return to Mexico to escape being sent back to Haiti.
The majority of the migrants, according to officials on both sides of the border, were from Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas that has been hammered hard by natural catastrophes in recent years, including a massive earthquake last month.
Many Haitians told Reuters that they had spent time in South America, including Brazil and Chile, before opting to migrate north because they couldn't get legal status or were having trouble finding work.
Earlier on Sunday, a bus escorted by US border authorities arrived at the Del Rio airport, and a group was observed boarding a Coast Guard plane. The occupants were migrants, according to a police source, and the plane was headed to El Paso, Texas, according to a source acquainted with airport procedures.
According to Tom Cartwright of the advocacy group Witness at the Border, three aircraft left Texas heading for Haiti on Sunday, records repatriation flights.
On Sunday, Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told reporters that flights to Haiti had begun earlier in the day and would continue daily.
DHS earlier stated that it was speeding up repatriations to Haiti and sending more border officials to Del Rey, where the bridge's conditions have deteriorated.
Mounted border police agents rushed up the US bank on Sunday at midday to stop the progress of migrants carrying plastic bags and cardboard cartons of food.
According to Reuters photographs, one cop whipped a rope like a lasso near to the face of a migrant in the water. The US officers subsequently placed yellow tape across that stretch of the bank, but migrants crossed at a deeper location.
Activists like Cartwright have slammed the increased number of repatriation flights to Haiti.
However, Mayorkas emphasized in his brief remarks that the Haitian government had “communicated quite clearly to us its ability to receive the flights,” and that the US government is assisting Haiti. He didn't say how much it was.
On Saturday, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry stated that “arrangements have already been made” for those being back in the Caribbean country.
Mayorkas added, "At this point, we have no choice but to increase repatriation flights," adding that the flights would send migrants to Haiti or "possibly other countries."
A Haitian immigration official, who requested anonymity because he could not speak to the media, said the country was unprepared for tens of thousands of returning migrants.
At the start of the outbreak, the Trump administration issued Title 42, a broad public health order that authorizes most migrants to be immediately deported without the opportunity to seek refuge.
President Joe Biden has maintained the regulation. However, he has exempted unaccompanied youngsters, and his government has not expelled most families. Biden campaigned on a more humanitarian immigration policy than his predecessor.
Last Monday, a federal judge decided that the policy could not be applied to families. Still, the decision will not take effect for another two weeks, and the Biden administration has filed an appeal.
Migrants can typically present themselves at the border and demand asylum, initiating a lengthy legal process. On the other hand, the Trump administration nibbled away at protections, claiming that many asylum claimants did not meet the criteria.