By JUAN A. LOZANO, ERIC GAY and ELLIOT SPAGAT
DEL RIO, Texas (AP) – Haitian immigrants wanting to escape feelings of poverty, hunger and despair in their home country said they would not be disappointed with plans to send them back to the United States quickly, as thousands of people are stranded at the Texas border. Saturday after crossing from Mexico.
Hundreds of people retreated across the Rio Grande on Saturday afternoon, under a bridge in the border town of Del Rio and into Mexico to buy water, food and diapers at Ciudad Aquana before returning to a nearby Texas camp.
Jen, a 322-year-old junior from Haiti, saw people carefully carrying water or food bags through knee-high river water. Jean said he had lived on the streets of Chile for the past four years, resigning in search of food in a garbage dump.
“We are all looking for a better life,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security said on Saturday it had evacuated about 2,000 migrants from the camp to other locations on Friday, and its statement for possible evacuations from the United States added that there would be 400 agents and officers in the area Monday morning and send more if needed.
The announcement marks a quick response to the sudden arrival of Haitians in the city of Del Rio, Texas, about 155 miles (200 kilometers) west of San Antonio. It is located on a relatively inaccessible border where there is no capacity to hold and process so many people.
A U.S. official told the Associated Press on Friday that immigrants must be flown out of the country on five to eight daily flights starting Sunday in the U.S., while another official said he did not expect more than two a day and said everyone would be tested for Covid-119. The first official said the ability to fly and the interest in taking flights to Haiti would determine how many flights there would be. Both officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Speaking about the U.S. plan on Saturday, several immigrants said they still wanted to stay in the camp and seek refuge. Some spoke of the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenal Moses, saying they were afraid to return to a country that seemed more unstable than their departure.
“In Haiti, there is no security,” said Fabrizio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian who brought his wife and two daughters. The country is in a political crisis.
Haitians have been immigrating to the United States in large numbers from South America for several years, with many fleeing their Caribbean country after a devastating earthquake in 2010. After losing their jobs at the 201 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, many took dangerous treks by foot, bus and car across the U.S. border, including the infamous Darian Gap in the Panamanian jungle.
Jorge Luis Mora Castillo, 48, from Cuba, said he arrived in Acuna on Saturday and also planned to enter the United States. Castillo said his family paid, 12,000 to smugglers to take him, his wife and their son from southern Paraguay. American nation where they lived for four years.
Speaking about the U.S. message discouraging immigrants, Castillo said he would not change his mind.
“Because going back to Cuba means dying,” he said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection have stopped the movement of vehicles and pedestrians in both directions at the only border crossing in Del Rio and Ciudad Aquana “to respond to emergency safety and security needs” and it was closed on Saturday. Travelers were being instructed indefinitely for a crossing on the Aggal Pass, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) away.
Crowd estimates vary, but Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano said Saturday evening that there were 14,534 migrants in the camp under the bridge. Immigrants pitched tents and built temporary shelters from the giant canal known as Carrizo Cane. Many are bathing and washing clothes in the river.
It is unclear how such a large number gathered so quickly, although many Haitians are waiting to decide whether they will try to enter the United States by gathering in camps on the Mexican side of the border.
The number of Haitian arrivals began to reach volatile levels about a week and a half ago for a border patrol in Del Rio, prompting the agency’s acting sector head, Robert Garcia, to ask headquarters for help, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter.
Since then, the agency has relocated Haitian buses and vans to other Texas Border Patrol facilities, particularly in the valleys of El Paso, Laredo and Rio Grande. Most of them are processed outside epidemic-related authorities, which means they can claim asylum and stay in the United States when their claims are considered. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decides custody but the court order usually does not allow families to be detained for more than 20 days.
Homeland Security’s plan announced Saturday that it indicated a change in the use of epidemic-related authorities to immediately expel Haiti without the opportunity to seek asylum.
The flight plan, huge in potential scale, depends on how the Haitians respond. Poor people suffering from poverty and political instability may be at risk of being repatriated or have to decide whether to return to Mexico. Unaccompanied children are exempted from fast-track expulsion.
The DHS said, “Our borders are not open, and people should not make dangerous journeys.”
“Individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including expulsion,” the agency wrote. “Irregular migration has become a significant threat to the health and welfare of border communities and the lives of migrants and should not be attempted.”
Asylum seekers are required to stay in Mexico pending a U.S. immigration court hearing, especially after Democratic President Joe Biden quickly broke the Trump administration’s policies that he considers cruel or inhumane.
An epidemic-related order to expel immigrants immediately without giving them a chance to seek asylum, which was introduced in March 2020, remains in effect, but unaccompanied children and many families have been exempted. During her first month in office, Biden decided to exempt children traveling alone on humanitarian grounds.
Nicole Phillips, legal director of the advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, said Saturday that the U.S. government should process immigrants and allow them to apply for asylum, not rush their expulsion.
“It’s really a humanitarian crisis,” Phillips said. “There’s a lot of help out there right now.”
Mexico’s immigration agency said in a statement on Saturday that Mexico had opened a “permanent dialogue” with representatives of the Haitian government to address the situation of irregular migration during their entry and transit through Mexico, as well as the return of their aid.
The agency did not specify whether it was referring to Haitians in Cuadad Aquana or to thousands of others in Tapachula on the Guatemalan border, and the agency did not immediately respond to requests for further details.
In August, U.S. authorities stopped immigrants at the border about 209,000 times, which was close to a 20-year high although many stops involved repeated crossings because there were no legal consequences of being deported under epidemic authorities.
Lozano Ciudad reports from Aqua, Mexico, and Spaghetti reports from San Diego. Associated Press writers Ben Fox, Alexandra Jaff and Colin Long in Washington contributed to this report.