By Elliot Spagett, Maria Varza, Juan A. Lozano and Sarah Blake Morgan
DEL RIO, Texas (AP) — Three hours after being freed from a sprawling migrant camp under an international bridge, McKenson Willard stood outside a gas station and took stock of his sudden good fortune as he and his pregnant wife Greyhound Was waiting for the bus. Take them to a cousin in San Antonio.
The couple camped with thousands of people for a week under the bridge in Del Rio, Texas, sleeping on concrete and getting bread and bottled water.
“I felt very stressed out,” Willard, 25, said this week. “But now, I feel better. It’s like I’m starting a new life.”
According to two US officials, several Haitian immigrants in Del Rio are being released to the United States, undercutting the Biden administration’s public statements that thousands in the camp faced immediate expulsion to Haiti.
Haitians have been freed “in a very, very large scale” in recent days, an official said on Tuesday. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and thus spoke on condition of anonymity, put the figure in the thousands.
Many have been issued with notices to appear at an immigration office within 60 days, a result that requires less processing time than Border Patrol agents ordering to appear in an immigration court and Indicates the speed at which officers are moving.
The releases come despite a massive effort to expel Haitians on flights under pandemic-related authorization who deny migrants a chance to seek refuge. A third US official not authorized to discuss operations said there are seven daily flights to Haiti starting Wednesday.
Ten flights arrived in Haiti from Sunday to Tuesday in planes designed for 135 passengers, according to Haitian officials, who did not provide a full count, but said six of those flights carried a combined 713 migrants.
By some estimates, the camp had more than 14,000 people over the weekend. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said during a visit to Del Rio on Tuesday that the top county official told him that there were about 8,600 immigrants recently. US officials have declined to say how many people have been released in the US in recent days.
The official said the Department of Homeland Security is busing Haitians from Del Rio, a city of 35,000 people, to El Paso, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, and added flights to Tucson, Arizona this week. They are processed by the Border Patrol at those locations.
There are criteria to decide who is deported to Haiti and who is released to the US, but two officials said single adult was the priority. If past treatment of asylum seekers is any guide, the administration is more likely to release those deemed vulnerable, including pregnant women, families with young children and those with medical problems.
Biden administration exempts unaccompanied children from eviction flights on humanitarian grounds.
The system is a “black box,” said Wade McMullen, a Robert F. Kennedy human rights lawyer who was in Del Rio. “Right now, we have no official access to understand what procedures are going on, what protections are being provided for migrants.”
On Wednesday, more than 300 migrants were unloaded in a Border Patrol van by noon at a reception center run by the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition. They waited for buses to Houston, a springboard for final destinations in America. Many were required to wear ankle monitors to ensure they followed instructions to report to immigration officials.
“Hello. How are you?” Volunteer Lupita de la Paz greeted him in Spanish. “We’ll help you. You’ve arrived in Del Rio, Texas. It’s a small town. There aren’t many options. We’ll help move you elsewhere.”
Rabbiyatu Yunusah, 34, waited with her 3-year-old daughter, Laila, to move in with an uncle in Huntsville, Alabama. She felt that “it was a great pleasure to be free in this country.”
25-year-old Jimmy Fenelan and his partner, Elirose Profet, who is eight months pregnant, left camp on Tuesday and were on their way to Florida to live with an uncle.
“Everyone has their luck. Some were not fortunate enough to be here.” Fenelan said.
Accounts of the wide-scale release seen in Del Rio by Associated Press reporters – on Monday contrasted with statements from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Meyercas, who traveled to Del Rio to promise swift action.
“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be turned back, your trip will not be successful, and you will put your life and the lives of your family at risk,” he said at a news conference.
Homeland Security, which was asked to comment on the release in the United States, said on Wednesday that migrants who are not immediately expelled to Haiti could be detained or served notices to appear in immigration court. May be given or reported to an immigration office depending on the available detention space.
“The Biden administration reiterates that our borders are not open and that people should not undertake dangerous travel,” the department said in a statement. “Individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including eviction.”
Meanwhile, Mexico has begun settling and flying Haitian migrants away from the US border, signaling a new level of support for the United States as the camp presented a humanitarian and increasingly political challenge to President Joe Biden. Of.
The White House is facing sharp bipartisan condemnation. Republicans say the policies of the Biden administration have given Haitians confidence they will find asylum. Democrats are outraged after photos of Border Patrol agents on horseback using aggressive tactics against migrants went viral this week.
Immigrants describe a screening process at the camp where people were given color stamps for four categories: single men; single woman; pregnant women; And families with young children, McMullen said. Most of the immigrants he and other advocates have interviewed and released in the US are families with young children and pregnant women.
Vilgens Jean and his wife, Junia Mitchell, waited this week for relatives in Del Rio to send $439 in bus fare to go to Springfield, Ohio, where Jean’s brother lives. Michelle, who is pregnant, hid under the little shade that the scorching heat the parking lot had to offer. Her only request was for sunscreen to be rubbed gently on her pregnant belly.
On the concrete in front of them were two backpacks and a black garbage bag containing everything that belonged to the couple. The pair left Haiti in April and were at the Del Rio camp for five days. Jean said that because his wife is expecting, he was released from the camp on Monday.
“I entered by crossing the river,” said Jean. “Immigration gave me the ticket.”
After an initial stay with the family in San Antonio, Willard hopes to eventually move to New York City to be with his sister. He will take any job to support his growing family.
Willard and his wife left Haiti four years ago and were living in Brazil, much of it on foot, until their trip to the United States began in June.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel tomorrow, but I feel lucky now,” he said.
Spaget reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers Maria Verza in Ciudad Acua, Mexico, Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Evans Sanon of Port-au-Prince, Haiti contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration