WASHINGTON — The last remaining Haitian migrants who were living in squalid conditions in makeshift encampments underneath a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border have been cleared out, the head of the Department of Homeland Security said Friday.
“As of this morning there are no longer any migrants in the camp underneath the Del Rio International Bridge,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.
The surge in migrants, which caught DHS officials off guard, was the result of an unprecedented movement of a very large number of people traveling to a single point of the border within a matter of a few days, he added.
“Nearly 30,000 migrants have been encountered at Del Rio since Sept. 9, with the highest number at one time reaching approximately 15,000,” he said.
Mayorkas said that while migrants continue to be expelled under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public-health law known as Title 42, some 12,400 individuals have been released or paroled into the United States and will have their cases heard by an immigration judge to determine whether they will be repatriated or permitted to remain in the United States. He did not say how many Haitians from the recent migrant surge have been released.
That process had been chaotic, with migrants dropped off at all hours at a local gas station that doubles as a Greyhound bus stop in Del Rio. Not even sure the name of the city they were in, migrants struggled to get in touch with family using their Mexican, Chilean and Brazilian cellphones, which lack internet access.
In Houston, about 1,000 Haitians have arrived at a shelter near the airport since Monday looking for assistance after being released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said Stevens Merilan, a local DJ known as DJ Bugz and a member of Houston Haitians United.
The migrants arrive by bus and are registered as well as tested for COVID-19. The grassroots organization also works to put them in touch with family, or in some cases try to find sponsors willing to take them in.
“The folks are coming with nothing,” Merilan said, adding that those looking to help can write to firstname.lastname@example.org. “We have to provide them with underwear, toiletries.”
Merilan said 65 people have volunteered since the start of the surge to help, but they are in desperate need of bilingual Creole-speaking volunteers. They also need funding to purchase airfare and bus tickets.
“It’s a lot that’s going on and we need to help,” Merilan said, adding that one of the biggest needs is funding for transportation. “The organization is spending a lot of money.”
Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S., Bocchit Edmond, said assisting those migrants who have been released and now have 60 days to appear either before an immigration judge or at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility is a top priority.
“My concern is finding a place where we can accommodate those people who do not have family here and seeing how lawyers can assist them and make sure the process is being followed,” said Edmond, who is flying out to Texas Saturday. “We do hope since we are working with some grassroots organizations, like the Haitian Bridge Alliance and Houston Haitian United, to see how best they can help.”
One way in which local Haitian consulates are planning to assist is to help migrants replace their Haitian passports. Many migrants either don’t travel with the document or dump it along the 7,000-mile trek through the jungles of South America to the U.S. -Mexico border in order to avoid deportation to Haiti along the route.
The surge in Haitian migrants at the Del Rio port of entry compounded an already existing border crisis, and heightened criticism of the Biden administration’s response and use of Title 42.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the situation at the border was the result of a broken U.S. immigration system and pushed back on criticism from Republicans, who have used it to hammer the president.
“I can assure you the president is well aware what the challenges are in our broken immigration system, something he watches closely over the last few years,” she said.
Immigration and civil-rights activists have called for an end to the deportations, and the use of Title 42, which they say deny Haitian asylum seekers the right to seek protection in the United States. Though a federal judge recently ruled that the Biden administration cannot continue to use the law, which was first invoked by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, he delayed his order for 14 days, giving the administration time to clear out the camp.
Mayorkas continued to defend DHS’s use of Title 42, saying Friday that it’s not an immigration policy. “It is important to note that Title 42 is applicable and has been applicable to all irregular migration during this pandemic,” the secretary said.
There have been at least 21 repatriation flights to Haiti as of Friday. Those who have not been deported have been placed in immigration removal proceedings. Despite promising to send some migrants back to Chile or Brazil where they lived and where some have legal residency, it appears that all have been returned to Haiti.
On Thursday, there were about 3,100 migrants left under the Del Rio camp after 1,949 had been repatriated to Haiti. An estimated 8,000 had decided to return to Mexico voluntarily out of fear of being deported to Haiti, the secretary said.
“Just over 5,000 are being processed by DHS to determine whether they will be expelled or placed in immigration removal proceedings,” Mayorkas said.
DHS increased the number of removal flights using both international airports in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince and the Hugo Chavez International Airport in the northern city of Cap-Haitien.
“Last weekend, we had approximately 15,000 individuals in the Del Rio section. I committed to addressing that within 10 days. And today we have none. And that was because of the Department of Homeland Security’s assets, with the assistance of others across the government,” Mayorkas said.
Advocates have raised concerns that the administration is returning people to a country where they haven’t lived in years, where the president was recently assassinated and a deadly 7.2 earthquake destroyed entire towns in its southern region. The same week of the rush to the border, U.N. agencies said that gang violence in Port-au-Prince had blocked the road to the south, leaving half of the quake victims without access to humanitarian assistance.
DHS has said that it studied conditions in Haiti, which led to designating Temporary Protected Status for those Haitian nationals residing in the U.S. prior to July 29. The agency is mindful, Mayorkas said, of the July 7 assassination of the country’s president and ”we were unsure of the results of that assassination in terms of the stability of the political order.”
However, in continuing to study the conditions in Haiti, Mayorkas said, the U.S. has “determined, despite the tragic and devastating earthquake, that Haiti is in fact capable of receiving individuals, and we are working with Haiti and with humanitarian relief agencies, to ensure that their return is as safe and humanely accomplished as possible.”
On the eve of the first deportation flights, Haiti’s Office of National Migration asked for a humanitarian moratorium, which was ignored by the U.S.
The secretary said the number of removal flights to Haiti were commensurate with its capacity to receive migrants. The U.S. Agency for International Development, he said, has established a $5.5 million program to provide on-the-ground assistance to repatriated Haitian migrants.
Edmond, the Haitian ambassador, said he didn’t know if the money had been received in Port-au-Prince in time to assist those being returned, but added he had some concerns about how the repatriations were done. In Del Rio, he plans to join other Haitian officials who had been trying to see migrants before the camp was emptied.
Mayorkas confirmed that DHS did not test that population of individuals for COVID-19.
“We do not know — I do not know, I should say, to be perfectly accurate — I do not know whether anyone was sick with COVID. We certainly had some individuals get sick, not specifically with COVID to my knowledge, and we addressed their illnesses,” he said.
The head of Haiti’s National Migration Office confirmed to the Miami Herald that some of the returning migrants have tested positive for COVID-19.
“These people should have been tested before being repatriated,” Edmond said.
Another concern has been the behavior of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.
Images of a Border Patrol agent confronting Haitian migrants along the Rio Grande river not far from the camp prompted outrage and calls for an investigation. The agents involved were put on administrative leave, and Mayorkas has promised to make public the results of the inquiry.
“The investigation into what occurred has not yet concluded,” he said. “We know that those images painfully conjured up the worst elements of our nation’s ongoing battle against systemic racism.”
On Thursday, DHS announced that it had temporarily ceased the use of the horseback unit at the camp.
“The actions that are taken are as a result of what we have seen in those images,” said Mayorkas, who initially defended the agents and later said he was “horrified” by what he had seen. “The investigation, the results will be compelled by the facts that are deduced, and nothing less. Let me be clear: The department does not tolerate any mistreatment of any migrant, and will not tolerate any violation of its values, principles, and ethics.”
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