The U.S. government is increasing deportation flights to Haiti in response to the rapid arrival of thousands of Haitian migrants in a small Texas community along the border with Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Saturday.
Thousands of migrants, many of them from Haiti, have crossed the southern border in recent days near Del Rio, Texas, prompting U.S. immigration agents to set upunderneath an international bridge to accommodate the new arrivals.
As of Friday, there were more than 12,000 migrants and asylum-seekers at the massive site, according to Del Rio's mayor, Bruno Lozano, who has implored the federal government to help his small city address an "unsustainable" situation.
Marsha Espinosa, a DHS spokeswoman, said the department will "secure additional transportation to accelerate the pace and increase the capacity" of deportation flights to Haiti and other countries in the Western Hemisphere within the next 72 hours.
"We have reiterated that our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey," Espinosa told CBS News. "Individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including expulsion. Irregular migration poses a significant threat to the health and welfare of border communities and to the lives of migrants themselves and should not be attempted."
Under President Biden, U.S. border officials have continued to cite a public health law, known colloquially as Title 42, to rapidly expel Mexican and Central American migrant adults and some families with children to Mexico.
Roughly 87% of the more than 29,000 Haitians who entered U.S. border custody in the past 11 months have been processed under immigration laws and allowed to seek asylum, mainly because Mexico is not accepting their return under the Title 42 policy.
Because of this, the U.S. has been "expelling" some Haitians through direct deportation flights to Port-au-Prince. While deportations to Haiti were suspended due to the August 14 earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people, the U.S. resumed those flights this week.
"Removal flights resumed after an assessment that country conditions were sufficiently improved that the country could receive incoming flights," a DHS official said.
According to the DHS official, the U.S. is reviewing flight manifests to ensure it does not deport Haitian immigrants who may be eligible for Temporary Protected Status, which the Biden administration extended to grant deportation relief and work permits to Haitians who were in the U.S. as of July 29.
The push to ramp up deportations, however, angered advocates for migrants, who have said the U.S. should not be deporting people to Haiti, a country reeling from the August earthquake, political turmoil worsened by the July assassination of the country's president and deep-rooted poverty.
"The reality is that Haiti is drowning in a pool of man-made and natural disasters. Instead of throwing them a lifeline, we're making sure that they drown," Guerline Jozef, a Haitian American advocate for asylum-seekers, told CBS News, referring to the deportations.
Jozef, the president of the advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, traveled to Del Rio over the weekend to assist migrants from Haiti who were released from U.S. custody. Instead of deporting Haitian migrants, some of whom include pregnant women and families with young children, Jozef said the Biden administration should create a "safe" process for them to request U.S. refuge.
"This is not a crisis, it is a bottleneck," she added.
DHS also announced Saturday it will deploy 400 Customs and Border Protection officers, as well as medical technicians, to process migrants in Del Rio. On Friday, border officials closed the Del Rio port of entry and redirected traffic to another official border crossing in Laredo, Texas.
Border Patrol transported 2,000 migrants in Del Rio to other locations on Friday to process them for deportation, DHS said in a statement outlining its approach to the sharp increase in border arrivals.
The strategy also includes convincing countries where migrants hailed from or resided in to take them back and providing assistance to deportees, the department said.
In August, U.S. border officials stopped Haitian migrants more than 7,500 times, a 37% increase from July. Many of the Haitians reaching U.S. soil are believed to have lived in Brazil, Chile and other South American countries before deciding to trek north during the coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged the region's economies.
Before traversing Central America, many Haitians undertake a treacherous journey through the Darien Gap, a roadless jungle region near Panama's border with Colombia.
In July, the last month with available statistics, migration authorities in Panama recorded encountering 14,511 Haitian migrants who crossed the Darien Gap, the most of any nationality. That marked a 176% increase from June.
Panama also encountered 1,135 migrants from Chile and 495 from Brazil in July whom authorities said were the South America-born children of Haitians who crossed the Darien Gap.
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