The Biden administration is planning to send home thousands of Haitian migrants who are being held by the U.S. Border Patrol under a bridge in a small South Texas border town, an administration official confirmed.
Haitians have been coming at a steady clip all year to Del Rio, a remote region of the border west of San Antonio. They began arriving in larger numbers last week, with 10-12 buses dropping off migrants near the border in Mexico each of the past few days, according to Lewis G. Owens, the Val Verde County judge.
He said more than 12,000 people had been brought to the bridge to await processing as of Friday morning—a fresh humanitarian crisis in a year when illegal border crossings have hit a two-decade high and the Biden administration has been struggling to handle a crush of asylum seekers.
The Border Patrol, whose facilities aren’t large enough to accommodate the recent crush, has been holding the migrants under the bridge—often for days—as they work to process immigration paperwork.
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PREVIEW SUBSCRIBE Mr. Owens said the Biden administration plans to begin sending the Haitians in Del Rio on flights back to Haiti under a Trump-era pandemic health measure known as Title 42, which gives the government the authority to turn back to Mexico any migrant caught crossing the border illegally, regardless of their country of origin. A Biden administration official confirmed the plan.
Spokespeople for U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon.
Some Haitians crossed back to Mexico on Friday to buy food and other supplies before returning to the U.S. PHOTO: ERIC GAY/ASSOCIATED PRESS Haitians being held under the bridge huddled closely together, sleeping on the dirt and walking back to the river to relieve themselves, according to officials who visited and videos of the scene. A pile of trash stood 4 feet high. Migrants had built makeshift shelters out of cardboard and materials they were finding along the river to shield themselves from the desert sun. The temperature in Del Rio on Friday afternoon reached 100 degrees.
Some Haitians crossed back to Mexico to buy food and bring other supplies.
Mr. Owens said he saw one Haitian man return from Mexico with large cases of water and orange soda, which he began selling to the other migrants under the bridge. The same man, Mr. Owens said, had earlier been selling chicherones, Mexican pork rinds.
At least two pregnant women went into labor and were taken to nearby hospitals, Mr. Owens said, where one was found to be infected with the coronavirus.
“The conditions that these people are being put through down here, they’re standing and laying down on top of cardboard, on top of rocks,” said Mr. Owens, who visited the bridge Friday morning. “Where they’re staying and how they’re bunched up, it’s a health issue.”
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0:00 / 3:16 Biden Faces Strategic Challenges in Immigration-Reform Effort Biden Faces Strategic Challenges in Immigration-Reform Effort As the Biden administration grapples with a surge in migrants crossing the southern border illegally, it faces a strategic choice in how it will approach broader immigration reform. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains. Photo illustration: Ang Li Haitians have been migrating to the U.S. in increasing numbers in the past few years. Many of them, migration experts say, left the island nation years ago for jobs in South American countries like Chile and Brazil. They have headed to the U.S. border during the Covid-19 pandemic—which caused economies in those countries to contract—and because of a perception that the Biden administration would be likelier to let them stay once they cross.
Mr. Biden and other administration officials have repeatedly urged would-be migrants not to come to the U.S.
Haitians are one of multiple groups reshaping the demographics of migration at the southern border. Whereas most illegal border crossers have historically been Mexican, and have more recently come from Central America seeking asylum, more than one in four in recent months has come from countries in South America or the Caribbean.
Migrants from different countries also tend to take different routes to the border, typically dictated by smuggling routes. That has made historically quiet parts of the border like Del Rio, with limited Border Patrol facilities or shelter space, sudden hot spots of activity.
The stretch of border near Del Rio became the second-busiest Border Patrol sector this year, with nearly 215,000 arrests out of 1.47 million across the entire border since October, the beginning of the government’s budget year, according to CBP data. That is a record high for the region; during the previous border surge in 2019, it saw just over 57,000 migrants.
“This is definitely at a whole different level, no doubt,” said David Martinez, the Val Verde County attorney.
The mayor of Del Rio, Bruno Lozano, said Friday that security at the encampment was a growing concern.
“People are just getting aggressive. If you have been down there, you just feel the desperation of these individuals. They’ve been in the heat day after day after day,” Mr. Lozano, a Democrat elected in 2018, told reporters. “It’s something extremely difficult to explain in words, but it’s extremely chaotic.”
—Alicia Caldwell contributed to this article.
Write to Michelle Hackman at [email protected]