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Migrants flown out of Texas border city after thousands cross Rio Grande

·5-min read

By Daina Beth Solomon and Alexandra Ulmer

DEL RIO, Texas/CIUDAD ACUNA, Mexico, Sept 19 (Reuters) - U .S. authorities flew migrants out of a Texas border city on Sunday where thousands of mostly Haitians had gathered under a bridge after crossing the Rio Grande river from Mexico.

Reuters journalists saw a white bus escorted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents enter the Del Rio airport, then a group boarding a Coast Guard plane. A police source said the people were migrants and a source familiar with airport operations said the aircraft was heading to El Paso, Texas.

Meanwhile, Tom Cartwright of the advocacy group Witness at the Border who tracks U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flights, told Reuters three flights left Texas - one from Laredo and two from San Antonio - on Sunday carrying Haitians to Haiti.

ICE spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on Saturday that it was accelerating expulsions to Haiti, sending more CBP agents to the area, and other steps to address the humanitarian and political challenge posed by thousands of people sheltering in increasingly squalid conditions under the bridge that links Del Rio with Ciudad Acuña in Mexico.

Officials on both sides of the border have said most of the migrants were from Haiti.

Reuters saw a dozen law enforcement officers on the U.S. side of the border on Sunday, some on horses. A Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) helicopter circled overhead, and yellow tape reading "sheriff’s line do not cross" was strung up.

Haitian Jean Agenord, his Chilean wife Makarena Vines and their 17-month-old son were stopped from crossing on Sunday.

Agenord, resting his arms on a cardboard box, his feet still in the water, told Reuters the family had spent all their money and didn't have a place to stay in Mexico.

"I can't cross here, I can't cross there," he said. "What am I going to do?"

The couple asked locals whether they knew a place to stay in Mexico, saying they would try to cross again.

The embankment on the Mexico side was strewn with water bottles and take-out boxes, signs of the many people who had crossed the river into the United States to await immigration processing. Migrants had been wading back into Mexico to buy supplies to take to the camp under the bridge, but appeared no longer able to do so on Sunday.

'ACCESS IS BLOCKED'

Reuters could not approach the area where Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano said in a video on Saturday night that just over 14,000 migrants were camping.

"The access is blocked" to the river, Haitian migrant Eddyson Langlais, 24, told Reuters by text message on Sunday morning. "Yesterday night they gave water and a little snack. I don’t know for today."

Many of the Haitians at the border who spoke to Reuters said they had left their troubled homeland and initially settled in South America. They headed north more recently because they could not attain legal status or struggled with racism and securing decent jobs.

DHS said on Saturday it would accelerate migrant flights to Haiti and other destinations over the next 72 hours. It said U.S. authorities had moved some 2,000 people from Del Rio to other U.S. immigration processing stations on Friday and would continue that shifting of migrants "to ensure that irregular migrants are swiftly taken into custody, processed, and removed from the United States consistent with our laws and policy."

DHS added it was working with nations where the migrants began their journeys - for many of the Haitians, countries such as Brazil and Chile - to accept returned migrants.

Cartwright, of Witness at the Border, raised concerns with returning the migrants to Haiti. In July, the impoverished nation's president was assassinated, and in August a major earthquake and powerful storm hit the country. COVID-19 is also cause for worry, Cartwright said.

"Haiti before the earthquake did not have a robust health system," he said. "And the fact that we're sending people back, particularly if they haven't been tested and haven't tested negative, would be a serious concern."

A sweeping U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public health order known as Title 42, issued under the Trump administration at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, allows most migrants to be quickly expelled without a chance of claiming asylum. President Joe Biden has kept that rule in place though he exempted unaccompanied minors and his administration has not been expelling most families.

A judge ruled Thursday the policy could not be applied to families, but the ruling does not go into effect for two weeks and the Biden administration has appealed.

Typically, migrants can turn themselves in at the border and claim asylum, triggering a long court process. The Trump administration whittled away at protections, arguing many asylum claims were false.

The Biden administration extended temporary relief to around 150,000 Haitians in the United States earlier this year, shielding them from deportation. That relief does not apply to new arrivals. Deportation and expulsion differ technically - expulsion is much quicker. (Reporting by Daina Solomon in Ciudad Acuña and Alexandra Ulmer in Del Rio; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Donna Bryson and Daniel Wallis)

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