DEL RIO, Texas -- Thousands of Haitian migrants who have crossed the Rio Grande River over the past several days are sleeping outdoors under a border bridge in south Texas, creating a humanitarian emergency and a logistical challenge that U.S. agents describe as unprecedented.
Authorities in Del Rio, Texas, say more than 8,000 migrants have arrived at the impromptu camp, and thousands more are expected in the coming days. Images of the bridge site show dense crowds, including families and small children, and deteriorating sanitary conditions.
The sudden influx has presented President Joe Biden's administration with a new border emergency at a time when illegal border crossings have reached a 20-year high and Homeland Security officials are straining to accommodate and resettle more than 60,000 Afghan evacuees.
The migrants arriving in Del Rio appear to be part of a larger wave of Haitians heading northward, many of whom arrived in Brazil and other South American nations after the 2010 earthquake. They are on the move again, embarking on a grueling, dangerous journey to the United States with smuggling organizations managing the trip, according to border authorities and refugee groups.
More than 29,000 Haitians have arrived over the past 11 months, the latest Customs and Border Protection figures show, including some in mixed-nationality families whose children were born in Brazil, Chile or other South American nations.
They have trekked through the jungles of Panama's Darien Gap, navigated migrant camps and criminal gangs in Central America, and dodged border guards and troops along the highways of southern Mexico. Many say the economic toll of the pandemic pushed them to leave, while others say a more-welcoming U.S. administration has offered them a fleeting opportunity to reach the United States.
The Biden administration has curtailed deportation flights to Haiti after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July and a 7.2-magnitude earthquake Aug. 14 that killed more than 2,000 people. And the Department of Homeland Security has extended temporary protected status eligibility for Haitians, a measure that allows Haitians living in the United States without legal status to qualify for provisional residency and avoid deportation.
How many more may arrive in the next few days is unclear. Customs and Border Protection is scrambling to send additional agents to Del Rio to help process the migrants, issuing them numbers as they line up to be formally apprehended, the first step in applying for asylum or another form of U.S. protection. Most of the migrants are likely to be released into the United States with a notice to appear in court at a future date.
"The Border Patrol is increasing its manpower in the Del Rio Sector and coordinating efforts within the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant federal, state and local partners to immediately address the current level of migrant encounters and to facilitate a safe, humane and orderly process," Customs and Border Protection said in a statement. "To prevent injuries from heat-related illness, the shaded area underneath Del Rio International Bridge is serving as a temporary staging site while migrants wait to be taken into USBP custody."
U.S. agents say some migrants are wading back and forth across the river into Mexico to buy meals and supplies, and street vendors from Mexico have also wandered over to sell food inside the camp.
The agency said it is providing drinking water, towels and other provisions to the site, but one agent in the Del Rio Sector said sanitary conditions are poor. There are 20 portable toilets at the site, according to Jon Anfinsen, the top Border Patrol union official in the Del Rio Sector.
"We're scrambling to bring every resource we can, but it's a logistical nightmare," he said. "We're pulling agents from across the country to help, but they're not going to be there today, and we're just trying to keep heads above water."
"Many agents are mothers and fathers, and seeing kids in this situation is sad for everyone," he said. "Morale is terrible."
The Biden administration says it will continue to use its emergency authorities under Title 42 of the U.S. public health code to rapidly return or "expel" migrants. But Mexican authorities have declined to take back Haitians in recent months.
The Biden administration is also contending with a series of new court orders over its border policies.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled Thursday that the U.S. government must stop using a Trump-era public health order to quickly expel migrants with children who are apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sullivan gave the government two weeks to halt a practice that opponents say is unnecessary and improperly relies on the threat posed by covid-19 to deprive people of their right to seek asylum in the United States.
Sullivan granted a preliminary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf of migrant families, saying they were likely to succeed in their challenge to the use of the public health law known as Title 42.
"President Biden should have ended this cruel and lawless policy long ago, and the court was correct to reject it today," said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.
The Supreme Court also said last month that the Biden administration must restart a Trump administration program that requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are adjudicated in U.S. courts.
'WORSE THAN WORST-CASE'
The Del Rio border sector has been among the busiest for illegal crossings in recent months as thousands of Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans and Hondurans climb down from the limestone bluffs on the Mexican side to wade across the Rio Grande.
The river is only ankle-deep right now at popular crossing points, Anfinsen said.
Del Rio Mayor Bruno "Ralphy" Lozano said the size of the group has increased steadily to more than 8,200 people. "I thought the worst-case scenario was having a couple people, maybe 150 people roaming the streets," said Lozano, who warned the Biden administration in a February video that his community needed more federal support to cope with a surge in crossings.
"Although I foreshadowed a worst-case scenario, this is probably a worse case of worst-case scenarios," he said. "I need the administration to recognize that there is a border crisis happening in real time right now and it has dire consequences on security, health and safety."
Illegal crossings along the U.S. southern border remained at decades-high levels last month as authorities detained 208,887 migrants in August, according to enforcement data released Wednesday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
It was the first month since Biden took office that the number of border arrests did not increase, but the August figure was only a 2% decline from July, when 212,672 were taken into custody, a 21-year high. Border Patrol agents have stopped more than 1.2 million border-crossers since Biden took office.
When border arrests rose sharply this spring, the president said the increase was consistent with normal seasonal patterns. But crossings have continued to soar regardless of the extreme weather, and U.S. border authorities have struggled to cope with the health, humanitarian and security challenges of the historic influx, particularly as families and children account for a growing share of crossings.
In recent months, Del Rio has been a testing ground for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's most aggressive border security plans, including charging migrants with state crimes such as trespassing.
Val Verde County, which includes Del Rio, went for President Donald Trump in 2020, voting for a Republican at the top of the ticket for the first time in decades.
Lozano said while he initially welcomed the Republican governor's effort, the local judicial system is now overwhelmed.
Val Verde County received state funding and hundreds of Texas state troopers in recent months to help Border Patrol agents. At one point this summer, then-sector chief Austin Skero had just four agents patrolling more than 40 miles of river, with officials tied up processing more than 1,000 migrants a day.
Haitian, Venezuelan and Cuban migrants often say they prefer to cross in the Del Rio area because of its reputation as comparatively safer than the Rio Grande Valley downriver.
Human-rights activists have long forecast that trouble in the Mexican border cities of Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuna would result in mass migration. While the route is attractive to migrants who can pay a bit more, these communities lack the aid infrastructure and local government support that exists in Mexican cities elsewhere.
Many of the migrants arrived at the border on buses that appear to be part of a large smuggling operation, Lozano said. "It just sounds like there's an off-grid bus system that's not registered with the Mexican government that are driving these individuals north," he said.
Some Del Rio residents, particularly those living along the river and on ranches, have raised alarms in recent months about the large groups of migrants appearing on their properties.
Information for this article was contributed by Arelis Hernandez, Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti of The Washington Post; and Ben Fox of The Associated Press.