DEL RIO, Texas -- The U.S. flew Haitians camped in a Texas border town back to their homeland Sunday and tried to block others from crossing the border from Mexico.
More than 320 migrants arrived in Port-au-Prince on three flights, and Haiti said six flights were expected Tuesday. U.S. authorities are moving to expel many of the more than 12,000 migrants camped around a bridge in Del Rio after crossing from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico.
The U.S. on Wednesday plans to raise its number of daily expulsion flights to seven -- four to Port-au-Prince and three to Cap-Haitien, Haiti.
While accepting the flights, Haitian officials beseeched the United States to stop the deportations, saying their country is in crisis and cannot handle the arrival of thousands of homeless people.
"We are here to say welcome, they can come back and stay in Haiti, but they are very agitated," said the head of Haiti's national migration office, Jean Negot Bonheur Delva. "They don't accept the forced return."
Bonheur Delva said authorities expected that 14,000 Haitians would be expelled from the U.S. over the next three weeks.
"The Haitian state is not really able to receive these deportees," Bonheur Delva said.
After the U.S. closed its border Sunday, migrants initially found other ways to cross until they were confronted by federal and state law enforcement authorities. An Associated Press reporter saw Haitian migrants still crossing the river into the U.S. about 1½ miles east of the previous spot, but they were eventually stopped by Border Patrol agents on horseback and by Texas law enforcement officials.
As they crossed, some Haitians carried boxes filled with food. Agents yelled at the migrants who were crossing in the waist-deep river to get out of the water. The several hundred who had successfully crossed and were sitting along the riverbank on the U.S. side were ordered to the Del Rio camp. "Go now," agents yelled.
Mexican authorities in an airboat told others trying to cross to go back into Mexico.
Migrant Charlie Jean had crossed from the camp back into Ciudad Acuna to get food for his wife and three daughters, ages 2, 5 and 12. He was waiting on the Mexican side for a restaurant to bring him an order of rice.
"We need food for every day. I can go without, but my kids can't," said Jean, who had been living in Chile for five years before beginning the trek north to the U.S. It was unknown if he made it back across and to the camp.
Mexico said Sunday that it would also begin deporting Haitians to their homeland. A government official said the flights would leave from towns near the U.S. border and from the border with Guatemala, where the largest group remains.
Haitians have been migrating to the U.S. in large numbers from South America for several years, many having left their Caribbean nation after a devastating 2010 earthquake. After jobs dried up from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, many made the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car to the U.S. border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
In recent days, thousands of Haitian migrants traversed the Rio Grande and huddled under the bridge in Del Rio, further straining the U.S.' already overwhelmed migration system -- and triggering the decision to begin sending migrants back to Haiti.Gallery: Haitian migrants in Mexico, U.S.
Some of the migrants at the Del Rio camp said the recent earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moise make them afraid to return to a country that seems more unstable than when they left.
Since Friday, 3,300 migrants have been removed from the Del Rio camp and put on planes or taken to detention centers, Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said Sunday. He expected to have 3,000 of the approximately 12,600 remaining migrants moved within a day, and he aimed for the rest to be gone within the week.
"We are working around the clock to expeditiously move migrants out of the heat, elements and from underneath this bridge to our processing facilities in order to quickly process and remove individuals from the United States consistent with our laws and our policies," Ortiz said at news conference at the Del Rio bridge. The Texas city of about 35,000 people sits about 145 miles west of San Antonio.
Six flights are scheduled for Haiti on Tuesday -- three to Port-au-Prince and three to Cap-Haitien, Bonheur Delva said.
The rapid expulsions were made possible by a pandemic-related authority adopted by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 that allows for migrants to be immediately removed from the country without an opportunity to seek asylum. President Joe Biden exempted unaccompanied children from the order but let the rest stand.
Any Haitians not expelled are subject to immigration laws, which include rights to seek asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection. Families are quickly released in the U.S. because the government cannot generally hold children.
NOTHING TO GO HOME FOR
Many of the migrants who were returned to Haiti on Sunday said they saw no future for themselves and their families in their home country.
Many of them had been living outside Haiti for years, in countries such as Panama, Chile and Brazil. Some said they had been told by U.S. officials that they were going to Florida, then realized they were being taken back to Haiti.
The country to which they were returned is mired in political and humanitarian crises.
In July, Moise was assassinated. A month later, the impoverished southern peninsula was devastated by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, and the Caribbean nation's shaky government was ill-equipped to handle the aftermath.
According to a United Nations report, 800,000 people have been affected by the quake. A month after it struck, 650,000 still need emergency humanitarian assistance.
Bonheur Delva said "ongoing security issues" made the prospect of resettling thousands of new arrivals hard to imagine. Haiti, he said, cannot provide adequate security or food for all of the returnees.
"I am asking for a humanitarian moratorium," Bonheur Delva said. "The situation is very difficult."
Some people arriving on the first flight Sunday covered their heads as they stepped into a large bus parked next to the plane. Dozens lined up to receive plates of rice, beans, chicken and plantains as they wondered where they would sleep and how they would make money to support their families.
All were given $100 and were tested for covid-19, though authorities were not planning to put them into quarantine, said Marie-Lourde Jean-Charles with the Office of National Migration.
From there, said Bonheur Delva, it will be up to them to find their way home.
Gary Monplaisir, 26, said his parents and sister live in Port-au-Prince, but he wasn't sure if he would stay with them because it would force he, his wife and their 5-year-old daughter to cross a gang-controlled area called Martissant where killings are routine.
"I'm scared," he said. "I don't have a plan."
He moved to Chile to work as a tow truck driver in 2017, just as he was about to earn an accounting degree. He later paid for his wife and daughter to join him. They tried to reach the U.S. because he thought he could get a better-paying job and help his family in Haiti.
"We're always looking for better opportunities," he said.
Some migrants said they were planning to leave again as soon as possible.
"I'm not going to stay in Haiti," said Elene Jean-Baptiste, 28, who traveled with her 3-year-old son, Steshanley Sylvain, who was born in Chile and has a Chilean passport, and her husband, Stevenson Sylvain. They want to return to Chile, where they lived before heading to the U.S.
Valeria Ternission, 29, said she and her husband also want to travel with their 4-year-old son back to Chile, where she worked as a bakery's cashier.
"I am truly worried, especially for the child," she said. "I can't do anything here."
Information for this article was contributed by Juan A. Lozano, Eric Gay, Elliot Spagat, Evens Sanon, Danica Coto and Maria Verza of The Associated Press; and by Harold Isaac and Natalie Kitroeff of The New York Times.