Haitian migrants seeking to escape poverty, hunger and hopelessness in their home country said they would not be deterred by US plans to swiftly send them back, as thousands remained encamped in the remote Texas city of Del Rio.
On Sunday, the US began flying some of the migrants back to their home country. An official said three flights left San Antonio for Port-au-Prince.
The US also blocked the border at Del Rio. About a dozen Texas state vehicles lined up near the bridge and river where Haitians have been crossing from Ciudad Acuna, in Mexico, for almost three weeks. Yellow police tape was used to block a small dam which has been used to walk into the US.
A Mexican police officer said migrants would not be allowed to cross anymore. An Associated Press reporter, however, saw Haitian migrants crossing into the US nearby.
Many of the migrants have lived in Latin America for years but are now seeking asylum in the US as economic opportunities in Brazil and elsewhere dry up. Thousands are living under and near a bridge in Del Rio.
The number of flights carrying migrants back to Haiti is expected to reach at least six a day shortly, according to a US official.
A large number of buses arrived on Sunday in Del Rio. The official said “many, many more” are coming to transfer Haitians to expulsion flights, immigration detention centers and border patrol facilities. Departure cities for Haiti-bound flights are being “actively planned”, the official said.
At the Port-au-Prince airport on Sunday about a dozen officials from Haitian government agencies gathered. Public security officials requested the presence of police to prevent any potential violence.
A minibus from the International Organization of Migration also was posted at the airport. It was filled with brightly colored bags containing toiletries, hand sanitizer and hair ties.
The Haitian prime minister, Ariel Henry, wrote on Twitter that he was concerned about conditions at the border camp and that the migrants would be welcomed back.
“We want to reassure them that measures have already been taken to give them a better welcome upon their return to the country and that they will not be left behind,” he said.
Henry did not provide details about the measures. A Haitian government spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.
Another Haitian political leader questioned whether the nation could handle an influx of returning migrants and said the government should stop the repatriation.
“We have the situation in the south with the earthquake. The economy is a disaster, [and] there are no jobs,” said the election minister, Mathias Pierre, adding that most Haitians can’t satisfy basic needs. “The prime minister should negotiate with the US government to stop those deportations in this moment of crises.”
In Del Rio on Saturday, scores of people waded back and forth across the Rio Grande, re-entering Mexico to purchase water, food and diapers before returning to their encampment under and near a bridge.
Crowd estimates varied but the Del Rio mayor, Bruno Lozano, said on Saturday evening there were 14,534 migrants at the camp. Many pitched tents and built makeshift shelters from giant reeds known as carrizo cane. Others bathed and washed clothing in the river.
It is unclear how such a large number amassed so quickly. The number of Haitian arrivals began to reach unsustainable levels for US Border Patrol in Del Rio about two weeks ago, prompting the agency’s acting sector chief, Robert Garcia, to ask headquarters for help, according to a US official.
Junior Jean, 32 and from Haiti, watched as people carried cases of water or bags of food through the knee-high river. Jean said he lived on the streets in Chile the past four years, searching for food in garbage cans.
“We are all looking for a better life,” he said.
The US Department of Homeland Security said that it moved about 2,000 migrants from the camp on Friday, for processing and possible removal. It also said it would have 400 agents in the area by Monday and would send more if necessary.
Told of plans for flights back to Haiti, several migrants said they intended to seek asylum. Some spoke of the most recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moise.
“In Haiti, there is no security,” said Fabricio Jean, 38, with his wife and daughters. “The country is in a political crisis.”
Haitians have been migrating to the US from South America for several years, many having left home after a devastating 2010 earthquake. Many made the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car, including through the Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
Nicole Phillips, legal director for advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, said the US should process migrants and allow them to apply for asylum, not rush to expel them.
“It really is a humanitarian crisis,” Phillips said. “There needs to be a lot of help there now.”
Mexico’s immigration agency said Mexico has opened a “permanent dialogue” with Haitian government representatives “to address the situation of irregular migratory flows during their entry and transit through Mexico, as well as their assisted return”.