The Biden administration plans on "massive movements" of Haitian migrants in a small Texas border city on flights to Haiti starting Sunday, an official said Friday.
Details are yet to be finalized but will likely involve five to eight flights a day, according to the official with direct knowledge of the plans who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. San Antonio, the nearest major city, may be among the departure cities.
U.S. authorities closed traffic to vehicles and pedestrians in both directions at the only border crossing in Del Rio, Texas, after chaos unfolded Friday and presented the administration with a new and immediate challenge as it tries to manage large numbers of asylum-seekers who have been reaching U.S. soil.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it was closing the border crossing with Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, "to respond to urgent safety and security needs." Travelers were being directed to Eagle Pass, Texas, 57 miles (91 kilometers) away.
Meanwhile, thousands of migrants are sheltering under and around the International Bridge in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, according to local officials.
The vast majority of the estimated 12,000 migrants at the bridge on Friday were Haitian, said Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens, who is the county’s top elected official whose jurisdiction includes Del Rio. Some families have been under the bridge for as long as six days.
A source told FOX News that the Border Patrol was overwhelmed and that the situation is "out of control."
Video posted on the Facebook page of Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, on Sept. 16 shows crowds of migrants sheltering underneath the bridge as the congressman is heard saying, "This is as bad as I’ve ever seen it."
Meanwhile, trash piles were 10 feet wide and at least two women have given birth along the Rio Grande river where migrants have resorted to creating makeshift shelters.
Haitians have been migrating to the U.S. in large numbers from South America for several years, many of them having left the Caribbean nation after a devastating earthquake in 2010. 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.
U.S. authorities are being severely tested after President Joe Biden quickly dismantled Trump administration policies that Biden considered cruel or inhumane, most notably one requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for U.S. immigration court hearings. Such migrants have been exposed to extreme violence in Mexico and faced extraordinary difficulty in finding attorneys.
The U.S Supreme Court last month let stand a judge’s order to reinstate the policy, though Mexico must agree to its terms. The Justice Department said in a court filing this week that discussions with the Mexican government were ongoing.
A pandemic-related order to immediately expel migrants without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum that was introduced in March 2020 remains in effect, but unaccompanied children and many families have been exempt. During his first month in office, Biden chose to exempt children traveling alone on humanitarian grounds.
The U.S. government has been unable to expel many Central American families because Mexican authorities have largely refused to accept them in the state of Tamaulipas, which is across from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings. On Thursday, a federal judge in Washington blocked the administration from applying Title 42, as the pandemic-related authority is known, to any families.
Migrants seen under the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas on Sept. 16. (Congressman Tony Gonzales via Storyful)
Mexico has agreed to take expelled families only from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, creating an opening for Haitians and other nationalities because the U.S. lacks the resources to detain and quickly expel them on flights to their homelands.
In August, U.S. authorities stopped migrants nearly 209,000 times at the border, which was close to a 20-year high even though many of the stops involved repeat crossers because there are no legal consequences for being expelled under Title 42 authority.
People crossing in families were stopped 86,487 times in August, but fewer than one out of every five of those encounters resulted in expulsion under Title 42. The rest were processed under immigration laws, which typically means they were released with a court date or a notice to report to immigration authorities.
U.S. authorities stopped Haitians 7,580 times in August, a figure that has increased every month since August 2020, when they stopped only 55. There have also been major increases of Ecuadorians, Venezuelans and other nationalities outside the traditional sending countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The Associated Press, FOX News and Storyful contributed to this report. This story was reported out of Los Angeles.