By Paul LeBlanc, CNN
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Sunday he will travel to the US southern border as the Biden administration grapples with the thousands of migrants who have amassed in Del Rio, Texas, and ramps up deportation flights to Haiti.
“I will be traveling to the border myself,” Mayorkas told CNN’s Jim Acosta, though he did not specify when. Mayorkas added that he’s in regular touch with the White House and that President Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation “multiple times.”
Thousands of migrants — including families, pregnant women and babies — have crowded in a makeshift camp under the Del Rio International Bridge. They sleep in the dirt, surrounded by growing piles of garbage, exposed to the elements and without much food and water in hopes of being processed by the overwhelmed US Border Patrol, an aerial tour of the scene shows.
The encampment has raised additional public health concern because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and Mayorkas told CNN that the government is not vaccinating the migrants at this time.
As a result of the chaotic situation, the Del Rio processing center has temporarily closed and traffic is being rerouted to effectively manage resources and ensure the uninterrupted flow of trade and travel, US Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said in a press conference Sunday.
There were more than 14,300 migrants — many of them Haitian — under the Del Rio International Bridge waiting to be processed by immigration authorities as of Saturday, according to Bruno Lozano, the mayor of Del Rio. That number swelled from roughly 400 just over a week ago in a mounting immigration crisis for the Biden administration.
“We certainly are experiencing a challenging situation, but we are surging resources and we have a multi-pronged approach to this,” Mayorkas said Sunday.
Mayorkas confirmed CNN’s reporting that the Department of Homeland Security is obtaining resources from the Defense Department for additional assistance in Del Rio. The Defense Department — which has previously supported DHS in securing the border — would provide logistics support, though it’s unclear when the request will be submitted. DHS is also receiving assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services. Mayorkas added that the American Red Cross and World Central Kitchen are helping provide supplies and meals.
DHS said in statement Saturday it’s preparing additional transportation to accelerate the pace and increase the capacity of removal flights to Haiti, as well as other destinations, within the next 72 hours. The agency also announced that Customs and Border Protection would surge 400 agents and officers to the Del Rio sector.
Border Patrol is coordinating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the US Coast Guard to move people from Del Rio to other processing locations, including around 2,000 Friday.
Authorities have been able to move approximately 3,300 individuals over the last two days, Ortiz said Sunday, adding that “our expectation is to have up to 3,000 migrants transferred out from underneath the bridge” within the next 24 hours.
“I will tell you, over the midnight hours, we did not have one crossing in this area, so that is certainly very optimistic and promising that it’s going to get us to a point where we can manage the population that is underneath the bridge at this point,” the border chief said.
When asked to explain why there has been a surge of Haitian migration into the Del Rio sector, Ortiz said, “Haitians and folks from Western Africa traditionally cross in the Del Rio sector area because they have known individuals previously who’ve crossed in this area…traditionally it’s because of word of mouth.”
Lozano — who tweeted earlier Sunday that he had updated Mayorkas on the “dire” situation in the area — said Sunday during a news conference that “word is quickly going to spread that Haitians are being sent back to home country” as repatriation flights pick up.
Many of the Haitians currently at the border are believed to have been living in South America after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, but the toll of the pandemic on the region fueled migration to the US southern border. Haiti is also still reeling from an earthquake in August that resulted in more than 2,000 deaths and thousands more injuries, as well as the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July. For those reasons, more than 50 Democratic lawmakers urged the Biden administration in a letter last week to halt deportations to the country.
Mayorkas said the US government has “studied the conditions in Haiti” and referenced his May announcement that the US would issue temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitians who have resided in the country as of July 29, which was before the recent earthquake. “We are very mindful of the devastation that occurred as a result of the earthquake,” Mayorkas told CNN. He said his agency is working with the Haitian government and Department of State on the repatriation effort.
He continued: “We made it very, very clear that people arriving after (July 29) would in fact be repatriated. That is indeed what we are doing.”
Images from the Del Rio area show crowds of migrants at the camp while others wade across the Rio Grande near the bridge. Some carried young children across the knee-length water; others hauled their belongings in plastic bags or gallons of water. Tents fashioned from blankets and pieces of wood were erected. Clothes were laid out on the ground to dry under a searing sun.
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CNN’s Rosa Flores, Priscilla Alvarez, Ray Sanchez and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.