DEL RIO, Texas -- The United States acted Sunday to stem the flow of migrants into Texas by blocking the Mexican border at an isolated town where thousands of Haitian refugees set up a camp, and American officials began flying some of the migrants back to their homeland.
About a dozen Texas Department of Public Safety vehicles lined up near the bridge and river where Haitians have been crossing from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, into Del Rio, Texas, for almost three weeks. Yellow police tape was being used to block them from using a small dam to walk into the U.S.
The migrants initially found other ways to cross nearby until they were confronted by federal and state law enforcement.
A Mexican police officer on the Mexican side of the border said migrants will not be allowed to cross anymore. He would not give his name. But an Associated Press reporter saw Haitian immigrants still crossing the river into the U.S. about 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) east of the previous spot. They were later stopped by Border Patrol agents on horseback and Texas law enforcement officials.
As they crossed, some Haitians carried boxes on their heads filled with food. Some removed their pants before getting into the river and carried them. Others were concerned about getting wet.
"Get out of the water," agents yelled at the migrants who were crossing in the waist-deep river. The several hundred who had successfully crossed and were sitting along the river bank on the U.S. side were ordered to the Del Rio camp. "Go now," agents yelled.
Migrant Charlie Jean had crossed back into Ciudad Acuña from the camps 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.
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.
Border Patrol Chief Raul L. Ortiz said Sunday that 3,300 migrants have already been removed from the Del Rio camp to planes or detention centers, and he expects to have 3,000 of the approximately 12,600 remaining migrants to be moved within a day. The rest should be gone within the week, he said. The first three planes left San Antonio for Port-au-Prince on Sunday, with the first arriving in the afternoon.
"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 bridge.
The blockade and deportations marked a swift response to the sudden arrival of Haitians in Del Rio, a Texas city of about 35,000 people roughly 145 miles (230 kilometers) west of San Antonio. It sits on a relatively remote stretch of border that lacks capacity to hold and process such large numbers of people.
At the Port-au-Prince airport, families arriving on the first plane held children by the hand or carried them as they exited, and some deportees covered their heads as they walked into a large bus parked next to the plane.
About a dozen officials from various Haitian government agencies gathered to meet with the deported Haitians. Public security officials with the Ministry of Justice requested the presence of Haiti's national 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.
All the deportees have been tested for COVID-19, and authorities are not planning to put them into quarantine, said Marie-Lourde Jean-Charles with the Office of National Migration.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry wrote Sunday on Twitter that he is 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 tweeted. Henry did not provide details about the measures. A Haitian government spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.
But 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," Election Minister Mathias Pierre said, adding that most Haitians can't satisfy basic needs. "The prime minister should negotiate with the U.S. government to stop those deportations in this moment of crises."
Some of the migrants at the Del Rio camp said the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Mose make them afraid to return to a country that seems more unstable than when they left.
"In Haiti, there is no security," said Fabricio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian who arrived in Texas with his wife and two daughters. "The country is in a political crisis."
US closes part of Texas border, begins flying Haitians home
Haitians have been migrating to the U.S. from South America for years, many left the Caribbean nation after the 2010 earthquake.