As the Biden administration continues to deport Haitian migrants from underneath a bridge in Texas back to Haiti, it has also quietly released some, White House and DHS officials acknowledged Wednesday.
Precise numbers were not immediately made available from the administration. But reporters have counted dozens of migrants, many of them pregnant women and traveling as part of a family, dropped off at a local shelter in Del Rio, Texas, and at a Greyhound bus stop after being processed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Not even sure of where they are, the migrants struggle to reach relatives in Florida, New York and elsewhere who must then either purchase a bus or airline ticket.
The migrants have all received a Notice to Appear either before an immigration judge or at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility. In some cases, they are getting a GPS tracking device — either a telephone or ankle bracelet — so that U.S. authorities can track them.
“Individuals who are not immediately repatriated are either placed in alternatives to detention, detained in an ICE facility, or released with a legal document,” a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said. “The document an individual receives is dependent on facility space and resources available to process.”
On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security conducted two repatriation flights from Del Rio to Port-au-Prince, and one repatriation flight from Del Rio to Cap-Haitien with a total of 318 Haitian nationals on board, DHS said.
Since Sunday, 12 repatriation flights have left the United States and 1,401 Haitian nationals have been returned to Haiti, DHS said.
Another 3,206 Haitian nationals have been moved from the Del Rio camp to U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody or to other sectors of the U.S. border to either be expelled or placed in removal proceedings. There are fewer than 5,000 migrants in the Del Rio sector, the agency added, while declining to say how many have been either paroled or released into the care of family.
For days, DHS officials had refused to acknowledge that not all of the Haitian migrants who had illegally crossed into Texas from Mexico and set up makeshift camps underneath an international bridge were being deported to Haiti or third countries. Even as reporters in Del Rio observed migrants being dropped off elsewhere, DHS would not confirm the releases.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had taken a hard line, warning migrants that anyone attempting to make an irregular crossing into the United States would be repatriated to Haiti. On Tuesday, he told a Senate panel that “we are increasing the frequency and number of the repatriation flights each day.”
The mixed messaging reflects growing tensions between the White House and DHS over the handling of the Del Rio crisis, which has gripped the nation since photos and video footage emerged over the weekend of border patrol agents on horseback wielding what appeared to be ropes or reins while chasing migrants.
The footage shocked some members of the administration, while the first reaction among DHS leadership was to mount a defense of the border officers, who have since been placed on administrative leave.
In interviews, released migrants in Del Rio said they were not told why they were being released, while others, including family members in similar circumstances, were sent back to Haiti.
It’s God’s will, they all said.
Among those released are a number of pregnant women, including one who gave birth to a baby boy on Thursday underneath the Del Rio International Bridge. The father, Eliens Delice, said in a Facebook Live feed that after his son was born, agents came to get him from underneath the bridge and later put a tracking device around his ankle.
As he and his family made their way by bus Wednesday to San Antonio, and eventually to Orlando, his cousin Carlos Pierre, 43, told the Miami Herald/McClatchy that he was grateful they were not among those repatriated.
“The conditions are not good,” said Pierre, who left Haiti in 1994.
Pierre said he knew of six other family members who had attempted the journey across the U.S.-Mexico border, only to end up under the Del Rio bridge. Other than Delice and his family, he didn’t know if the others would be allowed in.
“I hope God will create a way for them,” he said, adding that he has warned relatives in Costa Rica not to come to the United States right now because they could be deported.
Migrants underneath the bridge face three possible outcomes: Deportation under the public health law known as Title 42, which doesn’t allow most Haitian asylum-seekers to seek protection in the United States; release, or transfer to another detention facility.
The releases offer no guarantee that the Haitian migrants will be allowed to remain in the U.S., and only those paroled into the country will be able to get work authorization.
“That’s why it’s so frustrating for us because frequently in their packet, we don’t know what the mechanism of release was,” said Randy McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services, which is working with the Haitian Lawyers Association to provide representation to some of the migrants.
“What is the process? Who knows?” he said, adding that how long migrants have to await their fate depends on how soon a notice is filed with an immigration court.
The quiet releases of some Haitian migrants come as others continue to be repatriated, despite calls from Haitian and immigration rights groups to stop the deportations. Six repatriation flights are expected on Thursday, Haiti National Migration chief Jean Négot Bonheur Delva said, five in Port-au-Prince and one at the international airport in Cap-Haitien.
As word of the deportations made their way through the camp under the Del Rio bridge, the numbers began to dwindle. Mayorkas told senators that there were fewer than 6,000 migrants, compared to close to 15,000 at the peak last week.
At a park in Ciudad Acuña, across the border in Mexico, some Haitians said they had decided to leave the Del Rio camp after hearing about the deportations. But they didn’t necessarily feel much safer in Mexico. Judith Pierre, 35, who had made it to the U.S. side, said she left on Tuesday because she heard in the camp that those without families would be deported.
On Tuesday night, she and other Haitian migrants spent the night preparing to run because word circulated that Mexican authorities would also deport them.
Photojournalists tracking Haitian migrants in Ciudad Acuña have reported seeing Mexican National Guard troops on the streets picking up the migrants and putting them into vans. An aid worker also said that he knew of at least one planeload of migrants who were flown out from the nearby city of Piedras Negras, but it was unclear where they were headed or if they would be deported.
Neither Mexican immigration officials nor the local government in Ciudad Acuña responded to the Miami Herald/McClatchy Washington Bureau’s requests for comment.
The raids by Mexican authorities have raised fears among undocumented Haitians along the border. Haiti’s ambassador to Mexico, Hugues Monplaisir Féquière, said Mexican immigration authorities have said they will allow Haitians to apply for political asylum in the country. But the chances of getting political asylum in Mexico are slim, with eight out of 10 Haitian applicants rejected.
“Those people who do not qualify will be facing deportation,” he said.
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Syra Ortiz-Blanes contributed to this report.