By Amir Vera, Carma Hassan and Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
With 8,600 migrants remaining under the Del Rio International Bridge, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday officials are using “unprecedented” methods to deter migrants from crossing into the state, including parking Texas National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety vehicles for miles along the border to create a “steel barrier.”
The surge of migrants — many of whom are Haitian — was the result of messages by word of mouth or social media that the border at Del Rio was open, US Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said. Chaotic scenes at the bridge, including law enforcement officers on horseback using aggressive tactics against migrants, have sparked anger in both local and federal officials. Some have even called the makeshift camps under the bridge inhumane.
“What you see underneath the bridge, that is not humane,” said Brandon Judd, National Border Patrol Council president.
Abbott blamed President Joe Biden’s administration for the current situation in Del Rio, saying the federal government is not doing enough to secure the country’s southern border. That, Abbott argued, has led to thousands of migrants camped under the Del Rio International Bridge waiting to get processed by US immigration authorities.
“When you have an administration that is not enforcing the law in this country, when you have an administration that has abandoned any pretense of securing the border and securing our sovereignty, you see the onrush of people like what we saw walking across this dam that is right behind me,” Abbott said at a news conference in Val Verde County.
The Biden administration is still relying on a Trump-era border policy linked to the coronavirus pandemic that allows border authorities to swiftly remove migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border. Over recent days, the administration has ramped up those removals and increased the pace of repatriation flights.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration hopes to clear out the migrant camp under the bridge within the next nine or 10 days.
“We expect to see dramatic results in the next 48 to 96 hours, and we’ll have a far better sense in the next two days,” he told senators during a Senate panel hearing Tuesday.
Thousands of Haitians are in South America waiting to come to US
There’s been an unprecedented flow of migrants, including Haitians, crossing the Colombia-Panama border this year.
“It’s extremely concerning,” Panama’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Erika Mouynes previously told CNN.
There are up to 30,000 Haitians in Colombia who may be seeking to travel north, and Panama expects 80,000 migrants to cross its borders on the way to the US by end of this year. As of early September, more than 70,000 migrants arrived in Panama in 2021, more than 30,000 of whom are from Haiti.
More than 97% of Haitians migrating to the US do not come directly from Haiti, but rather were residents of countries in South America, such as Chile and Brazil, according to the Panamanian government.
Many Haitians camping under the bridge are believed to have been living in South America since the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in their native country. The economic toll of the pandemic on the region further fueled migration to the US southern border.
Haiti is a “dangerous country” now because of the recent presidential assassination and the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that hit the country in August, said Nicole Phillips, the legal director for Haitian Bridge Alliance, an advocacy group for Haitian migrants.
“People still have yet to get drinking water and medical care,” she said. “So what needs to happen is to stop the deportation flights to Haiti effective immediately and instead welcome Haitians to screen them for asylum … so they don’t have to return to where they fled.”
Some of the Haitians who amassed under the Del Rio bridge have already begun returning to Mexico, according to a Homeland Security official who added that fewer arrivals are anticipated as the administration ramps up repatriation flights.
DHS Secretary grilled over situation in Del Rio
Gov. Abbott requested an emergency declaration Monday because of the number of migrants at the bridge. The rush of migrants in Del Rio has also led to the closing of the bridge temporarily, with traffic being rerouted to ensure the uninterrupted flow of trade and travel, said Ortiz, the US Border Patrol chief.
DHS is also relying on other Customs and Border Protection facilities along the border to process migrants from Del Rio. More than 1,000 have been taken to El Paso, with 500 expected per day, according to El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego
“We’re getting some from there because of their inability at this point to handle them,” Samaniego said. “They need a lot of help from us and El Paso is always ready to help out.”
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said Gov. Abbott has made it clear that “Texas doesn’t need anybody’s permission to protect Texas.”
McCraw said securing the border is imperative because it poses a public safety threat, a homeland security threat and it allows cartels to “exploit” gaps leading to an increase in human trafficking and issues with drugs.
“Today we reached the all-time high in Texas and that’s 1.1 million apprehensions not including what you see over here,” McCraw said, referring to the Del Rio bridge.
Abbot said Border Patrol officers are “overwhelmed with the amount of work they’re required to do and they’re suffering the consequences of an administration that is not providing them either the personnel or the resources they need.”
The crisis at the border has raised many questions in Washington about DHS’s response. US Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri grilled DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about the Del Rio crisis during a Senate panel hearing Tuesday.
“Are you happy with your progress?” Hawley asked Mayorkas.
“Senator, we need to do better and we need to do more, and we are committed to doing so, and we are doing so,” Mayorkas said, adding that the increase of migrants, primarily from Haiti, was “unprecedented.”
Hawley said the current situation took place under Mayorkas’ watch and the humanitarian conditions should not be minimized.
“Frankly, you’re responsible, you and your administration are responsible,” Hawley told Mayorkas. “Tens of thousands of people living in conditions that are startling, startling, brought here because of your policies.”
Mayorkas also addressed the images of Border Patrol agents aggressively confronting migrants Tuesday, saying in addition to launching an internal investigation, DHS alerted the inspector general of the incident.
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CNN’s Brad Parks, Rosa Flores and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.