By URIEL J. GARCÍA and JOLIE MCCULLOUGH
The Texas Tribune
DEL RIO – As immigration agents continue to fly more of the thousands of migrants camped in this border city to other processing centers or back to their home countries, state troopers have created a miles-long “steel wall” of patrol vehicles to discourage more people from crossing the Rio Grande into an encampment under the Del Rio international bridge.
As many as 15,000 migrants, many of them Haitian, have crossed the river seeking asylum in recent days, but on Tuesday morning that number had shrunk to an estimated 6,200 camping under the bridge, according to Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez.
It’s unclear how officials are deciding which migrants are being allowed to request asylum and which are being flown back to their countries of origin, but at a charter bus stop at a gas station here, many of the migrants who were let into the country while their asylum claims are pending were families with small children and pregnant women.
Many of them held yellow numbered tickets and said Border Patrol agents classified them by colored tickets – yellow for groups including pregnant women, blue for families with children, and red and green for single men and women.
“Probably those with children are going to be given a notice to appear [in immigration court], and then the others … I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Martinez said.
At the river, Martinez said, there are 700 state troopers patrolling near the migrant encampment and around the city as immigration agents work to move the migrants from beneath the bridge. Some are being sent to other immigrant processing centers in El Paso, Laredo and Weslaco, Martinez said.
The World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that provides food to people usually after natural disasters, has started to prepare food for the remaining migrants.
On Sunday, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul L. Ortiz, a native of Del Rio, said there were no more migrants crossing the river into the camp. A Border Patrol spokesperson didn’t respond to an email asking if more crossings have occurred since then. Martinez said the numbers have dwindled, but about 50 families or individuals were given tickets Tuesday night.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott credited the “steel wall” of Department of Public Safety vehicles with stopping the migrants.
“One day there were countless coming across the border, then that very same day the Texas Department of Public Safety put up all these DPS vehicles,” Abbott said during a news conference near the encampment Tuesday. “And suddenly, in an instant, people stopped crossing the border in this location. That strategy is working.”
Abbott has made immigration enforcement a priority for his administration, pushing an agenda that includes building more barriers along the Texas-Mexico border, arresting and prosecuting migrants crossing the Rio Grande on state charges, and suing the Biden administration for what the governor has described as President Joe Biden’s open-border policies.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has faced increasing criticism from his own party for continuing to expel many migrants under Title 42, the pandemic health order issued under the Trump administration to rapidly expel migrants to Mexico or their home countries without the opportunity to ask for asylum.
Immigrant rights advocates and lawmakers also have criticized Biden for how Border Patrol agents have treated the migrants after photos and video showed agents on horseback charging and herding migrants attempting to cross the Rio Grande into Del Rio.
On Tuesday, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas tweeted that his agency, which oversees Border Patrol, will investigate the agents’ actions and that the agents involved have been put on administrative duty.
“They are not executing their other law enforcement duties and they are not to be interacting with other migrants at this time during the pendency of the investigation,” Mayorkas said in the tweet.
Organizers with Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego that is helping the migrants in Del Rio with clothes, food and shelter, criticized the government for what they call inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers.
“The Biden Administration must end this violence and fix the broken immigration system, which they committed to during the campaign,” the group said in a statement.
Haiti was hit by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August, a month after its president was assassinated – the latest tragedies for a country battered by political instability and turmoil. Many of the migrants in Del Rio had lived in Chile for years after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, then recently made the trek to Texas.
Many of them said they left Chile because of racist treatment they faced in the South American country and because the pandemic shuttered many jobs.