Migrants cross the Rio Grande between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña to bring supplies back to a temporary migrant camp under the international bridge in Del Rio on Sept. 17, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for the Texas Tribune

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DEL RIO — Federal agents said Sunday that they have begun to draw down the population of the thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, who were stuck seeking shelter under a bridge in this small border community as authorities sought to process their asylum claims.

Agents moved 3,300 of the migrants as of Sunday. That left more than 12,000 people still waiting to be processed, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said at a news conference.

In the past week, thousands of people from the Caribbean and South America, arrived at the Del Rio bridge seeking asylum. Many of them have slept under the bridge and, if they had enough money, were forced to walk through the knee-high Rio Grande water back to the Mexican town of Ciudad Acuña to buy food, water and hygiene supplies.

Ortiz said that as of Sunday no new migrants have crossed the river to the bridge, which is on the Texas side of the river. Federal officials had said the port of entry didn’t have enough manpower to be able to process thousands of migrants, which is why many have camped out under the bridge. When the migrants arrive, Border Patrol agents give a numbered ticket and wait for their number to be called

“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. It’s going to get us to a point where we can manage the population that is underneath the bridge at this point,” Ortiz said.

He said that the Department of Homeland Security started repatriation flights to Haiti on Sunday and other countries of origin under Title 42, the pandemic health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year to rapidly expel migrants to Mexico or their home countries without the opportunity to ask for asylum.

A federal judge last week blocked the Biden administration from using Title 42 to expel migrant families but stayed the order for 14 days. The Biden administration appealed that ruling Friday.

Ortiz also sent a message to people who plan to migrate, saying officials will not let them into the United States.

“They will be removed and they will be sent back to their country of origin as mandated under our current law,” he said.

Many of the migrants left the country escaping natural disasters, corruption, poverty and violence, seeking refuge in the U.S.

Haiti was hit by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August shortly after its president was assassinated in July, the latest episode in years of political instability and turmoil. The Biden administration extended a type of provisional residency known as temporary protected status to Haitians and briefly stopped their deportation flights, but that was only for Haitians who arrived before July.

The migrants who were allowed to enter the U.S. are dropped off in unmarked buses or Border Patrol vans at the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition respite center, just two miles north of the international bridge. There volunteers help the migrants get in touch with families already in the U.S. From there, the migrants get a taxi to the airport or to a Stripes gas station where a charter bus takes them to San Antonio.

At the gas station Sunday morning, about a dozen migrants from Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela, had just missed one of the two daily charter buses that pick people up. They all sat on the concrete floor and some gas-station patrons bought them Gatorade drinks and food. Another man passed small copies of the New Testament.

Melvin Asuaje, a 31-year-old man from Venezuela who had accepted one of the Bibles, said he has HIV, the virus that causes aids. He said he left his country with his two younger brothers because there was a shortage of medicine to treat his illness. He said he had been separated from one of his brothers by an immigration agent. That brother eventually made it to South Carolina where they have a cousin, Asuaje said.

He said his trek from Venezuela to the U.S. was not as dangerous as other migrants have experienced.

“We’re happy we’re here, it was a big sacrifice but it was worth it,” he said.

Osmay, a 33-year-old Cuban migrant, had left his country and illegally immigrated to Panama with his wife and lived there for eight months. In Panama he would do different jobs and at times he worked 12 hours a day for $20, he said.

“That should be criminal,” he said.

He wanted to be identified only by his first name because he worried he and his pregnant wife, Belinda, would be deported if he spoke openly about his case. They left Panama a month ago and said they spent two nights under the bridge.

Belinda said some of the agents were kind and supportive and others were rude and dismissive. She said a woman with a baby asked an agent for a diaper and the agent threw the diaper at her.

“It’s going camping but without any of the gear,” Osmay said of the conditions under the bridge. “We smell so bad, I don’t know how anybody can be near us.”

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