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The Biden administration was on Saturday preparing to send thousands of Haitian immigrants who have gathered under a bridge in a Texas border city back to their Caribbean homeland.
Around 12,000 mostly Haitian migrants have amassed near the Del Rio Port of Entry in a temporary camp which is said to have ballooned after President Joe Biden paused deportation flights back to Haiti.
In an apparent about-turn on Saturday, the administration looked set to begin sending planeloads of migrants back to Haiti, in a deportation blitz aimed at discouraging more border-crossers.
Ted Cruz, Republican senator from Texas, blamed the pause for the dramatic surge in people arriving at the camp, which he said had grown in just over a week from 700 to 10,503 on Thursday.
Haitians have been crossing the Rio Grande freely and in a steady stream, going back and forth between the US and Mexico through knee-deep water.
At the makeshift encampment at the Del Rio International Bridge, rubbish piles were 10 feet wide, and at least two women had given birth, including one who tested positive for Covid-19 after being taken to a hospital, according to Val Verde County Judge Lewis Owens, who is the county's top elected official and whose jurisdiction includes Del Rio.
The crossings come at a time when the Caribbean nation is being ravaged by political and economic turmoil and hammered by natural disasters.
Immigrant advocates have been calling on Mr Biden to suspend all deportation flights to Haiti following the assassination of the country’s president in July and a powerful quake last month that killed at least 2,000.
The Biden administration has extended a form of provisional residency known as temporary protected status to eligible Haitians who arrived in the US before May, and it had curbed deportation flights at the behest of immigrant advocacy organisations.
One official said Friday that operational capacity and Haiti's willingness would determine the number of flights, but that "good progress" was being made.
Another insisted that the flights were not a targeted measure aimed at Haitians, but the application of US immigration laws allowing the government to swiftly return border-crossers who arrive illegally.
“This isn’t about any one country or country of origin,” they told the Washington Post. “This is about enforcing border restrictions on those who continue to enter the country illegally and put their lives and the lives of the federal workforce at risk.”