Haitians reportedly being released in US likely include pregnant women and families

Haitian people have been freed on a ‘very, very large scale’ in recent days rather than deported, according to US officials

Three hours after being freed from a giant migrant camp under an international bridge, Mackenson Veillard stood outside a gas station and took stock of his sudden good fortune as he and his pregnant wife waited for a Greyhound bus to take them to a cousin in San Antonio.

The couple camped with thousands for a week under the bridge in Del Rio, Texas, sleeping on concrete and getting by on bread and bottled water.

“I felt so stressed,” Veillard, 25, said this week. “But now, I feel better. It’s like I’m starting a new life.”

Many Haitian migrants in Del Rio are being released in the United States, according to two US officials, undercutting the Biden administration’s public statements that the thousands in the camp faced immediate expulsion to Haiti.

Haitians have been freed on a “very, very large scale” in recent days, one official said on Tuesday. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and thus spoke on condition of anonymity, put the figure in the thousands.

Many have been released with notices to appear at an immigration office within 60 days, an outcome that requires less processing time from border patrol agents than ordering an appearance in immigration court and points to the speed at which authorities are moving.

The releases come despite a huge effort to expel Haitians on flights under pandemic-related authority that denies migrants a chance to seek asylum. A third US official not authorized to discuss operations said there were seven daily flights to Haiti planned starting Wednesday.

Ten flights arrived in Haiti from Sunday to Tuesday in planes designed for 135 passengers, according to Haitian officials, who did not provide a complete count but said six of those flights carried 713 migrants combined.

The camp held more than 14,000 people over the weekend, according to some estimates. Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, said during a visit on Tuesday to Del Rio that the county’s top official told him the most recent tally was about 8,600 migrants. US authorities have declined to say how many have been released in the US in recent days.

The Department of Homeland Security has been bussing Haitians from Del Rio, a town of 35,000 people, to El Paso, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border, and this week added flights to Tucson, Arizona, the official said. They are processed by the border patrol at those locations.

If previous handling of asylum-seekers is any guide, the administration is more likely to release those deemed vulnerable, including pregnant women, families with young children and those with medical issues.

The Biden administration exempts unaccompanied children from expulsion flights on humanitarian grounds.

The system is a “black box”, said Wade McMullen, an attorney with Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, who was in Del Rio. “Right now, we have no official access to understand what processes are under way, what protections are being provided for the migrants.”

On Wednesday, more than 300 migrants had been dropped off in border patrol vans by early afternoon at a welcome center staffed by the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition. They waited for buses to Houston, a springboard to final destinations in the US. Many were required to wear ankle monitors, used to ensure they obey instructions to report to immigration authorities.

Rabbiatu Yunusah, 34, waited with her three-year-old daughter Laila, was headed to settle with an uncle in Huntsville, Alabama. She felt “very happy to be in this country, to be free”.

Jimy Fenelon, 25, and his partner, Elyrose Prophete, who is eight months pregnant, left the camp on Tuesday and were headed to Florida to stay with an uncle.

“Everyone has their luck. Some didn’t have luck to get here,” Fenelon said.

Accounts of wide-scale releases – some observed in Del Rio by Associated Press journalists – are at odds with statements on Monday by Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, who traveled to Del Rio to promise swift action.

“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned, your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family’s life,” he said at a news conference.

The department, asked to comment on releases in the United States, said on Wednesday that migrants who are not immediately expelled to Haiti may be detained or released with a notice to appear in immigration court or report to an immigration office, depending on available custody space.

“The Biden administration has reiterated that our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey,” the department said in a statement.

The White House is facing sharp bipartisan condemnation. Republicans say Biden administration policies led Haitians to believe they would get asylum. Democrats are expressing outrage after images went viral this week of border patrol agents on horseback using aggressive tactics against the migrants.

Ambassador Daniel Foote, the special envoy to Haiti has reportedly resigned over the deportations, according to PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor, calling them “inhumane” and the policy approach “deeply flawed”.

SCOOP: Special Envoy for Haiti, Amb Daniel Foote, a career member of foreign service, has RESIGNED. In his letter of resignation, he says he will not be associated with the U.S.'s "inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees." Letter attached. pic.twitter.com/KlW5GoTF3u

— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) September 23, 2021

Immigrants have described a screening process at the camp where people were given colored tickets for four categories: single men, single women, pregnant women, and families with young children, McMullen said. The vast majority of immigrants he and other advocates have interviewed and who have been released into the US have been families with young children and pregnant women.

Guardian staff and agencies

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