Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday became the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit the remote and beleaguered border town of Del Rio, Texas, where thousands of migrants, mostly Haitians, are living under the international bridge in hopes of claiming asylum.
During a news conference on the Del Rio International Bridge — which remained closed for the fourth day by federal officials — Mayorkas made it clear that migrants need not try. And he warned others to not head north.
“I want to make sure that it is known this is not the way to come to the United States,” Mayorkas said. “Our borders are not open and people should not make the dangerous journey.”
He said that repatriation flights to Haiti are taking off two or three times daily.
Most are leaving from Laughlin Air Force Base, and some from the Del Rio International Airport.
On Monday, 3,000 migrants were sent for processing to other areas, relocated by U.S. Coast Guard and other federal officials. This adds to the 3,500 sent from this region in the last few days, he said.
Mayorkas was flanked by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Troy Miller and U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz, who is from Del Rio, and who landed on the ground Sunday, a day after 15,000 migrants were reportedly in the bridge encampment.
Ortiz said the international bridge between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, will remain closed as long as necessary.
This is despite “thousands of dollars per hour” being lost in the region’s cross-border maquiladora industry, Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano told media Sunday.
“We’re achieving our goals. We’re getting there — to a point where we can manage the population and we’ll see this continue in the upcoming days,” Ortiz said.
But when pressed to quantify what’s really going on, Ortiz admitted the situation under the bridge remains precarious and only halfway under control.
“We have half of the area on lockdown and we’re working getting the other side of the bridge, getting it locked down,” Ortiz said.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, visited the area last week. He criticized Mayorkas’ visit to Del Rio, calling it “yet another photo-op visit today to South Texas in an attempt to save face for President Biden and his administration’s failures.”
Cruz said the influx of thousands of migrants recently admitted into the country by the Biden administration is straining health resources during this coronavirus pandemic, and costing the state billions.
“Get to work securing our southern border,” Cruz said.
Many of the migrants have crossed in ankle-deep water in a dam just upriver from the bridge.
A total of 600 Border Patrol agents and CBP officers have been sent to the area. They join 1,000 state troopers and National Guard members sent last week by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Some are coming from as far west as El Paso.
And with so many people descending on this town of just 35,000, there isn’t a hotel room for miles, nor are there enough workers to operate the hotels at full capacity, locals tell Border Report. Additionally, many of the hotel workers live across the river and cannot get to their jobs with the bridge closed.
On Monday, Abbott sent President Joe Biden a letter requesting a federal emergency declaration be declared for the entire state of Texas, due to the Del Rio situation, which he wrote is draining state resources.
“This surge poses life-threatening risks to residents of Val Verde County and is quickly overrunning law enforcement and health care and humanitarian resources which were never intended to be used in this capacity,” Abbott wrote in the five-page letter. “The disaster caused from individuals unlawfully crossing the Texas-Mexico border is of such severity that supplementary federal assistance is necessary to lessen the threat of disaster, save lives, and protect property, public health, and safety.”
Border Patrol agents on horse patrol are playing an integral role in riverine security operations, Ortiz said, defending criticisms that some are overly aggressive with the migrants under the bridge.
This is a charge that Mayorkas said Monday would be fully investigated. Late Monday, DHS tweeted: “The footage is extremely troubling and the facts learned from the full investigation, which will be conducted swiftly, will define the appropriate disciplinary actions to be taken.
Mayorkas also stressed Monday that only Haitians who arrived in the United States before July 29 are eligible for Temporary Protected Status under the Biden administration.
Most of the Haitians who are crossing tell media they have been living in South America for several years, and many now speak Spanish.
Mayorkas flatly said they won’t be allowed to stay under Title 42 health orders that are in place on the U.S.-Mexican and Canadian borders to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The travel restrictions were set to expire on Tuesday, but Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said during a news conference on Monday that the essential travel restrictions instituted in March 2020 have been extended for at least another month.
Mayorkas described it as a “whole of government” approach attacking the situation, which includes the Department of Health and Human Services rendering medical assistance, nonprofits providing food and aid, local law enforcement agents helping to patrol, and even the San Antonio Fire Department offering assistance.
“This is a very difficult situation for us. It is extraordinarily challenging. It is very, very heartbreaking,” Mayorkas said.