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DEL RIO, Texas (AP) – More than 6,000 Haitians and other migrants have been pulled from an encampment in a Texas border town, US officials said on Monday as they defended a firm response that included immediate deportation migrants to their impoverished Caribbean country and the use of patrolling horses to prevent them from entering the city.

Calling it a “difficult and heartbreaking situation,” Department of Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a stern warning: “If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your trip will not be successful and you will endanger your life and that of your family.

Mayorkas and border patrol chief Raul Ortiz said they would investigate agents on horseback using what appeared to be whips and their horses to repel migrants on the river between Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and Del Rio, in Texas, where thousands of migrants remain encamped around a bridge.

Both officials said they apparently saw nothing wrong based on the widely viewed photos and video. Mayorkas said officers used long reins, not whips, to control their horses. Ortiz, the former head of the Del Rio area, said it can be confusing to distinguish between migrants and smugglers when people are moving near the river. The chief said he would investigate to make sure there were no “unacceptable” actions from the officers.

Mayorkas said 600 homeland security workers, including the coast guard, were brought to Del Rio, a town of about 35,000 residents about 230 kilometers west of San Antonio. He said he asked the Department of Defense for help with what may be one of the fastest, largest-scale deportations of migrants and refugees from the United States in decades.

He also said the United States would increase the pace and capacity of flights to Haiti and other countries in the hemisphere. The number of migrants on the bridge peaked at 14,872 on Saturday, said Brandon Judd, chairman of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents officers.

“We are achieving our goals; we get there and get to a point where we can manage the population here, ”said Ortiz, who blamed the outbreak on smugglers who spread disinformation. “We are already seeing a rapidly declining (population) and will continue to see this over the next few days.”

Mexico also announced that it would deport Haitian migrants and began transporting them by bus from Ciudad Acuña on Sunday evening, according to Luis Angel Urraza, president of the local chamber of commerce. He said he saw the first two buses leave from outside his restaurant with around 90 people on board.

“There is no more room for them in the city; we can no longer help them, ”he said.

Mexico’s immigration agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a federal official told The Associated Press on Sunday that the plan was to take the migrants to Monterrey, in northern Mexico, and Tapachula, in the south, with flights to Haiti from those towns to start in the next days.

The swift deportations were made possible by a pandemic-related authority adopted by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 that allows migrants to be immediately expelled from the country without the ability to seek asylum. President Joe Biden exempted unaccompanied children from the order but left the rest in place.

Any Haitian not deported is subject to immigration laws, which include the right to seek asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection. Families are quickly released in the United States as the government generally cannot detain children.

More than 320 migrants arrived in Port-au-Prince on three flights on Sunday, and Haiti said six flights were expected on Tuesday. The United States plans to start seven deportation flights a day on Wednesday, four to Port-au-Prince and three to Cap-Haitien, according to a US official who has not been authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Flights will continue to depart from San Antonio, but authorities could add El Paso, the official said.

The only obvious parallel for such a deportation without the possibility of seeking asylum was in 1992 when the coast guard intercepted Haitian refugees at sea, said Yael Schacher, senior United States lawyer at Refugees International, whose studies of doctoral studies focused on the history of American asylum law.

Likewise, large numbers of Mexicans were sent home during the peak years of immigration, but overland and not so suddenly.

Central Americans have also crossed the border in comparable numbers without facing mass deportations, although Mexico has agreed to accept them from the United States under pandemic-related authority in effect since March 2020. The Mexico does not accept expelled Haitians or people of other nationalities abroad. from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

In Mexico, local authorities in border municipalities have requested assistance from state and federal authorities. Claudio Bres, the mayor of Piedras Negras, about 100 kilometers southeast of Ciudad Acuña, told local media that the official deal was to turn back all buses carrying migrants to prevent them from reaching the border. He said that last weekend around 70 buses passed through his town.

Haitians have migrated to the United States in large numbers from South America for several years, many having left their Caribbean countries after a devastating earthquake in 2010. After jobs have dried up since the Olympic Games d he summer of 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, many made the dangerous journey by foot, bus and car to the US border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.

Some migrants from Del Rio camp said the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse made them fearful of returning to a country that seemed more unstable than when they left.

“In Haiti, there is no security,” said Fabricio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian who arrived in Texas with his wife and two daughters. “The country is in a political crisis.

Six flights were scheduled in Haiti on Tuesday – three to Port-au-Prince and three to the northern city of Cap-Haitien, said Jean Négot Bonheur Delva, Haiti’s director of migration.

Some migrants said they plan to leave Haiti again as soon as possible. Valeria Ternission, 29, said she and her husband wanted to travel with their 4-year-old son to Chile, where she worked as a cashier in a bakery.

“I am really worried, especially for the child,” she said. “I can’t do anything here.”

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Lozano reported from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, Sanon from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Spagat from San Diego. Associated Press editors Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Maria Verza in Mexico City also contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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