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A little girl holds her stuffed animal high above the water as migrants, many from Haiti, wade across the Rio Grande river from Del Rio, Texas, to return to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, on Sept. 20, to avoid deportation.Felix Marquez/The Associated Press

Sophia Mora and Andrew Klinck sat in the back of a pickup truck driving alongside the Rio Grande Monday, handing out bottles of Gatorade to troops in 39-degree heat and revelling in the response to the most acute border crisis to confront the Joe Biden administration. Helicopters chattered overhead. Men in fatigues stood guard with assault rifles. Fleets of Humvees rumbled behind the tall border fence. And aircraft lifted off from the local airport, taking thousands of people back to the countries they had fled at great cost, many to disaster-stricken Haiti.

“They should not be allowed in our country,” said Ms. Mora, 15, who lives in a tony neighbourhood near the river. She recalled being frightened by a man in underwear banging on the door of her home two months ago.

“They don’t know the laws; they don’t know our way of life, our culture,” added Mr. Klinck, 16. “It is sad that they’re getting flown back. But what can you do right now? They can’t just let 20,000 people in, because there’s chaos.”

Not far from where they stood, thousands of people who waded and swam across the Rio Grande continued to seek shade from the relentless sun beneath the Del Rio International Bridge.

U.S. closes part of Texas border, begins flying Haitian refugees home

On Saturday, officials had counted 14,650 people gathered by the bridge. But their numbers are diminishing rapidly. On Sunday, authorities airlifted out 2,500 people, and pledged to remove a further 3,000 Monday.

Most are being removed under an epidemic provision, known as Title 42, first used by the Donald Trump administration to expel migrants on public-health grounds. Mr. Biden campaigned on promises of more humane treatment of people who enter the U.S. outside regular channels.

But his administration has defended the use of Title 42 in court, and authorities are taking more people into custody at the southern border than at any point in the past two decades. On Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas came to Del Rio and pledged little tolerance for those amassed nearby.

“Our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey,” he said, adding: “If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed.”

Authorities barred journalists from independently travelling to the bridge where migrants have congregated. But throughout the day, buses emerged from a nearby border fence in great clouds of dust, the silhouettes of those being taken away visible in the windows.

Among the migrants in Del Rio are at least two babies born on U.S. soil, said Matthew Mayberry, lead pastor at City Church Del Rio, which has brought more than 12,000 sandwiches to migrants in recent weeks – some donated from churches nearly 250 kilometres away.

On Monday, the State Department said it wants to nearly double its allowance for refugees next year, to 125,000. That’s up from 15,000 a year under Mr. Trump.

But refugees are different from the asylum-seekers in Del Rio, and Mr. Biden’s policies have earned criticism from those who expected something different.

“My new nickname for him is the betrayer-in-chief,” said Sarah Towle, an author and podcaster who is on the leadership team of Witness at the Border, an immigration advocacy group.

“I cannot think of anything more shameful than the richest country in the world taking people in need – who pose no threat to our security – and sending them back to one of the poorest, most corrupt, most fraught countries in our hemisphere.”

Del Rio, a small agricultural centre of 36,000, has become the newest point of focus in the country’s decades-old debates over immigration.

Even those who have devoted their lives to helping migrants in the city have found themselves torn about the arrival of so many people so suddenly. While illegal migrants have rushed into the U.S., those waiting on legal channels have been blocked from crossing the border since last year, said Tim Ehlers, director of Faith Mission International, a group founded in 1962 that today provides rice and beans to 1,000 people waiting across the border in Ciudad Acuña for legal entry to the U.S.

Four months ago, Mr. Ehlers travelled to Mexico to speak with people seeking to cross into the U.S. “Each woman had been sexually assaulted,” he said. One mother wept as she showed a picture of a son who had been killed along the way. Meanwhile, smugglers maintain their lucrative trade.

However, for Rev. Mayberry, “it’s really hard to know that there are people who have been travelling for years. They gave up everything in their country to make it this far. And they’re sent right back to where they originated. That’s a hard thing to comprehend.”

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