Washington (AFP) -
The last, mostly Haitian migrants who camped illegally under a Texas bridge, sparking a major border crisis for President Joe Biden's administration, have left or been removed, a top official said Friday.
'As of this morning, there are no longer any migrants at the camp underneath the Del Rio bridge,' Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters at the White House.
Around 2,000 were flown to Haiti on 17 expulsion flights, Mayorkas said, while 'others have been moved to processing facilities along the border.'
'Many of them will be returned to Haiti from there,' he said.
The Homeland Security chief said an estimated 8,000 had voluntarily returned across the border to Mexico.
Some 12,400 individuals will have their cases heard by an immigration judge to determine whether they will be removed or permitted to remain in the United States, he said.
Another 5,000 are being processed by Homeland Security to determine if they will be subject to removal proceedings.
The top Biden administration official was speaking after an uproar over photos that showed confrontations between border patrol officers on horseback and Haitian migrants on foot.
In his first comments on the disturbing images, Biden said it was 'outrageous' and promised 'consequences.'
'It was horrible... to see people treated like they did: horses nearly running them over and people being strapped,' Biden said. 'It's outrageous. I promise you, those people will pay.
He added: 'An investigation is underway now, and there will be consequences.'
Mayorkas acknowledged the 'horror' that many had felt on seeing the pictures, and said an investigation would determine exactly what happened.
He said agents often rode horses in the rough terrain and that this 'has actually saved lives many times before.'
- Biden in a bind -
Biden took office in January vowing to reverse what he called his Republican predecessor Donald Trump's inhumane policies at the southern border.
Trump, who regularly warned that US borders were being overwhelmed and claimed falsely that immigrants were bringing large scale crime and disease, focused much of his presidency on promises to control the frontiers.
One of Trump's signature issues was building a wall along the Mexican border and repairing existing sections.
The policy was hugely popular with his core supporters, whom he encouraged to chant 'build the wall' at mass rallies.
Biden finds himself in a bind eight months into his presidency, with huge numbers of would-be migrants being apprehended after crossing illegally from Mexico, including 200,000 people in August.
Democrats accuse Biden of reneging on his promises, pointing to his decision to retain tough deportation rules, something the White House says is required due to Covid-19 restrictions.
At the same time, Biden is hammered daily by Republicans and the Fox News network which portrays the southern border as out of control and the White House as surrendering American security.
That conflict came into dramatic focus this month when the border guards on horseback were photographed trying to block Haitian immigrants crossing on foot from Mexico after arduous journeys.
- Disturbing images -
Showing officers wielding long leather reins and dressed in some cases in clothing reminiscent of Westerns, the photos for many evoked distressing images of vigilante justice or even the US slavery era.
At the same time, border facilities were clearly overwhelmed with the sudden appearance of thousands of desperate Haitians, who had traveled through much of Latin America to reach the United States, then camped en masse under a Texas bridge.
Faced with a simultaneous security and humanitarian crisis, the Biden administration allowed some of the more vulnerable migrants to register and enter the United States.
However, many of the Haitians were ordered to be flown immediately back to Haiti, the country they'd fled in some cases years earlier.
The US special envoy to Haiti resigned in protest Thursday, citing the 'inhumane, counterproductive decision.'
Stung by criticisms on the left that he is perpetuating Trump's policies, Biden on Friday said he was embarrassed by the scenes of horse-mounted border agents and Haitian migrants.
'It's an embarrassment,' Biden said. 'But beyond an embarrassment, it's dangerous; it's wrong. It sends the wrong message around the world. It sends the wrong message at home. It's simply not who we are.'