From February 1 to 26, 2021 the Biden administration removed 981 people to Haiti, including at least 270 children. In all of FY2020 (Oct 2019-Sept 2020), the Trump administration removed 895 people to Haiti through ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations. Trump did expel an additional 700 Haitians at the beginning of FY 2021, yet even then, the pace of removals was not as high as we are seeing now.
What is going on? The short answer is that the Biden administration is continuing to enforce an order by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that shuts off asylum processing at the border. The CDC order was issued in March of 2020, and has provided the justification for the Department of Homeland Security denying people access to asylum processing or other relief. Claiming authority under “Title 42” of the U.S. code, the CDC order directs border agents to expel people as quickly as possible to the last country of transit, or, if that is not possible, to take people into custody briefly until they can be expelled to their home (or third) country. Under this order, 460,000 people have been expelled since March 20, 2020 (as of January 31, 2021).
For people from Haiti, immediate removal to Mexico is not supposed to occur - though it has. Which means most Title 42 removals to Haiti are done by plane. We do not know how many Haitians the Trump administration summarily expelled to Mexico, nor do we know how many have been expelled this way since Biden took office. But we do know it happens - on February 3, for example, 76 Haitians (in additions to number above) were expelled by Border Patrol into Ciudad Juarez, most without papers and their belongings, all wearing the sandals they were issued at a U.S. Border Patrol detention facility prior to their expulsion.
There are many layers to this. One is that Haitians have always been treated poorly by immigration authorities in the United States. The determination of the Reagan administration to detain asylum seekers from Haiti, rather than parole them out as was typically done for other people seeking protection, led to the birth of our modern immigrant detention system. Bush and Clinton interdicted tens of thousands of Haitains at sea, most returned immediately to Haiti, others held at Guantanamo until they could be removed. The Obama administration launched a metering system at the border between Tijuana and San Diego in 2015 to slow the entrance of Haitian asylum seekers, while relaunching deportations to Haiti (suspended after the earthquake in 2010) in order to deter more Haitians from trying to come. The list goes on.
Each of these steps eventually led to an erosion of rights for everyone seeking protection at our borders. Metering, for example, was expanded by Trump, and in a twisted turn, underlay the logic of the Migrant Protection Protocols which forced 72,000 people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings.
The fact that Haitians are typically treated more harshly is a by-product of the idea that deterrence is an important framework for immigration enforcement measures. In various ways, deterrence has been the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy for decades. Certainly, jailing Haitians seeking asylum was intended to discourage others from trying. The same “logic” was used by Obama to justify the metering system and expanded deportations.
Of course, deterrence ultimately targets everyone. Trump detained all asylum seekers, to deter more from coming, and his administration explicitly cited deterrence as the reason for the child separation policy employed in 2018. The Migration Protection Protocol was followed by the Transit Ban, which denied people access to asylum if they crossed a third country prior to reaching the U.S. border without first applying for asylum there. The message all around: Don’t bother trying to come here, you won’t get in at all.
This is sadly the same message Biden is currently sending. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Friday: “To anyone thinking about undertaking that journey, our message is: Don’t do it. We are strictly enforcing our immigration laws and our border security measures. The border is closed to irregular migration.” The Secretary of Homeland Security is offering a similar message. From the NY Times:
Mr. Mayorkas acknowledged that the United States continued to rely, for now, on a measure at the heart of Mr. Trump’s approach: a public health rule that requires border agents to quickly deport border crossers to Mexico without a chance to request asylum. “They need to wait,” Mr. Mayorkas said of potential asylum seekers. “It takes time to rebuild the system from scratch.”
For the Biden team, this message is justified by two things: 1. COVID-19 is still a threat and thus the CDC order must remain in place. 2. Biden is committed to reforming border policy but, he notes, it will “take time.” In the interim, his administration is afraid that liberalizing rules too quickly will lead to a “surge” of immigration.
There are a number of problems with these arguments. The CDC order was a political stunt from the beginning, not a serious public health measure. A surge in the number of people seeking entry is certainly possible, as a result of the ongoing deterioration of conditions in the countries people are fleeing rather than a misreading Biden’s generosity. The idea that treating people humanely makes for bad politics is a strange notion indeed.
But none of these arguments mean much for folk from Haiti. Haitians apprehended are mostly placed in detention until they can be removed, which means they can be tested, are in effect being quarantined, and so on. There is no reason to then deny them due process, certainly not a public health argument. The deterrent argument, generally flawed to begin with, makes no sense for Haitians either - most of whom left Haiti years ago, and are arriving now via Brazil, Chile and Peru. They no doubt try to read the situation at the border the best they can, so they can decide when it is best to try and cross. But deterrence has little impact on their decision to travel thousands of miles to begin with.
Considering all of the above, and given the ongoing political crisis in Haiti, the Biden administration’s decision to expel Haitians at this rate is unconscionable. There are many ongoing efforts to halt the expulsions to Haiti (latest letter here), as well as efforts to end Title 42 enforcement, and deportations more generally. As with Trump’s DHS team, Biden’s folk seem unmoved by these efforts. Congressional outrage, editorials from the New York Times and Washington Post, and even simple reason seem to not matter much - there was another removal flight to Haiti on March 2. Meanwhile, Biden's administration does seem to fear the daily scorchings they are receiving on Fox News. If Obama’s presidency holds any lessons for Biden, it is that they will be scorched on Fox News no matter what they do - so why not do something bold? Or in this case, do what is right: Halt removals to Haiti!