If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family's lives. Alejandro Mayorkas, statement at Del Rio, Texas September 20, 2021
In mid-September of 2021 thousands of migrants began gathering at the Del Rio border crossing in Texas. The majority of the estimated 15,000 people who arrived over the course of a few days were from Haiti. The message from the Biden administration was clear: Don’t come! If you do, you will be sent back.
Amidst all of the posturing it was easy to forget that these were not “illegal” immigrants. Seeking asylum is legal, no matter how one arrives. Beyond that, the people were all clustered at an official port of entry. Nevertheless, the rhetoric from the administration was that illegal immigration would not be tolerated. Examples had to be made.
It took less than one week for the administration to disappear all 15,000 people from the public view. They pushed some back into Mexico, admitted others with “orders to appear '' before immigration authorities, and detained many more until the Department of Homeland Security could decide what to do with them. They ultimately removed thousands by plane back to Haiti. So many people were removed by plane in the space of a few weeks that the Biden administration extended a non-bid contract to the Geo Group to manage the flights on an emergency basis. The Geo Group is a private prison company, not an airline.
During the spectacle at Del Rio, Border Patrol agents on horseback forced Haitian migrants back into the Rio Grande. The migrants were not doing anything illegal. At this point most had a stamped slip acknowledging their presence in the Del Rio encampment. They had simply crossed back into Mexico to purchase food, an option unavailable at the border station. Nevertheless, agents on horseback forced people back into the water, and some apparently used their reins to strike fleeing migrants.
The image of Border Patrol agents whipping Haitians has come to define Biden’s approach to Haitian migration. Even as administration officials denounced the behavior of agents and promised an investigation into what transpired in Del Rio, they were emphasizing a deterrent strategy; the very strategy that led to the whips to begin with. Deterrence is an immoral policy which translates into threatening migrants with harsh consequences to discourage their migration.
Thousands removed since last September
The Biden Administration has removed far more Haitians from the United States over the last year than any other administration in the last thirty years. The administration has done so under a somewhat unique set of circumstances: A mandate for summary expulsion of migrants under a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) public health order (“Title 42”). However, even as the Biden Administration has carved out exceptions (Ukraine, Russia, Nicaragua, etc..), until recently, those exceptions did not include Haiti, despite acknowledgement from administration officials of the dangers people returned to Haiti face. Between September 19, 2021 and today, Biden’s team has removed over 24,500 Haitians from the United States.
That said, since the beginning of June, Haitians encountered at the US/Mexico border are no longer being expelled at the same rate. This seems to be the result of a court order requiring the administration to provide some baseline screening for people who express a fear of being returned to their home country (or third country). Over time, removals may well tick back up as people go through expedited removal proceedings. But for now, the administration has reduced dramatically Title 42 expulsions for Haitians. In June and July, the number of Haitians processed under Title 42 was less than 100 (32 in June and 54 in July). Many thousands of Haitians remain trapped in Mexico, however, as the border still remains closed to most.
At the same time, U.S. Coast Guard interdictions at sea have skyrocketed. Between October 1, 2021 and September 1, 2022, the United States Coast Guard reportedly interdicted 7,137 Haitians, almost all of whom are supposed to be returned to Haiti, though, as we’ll discuss below, thousands are unaccounted for. The number of people interdicted at sea has been accelerating since spring. Of the 7,137 interdictions recorded this fiscal year, 4,071 have occurred since mid-April.
Coast Guard encounters of Haitian and Cuban refugees near the US coastline in Florida garner a great deal of attention. However, the majority of interdictions of Haitians take place in international waters where the U.S. Coast Guard’s authority to halt, detain and return people to Haiti rests on shaky legal ground.
Last year Department of Homeland Security head, Alejandro Mayorkas, said, “[a]ny migrant intercepted at sea, regardless of their nationality, will not be permitted to enter the United States.” He was later forced to recalibrate this statement, to make an exception for people who qualify as political refugees. They, he said, would be processed and then sent to a third country.
We have heard that people seeking status as political refugees are processed at the Migrant Operations Center at the Guantanamo Bay naval station in Cuba. However, we do not know how many people have been processed there, nor how many people are currently detained there while awaiting a decision. The number is potentially quite large. Compared to the reported 7,173 interdictions, the Coast Guard has reported only 2,737 repatriations, 526 removals to third countries, and another 500 handed over to Border Patrol in the Miami sector. [These figures come from a survey of Coast Guard press releases, last accessed September 8, 2022].
This leaves a gap of approximately 3,300 people whose current status is not clear. In conversation with the Coast Guard we’ve only been told that Haitain authorities are undercounting the returns, which, while possible, would hardly account for the entire gap between interdictions and returns. It is also possible that the Coast Guard numbers are unreliable. As to the question: How many people are being held in Guantanamo Bay’s MOC or detained elsewhere? We have not yet received an answer.
“These people are facing a perilous voyage because danger at sea is less than the danger at home.” Leonie M. Hermantinm Sant La in Miami
As many have pointed out, desperation is what drives people to risk the open waters of the Caribbean. The situation, as summarized by Jacques Ted St Dic in Just Security, on September 7:
In the year since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, Haiti has found no political path forward, and the country continues to hit new nadirs. Gangs, many linked to politicians and business profiteers, control more than half the country, and their brutal violence has displaced tens of thousands. There are now only 10 elected leaders in Haiti, a group of senators who are the only officials whose terms have not expired, after previous governments failed to hold elections. The court system barely functions and the police force operates under political pressure. The economy is contracting, with a fuel shortage and spiraling inflation.
As a friend in Port au Prince recently explained, “there is no life in Haiti right now, we are only surviving.”
A survey done under the auspices of the International Organization on Migration-Haiti, showed nearly half the people returned had resettled in Port au Prince. The capital is where current instability and violence is having the most extreme impacts: Nearly 1,000 people have been killed in Port au Prince so far this year, as the result of episodic attacks in some of the most vulnerable communities in the city. At least 480 of these deaths came in little more than a week in July when Jimmy Cherizier’s armed group, the G-9 Federation, brutally attacked rivals in the Cite Soleil Brooklyn neighborhood.
The people of Haiti are not facing any good choices. This week, people have mobilized in protest of the regime in power. Several people were shot and killed as a result, some by police, some by armed groups hired by local business elites. The Montana Accord, which lays out a transition plan negotiated and endorsed by hundreds of civil society organizations, and some political parties, has been acknowledged by the US government and Henry, but Henry has walked away from the dialog.
Most Haitians are far removed from these discussions. They are trying to survive, and for many, the best means of survival is to leave. In the absence of any process that recognizes their desperation, and respects what seems obvious, legitimate claims to refugee status, people who choose to leave end up taking very dangerous routes. There is no way to know what the real death toll has been, but at least 220 Haitians have died or disappeared at sea since October of 2021. [UNHCR reported 175 dead or disappeared in May 2022, and several other reports of drownings and disappearances have been made public since, including June 15, July 23, July 28].
The disaster unfolding is not solely of Biden’s making. It is the result of decades of deterrence as the mainstay of US immigration enforcement, and a long standing commitment to intervene in Haiti on the side of traditional economic and political elites, whatever the cost to “democracy.” Biden has a chance, however, to turn the page on this history. Indeed, many Haitian lives depend on him doing so.