The Trump administration called them “aliens.” The Biden administration calls them “irregular migrants.”
But for the crush of thousands of Haitian migrants at a crossing along the Rio Grande, changes in presidential administration and bureaucratic rhetoric have still left policies for those seeking safe haven at the U.S.-Mexico border unchanged: cramped and dangerous encampments at border crossing sites; perfunctory processing of asylum claims; and, almost invariably, swift removal from the United States.
On Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security announced a massive operation “to address the increase in migrant encounters” at a border crossing in Del Rio, Texas, where an estimated 14,000 Haitian migrants had congregated this week. The increase follows false rumors that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were allowing entry to economic refugees and would-be asylum-seekers. The operation, according to a DHS statement outlining the department’s plan, sent a surge of 400 agents and officers to “improve control of the area,” and increased resources for the swift processing and removal of Haitian people to their countries of origin.
“The majority of migrants continue to be expelled under CDC’s Title 42 authority. Those who cannot be expelled under Title 42 and do not have a legal basis to remain will be placed in expedited removal proceedings,” the department statement concluded, referring to a public health order that authorizes the expedited removal of immigrants in the name of preventing further spread of the novel coronavirus. “The Biden administration has reiterated that our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protections called the temporary closure of the Del Rio crossing “necessary in order for CBP to respond to urgent safety and security needs presented by an influx of migrants.”
For those seeking to aid the Haitian people who have fled political and economic instability in their home country, the plan is further proof that the Biden administration’s continued reliance on Trump-era immigration policies only demonstrates the inability of those rules to meaningfully prevent desperate people from seeking to enter the United States.
“We are in utter disbelief that the Biden administration would deport Haitians now,” said Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, which advocates on behalf of Haitian communities in the United States. “Hours after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake, President Joe Biden released a statement saying that the United States was a ‘friend’ of Haiti. A ‘friend’ does not continuously inflict pain on another friend.”
The increase in flights sending Haitian asylum seekers back to a country still reeling from an earthquake that left thousands dead and the assassination of the country’s president, Jozef said, is part of a long pattern of discrimination against Haitians seeking asylum in the United States—and is inexcusable from a White House that pledged to reform many of the rules that are now being used to deport asylum-seekers at Del Rio.
“All flights must be stopped, and the administration must be held accountable for their actions,” Jozef said.
The estimated 14,000 individual journeys that have led to an encampment under a bridge two and a half hours west of San Antonio were prompted by a cascading series of catastrophes, both in Haiti and in South America. Following a massive earthquake that struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in 2012, the resulting economic and political instability in the poor Caribbean nation led to a mass migration of Haitian citizens to Brazil and Chile, comparatively prosperous countries in need of cheap labor.
But as the global economy faltered during the coronavirus pandemic—and as the governments of both nations became increasingly inhospitable to immigrants seeking economic relief—more Haitians began looking northward for stability. The more recent earthquake and the murder of President Jovenel Moïse in July only increased the number of Haitians seeking entry into the United States.
Social media, too, has played a role in the crisis, as falsehoods on WhatsApp and Facebook promised the Haitian diaspora that they could remain in the country following the extension of Temporary Protected Status to Haitian citizens in May. The protections, however, only extended to the estimated 150,000 Haitians who were already in the United States—not the thousands now seeking entry at the U.S. southern border.
For the nearly 28,000 Haitian citizens who have been intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at the border this fiscal year, the Trump administration’s “Migrant Protection Protocols”—better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy—and its invocation of Title 42 are still the law of the land, despite promises by Biden to deconstruct his predecessor’s anti-immigration apparatus.
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security resumed flights repatriating asylum seekers under Title 42. On Wednesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent 90 Haitians back to the country, including children as young as 3 years old. The U.S. government has deported nearly 940,000 people under the authority this fiscal year, despite increasing skepticism from public health authorities that the order has any meaningful impact on the pandemic’s spread within the United States.
A federal judge ruled on Thursday that policy could not be applied to families, but the Biden administration has appealed the decision—a legal strategy that advocates for Haitians call a betrayal.
“It is unconscionable that the Biden administration has doubled down on policies that put Haitian families seeking safety back into harm’s way. President Biden is not only breaking his promise to Haiti to be a ‘friend,’ but he is also breaking his promise to Americans to make the U.S. immigration system more humane,” said Melina Roche, manager of #WelcomewithDignity campaign, an effort by more than 80 nonprofit organizations to encourage humane treatment of those seeking asylum in the United States. “The Biden administration must ensure Haitians, and everyone seeking safety, have access to protections, and it must stop implementing deterrence-based policies, such as deportation flights and repatriation efforts to Haiti.”
Many within Biden’s own party are increasingly angry about his refusal to extend Temporary Protected Status to Haitians who, since its redesignation in May, have already suffered a massive earthquake and a presidential assassination.
“The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7 and now the August 14 earthquake and subsequent tropical storm make safe return to Haiti completely impossible,” 55 lawmakers, including Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and vice presidential contender Val Demings (D-FL) wrote in a letter to Biden last week. “The Haitian government’s ability to safely receive its citizens will take months, if not years, to secure… Humanitarian parole should be broadly considered and used for Haitians who have been awaiting entry to apply for asylum, some for years and others in the aftermath of President Moïse’s assassination.”
But the political ramifications of allowing increased immigration into the United States in nearly any form—which Biden administration officials have insisted play no role in its decisions on immigration policy—have been made crystal clear by Republicans Several have spent the few days pointing to various crises at the border as proof of the administration’s inability to address the root causes of illegal immigration.
Former President Donald Trump, the exiled leader of the Republican Party, declared in a statement on Sunday that “nothing is being done” to stop the “tens of thousands” of people coming from Haiti, which he once privately dismissed as a “shithole country” whose citizens “all have AIDS.”
“This is not just a Border Crisis, this is a Crisis Crisis!” Trump declared.
But even those who blame Trump’s own policies for much of the crisis at the border say that Biden is culpable for the decisions being made under his watch.
“It is well past time for this administration to change course by ending expulsions and other cruel, unnecessary, and unlawful deterrence based policies and start living up to its promise of building a more humane and orderly immigration system that welcomes with dignity,” Ursela Ojeda, policy adviser for the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said in a statement.