WASHINGTON — The Biden administration deported nearly 4,000 Haitians on 36 deportation flights in May — a significant increase from the previous three months — after renegotiating agreements with the island nation, which has been crippled by violence from gangs and a growing humanitarian crisis.
Over the past year, increasing numbers of Haitians have made the journey through the jungles of South America to dangerous stretches of northern Mexico and then across to the United States. Recently, many have also tried to reach Florida by boat. They were part of a record wave of migration across the border with Mexico.
While the number of Haitians crossing into the United States has increased recently, it is far from the greatest migration challenge facing the country. It happens to be one of the easiest for the administration to manage.
An emergency public health rule has allowed border officials to quickly deport migrants during the coronavirus pandemic, but the Biden administration is limited in terms of where it can send flights. In most cases, Mexico will only accept returned migrants from the United States if they are from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and, in limited cases, Cuba and Nicaragua.
Others are to be flown back home, but U.S. border officials must allow most Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans — who make up a significant portion of those who have recently crossed the border — to stay and possibly make facing deportation proceedings. The lack of diplomatic relations with these countries prevents the United States from sending flights there.
But the US government also cannot send as many outbound flights as it would like to countries with which it has strong diplomatic relations.
“Any deportation policy is tied to foreign policy,” said Yael Schacher, deputy director for the Americas and Europe for Refugees International, an advocacy group.
But some say instability in Haiti, especially since the July assassination of its former president, Jovenel Moïse, has made it relatively easy for the US government to send flights there. At one point last month, Haitians made up about 6% of migrants crossing the border with Mexico, but accounted for 60% of deportation flights, according to flight logs and internal border data.
“We don’t have a government in Haiti that can make these decisions,” Guerline M. Jozef, president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an advocacy organization, said of the number of deportation flights the country has. could accept. Many Haitians do not recognize the current government in Port-au-Prince as legitimate.
The situation in Haiti has worsened over the past year. The International Organization for Migration, the largest non-governmental aid group there, said there were more than 200 kidnappings in May. Poverty is everywhere and almost half of the country does not have adequate access to healthy and affordable food, according to the United Nations.
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In September, the Biden administration gave the organization $13.1 million earmarked to help Haitians get off deportation flights, providing cash and other assistance to help them reintegrate. Many had lived in other South American countries for years before making the trip to the United States.
The systemic issues driving migration out of Haiti are expected to be raised at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles this week. Acting Prime Minister of Haiti Ariel Henry is present.
President Biden ran for office promising to bring compassion to US immigration policies, especially those involving asylum. But rolling out new policies amid a surge in migration and during a pandemic has proven difficult. Some Trump-era policies remain in place.
In September, around 15,000 migrants, many of them Haitians, crossed the border into Del Rio, Texas in a matter of days. That month, the United States sent a record 58 deportation flights to Haiti, according to data collected by the International Organization for Migration, which tracks the flights.
The number of flights per month decreased thereafter, but increased again in January, when there were 36. There were a total of 39 flights from February to April, and the number increased again in May, with many families and children under 3 on board. all 36 flights that month.
After an infant died in a Haitian hospital shortly after arriving on a deportation flight in January, the International Organization for Migration called on the Biden administration to stop deportations of young children. .
From May 19 to 26, U.S. border officials encountered 1,868 Haitians who had crossed the southwest border, according to internal government data. During this period, there were 21 deportation flights to Haiti. By comparison, over the same period they countered 5,264 Guatemalans and 4,453 Hondurans, and the United States sent seven deportation flights to each country.
“Haiti can’t do anything to slow the deportations,” said Daniel Foote, a former special envoy to Haiti who resigned last year to protest the Biden administration’s handling of the massive migration crisis in Del Rio. Yet sending thousands of people back to Haiti, which he described as a failed state, would only make the situation worse, he said.
“It’s counterproductive to a stable Haiti, which is essential to preventing them from migrating in the first place,” Foote said, referring to Haitian migrants.
Department of Homeland Security officials said there has been no change in policy regarding deportations of Haitians. The White House declined to comment.
A federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a foreign policy issue, said the deportation flights to Haiti were not disproportionate to those sent to other countries. The official said the government had negotiated agreements with other countries on the number of flights it could send. The negotiations allowed some flexibility so that the United States could quickly increase the number of flights to a certain country if needed. This is what happened with Haiti, he said.
Since September, more than 25,000 Haitians have been deported from the United States and returned to Haiti. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Recently, anticipating a change in border policy that has been put on hold, more Haitians have waited in northern Mexico with the intention of crossing the border and seeking asylum – a legal right blocked since the start of the crisis. pandemic.
“I have no other plan but to go to the United States – to go there and work,” Carlos Montius, 35, said last month. Mr. Montius, a Haitian from Port-au-Prince, said he had been staying in Reynosa, Mexico, for the better part of the year.
The Biden administration has taken steps to address instability in Haiti, although some say it is far from enough.
At two different times last year, the administration extended temporary humanitarian protections for Haitians already living in the United States. The administration also briefly halted deportation flights to Haiti after it was hit by a devastating earthquake in August.
The Biden administration also reinstated the Haitian Family Reunification parole program, which the Trump administration ended in 2019. The program gives eligible U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the opportunity to apply for parole for family members in Haiti. But there have been delays in setting up the program because administration officials believe it is not safe to send U.S. government employees to Haiti to process applications, according to an aide to the Senate who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal matter.
This year, the administration authorized 55,000 temporary work visas, including 18,000 reserved for people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti. The Department of Homeland Security does not track how many of them went to people in each country.
The recent increase in deportations of Haitians has again sparked criticism that the Biden administration treats black migrants differently than others, an allegation it has repeatedly denied.
“The administration must commit to racial equity in its immigration policy and address the anti-black racism that disproportionately affects Haitian migrants at the border,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, Democrat. of New Jersey and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He and others pointed to the swift action the United States took to allow Ukrainians into the country as they fled the Russian invasion.
“We haven’t seen a single new policy to deal with the high number of displaced Haitians in the Western Hemisphere,” Menendez added, “other than deporting them as quickly as possible.”
It’s a tricky question for the White House after public outrage last year — including from the president — over the Border Patrol’s response to black migrants crossing Del Rio. At the time, Border Patrol agents on horseback were pictured rounding up migrants, images that some people said evoked slavery.
An image ended up on an unofficial Border Patrol commemorative coin. The origin of the so-called “challenge coin” is under investigation by the Office of Professional Accountability of Customs and Border Protection.
The bureau investigated the conduct of officers who rounded up migrants in Del Rio last year. The administration has promised a quick internal investigation into the episode, but there has yet to be a public announcement regarding the findings.
Mr Menendez called the lack of public findings “unacceptable”. Of the coin, he said, “Anyone who creates or spreads these racist tokens is unfit to enforce our immigration laws and has no place in our federal government.”
Kirsten Luce contributed reporting from Reynosa, Mexico.