WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
17 Feb 2022 | Commentary

A tragic milestone: 20,000th migrant deported to Haiti since Biden inauguration

The Biden administration hit a sad and stunning milestone today. Aboard its 198th flight deporting or expelling people to Haiti this morning was the 20,000th migrant sent back to the Caribbean nation since Inauguration Day 2021.

According to Witness at the Border, a group that tracks U.S. government expulsion and deportation flights, 161 of those 198 planes, carrying 17,900 people, have flown in just the 5 months since September 19. That was when over 10,000 mostly Haitian migrants appeared on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas, asking for asylum or other forms of protection.

We all recall the troubling images of Border Patrol agents, mounted on horseback, charging at the Haitian migrants wading across the river. Though President Joe Biden called it “horrible” and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that an investigation would “be completed in days—not weeks,” we have heard no results on accountability.

What has worked with devastating efficiency, though, are the flights. The Department of Homeland Security gave a $15 million no-bid contract to Geo Group, a very controversial for-profit migrant detention center operator, to manage the first flights to Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien. The pace of expulsion flights has remained very rapid.

About two-thirds of those sent back to Haiti have been expelled under “Title 42,” the Trump administration policy that, on doubtful grounds, uses pandemic risks as a pretext to send migrants away as quickly as possible, even when they ask for asylum or protection from harm. The Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place, unaltered, and used it to swiftly expel migrants more than 1.1 million times.

DHS expelled 13,783 Haitians apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, without giving them a chance to ask for protection, between March 2020 and December 2021. Nearly a quarter of all Haitians apprehended at the border have been placed on planes. Of those expelled, just over half have been children, or parents traveling with children. Adults are routinely shackled at the waist and wrists for the duration of flights. “A Haitian mother expelled in late September 2021 begged U.S. officers to remove her handcuffs to enable her to comfort her crying young daughter on the plane ride,” to no avail, according to a Human Rights First account.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, DHS is dropping Haitians off on a tarmac in a country they hadn’t seen for many years. Most had left the country in the period after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country, finding work and building lives in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere, only to have the welcome mat pulled out amid the pandemic. Reporters at the Port-au-Prince airport have documented expelled Haitians’ tears, grief, and despair upon finding themselves back in a nation they had fled many years ago.

The administration has sent these 20,000 individuals back to dire conditions in Haiti. Gang violence is so rampant that all are unsafe. “Gang-related kidnappings and shootings have prevented aid groups from visiting parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince,” the Associated Press reported in December. “A severe shortage of fuel also has kept agencies from operating at full capacity.” A State Department “level 4” warning reads, “Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19.” (In recognition of the situation in Haiti, the Biden administration expanded Temporary Protected Status for Haitians already in the country prior to July 29, 2021.)

Haiti’s president was assassinated last July, and it now lacks a government that can be considered truly legitimate. The country was then hit by an earthquake and a tropical storm. COVID-19 vaccination rates (about 1 percent in January) are among the world’s lowest. A resolution to the governance crisis remains far off. “Political tensions and polarization continue to cast doubt on a clear path towards greater stability,” the UN’s deputy secretary-general remarked in January.

At this point, about 1 in every 575 people living in Haiti today was on a Biden administration expulsion or deportation plane during the past 13 months. This practice of sending very vulnerable people back to one of the world’s poorest and most unsafe countries has to stop. The Title 42 expulsions, using a two-year-old pandemic as a thin pretext to avoid due process, needs to stop.

“Haiti simply cannot safely accept the repatriation of its nationals, which is why we are so deeply concerned with the large-scale removals and expulsions of individuals back to Haiti,” reads an excellent February 16 letter signed by 100 U.S. senators and representatives. “To that end, we are concerned that the Administration’s use of the Title 42 authority is depriving legitimate asylum seekers the opportunity to pursue their claims, contrary to our obligations under international and domestic law.”

The letter concludes, “In addition to stopping removals to regions such as Haiti that face serious insecurity, we also urge you to take steps to address the systemic challenges Black migrants face to receiving equal treatment.” WOLA supports and amplifies this call.