Less than a year after entering office with vows to bring a new humanitarian approach to the nation’s immigration system, the Biden administration is carrying out what could be the largest mass expulsion of would-be asylum-seekers in recent American history. Virtually none of those being removed from the country — nearly all of whom are Black — have received their day in court, nor will they under the administration’s current plan.
Nearly all of the expelled, including families and children, will be flown to Haiti, a country the administration itself characterized as a state teetering on the brink of collapse last month. With expulsions already underway and expected to intensify in the coming days, advocates are bracing for an already horrifying human rights nightmare to become far more dangerous.
“I can’t think of a worse way of handling the situation,” Nicole Phillips, legal director at Haitian Bridge Alliance, a San Diego-based nonprofit, told The Intercept. In recent weeks, upward of 14,000 men, women, and children, the vast majority of them Haitian nationals, began gathering under a bridge in the Texas border town of Del Rio. Over the weekend, Border Patrol agents on horseback descended on the crowd, swinging their reins like whips, charging at people carrying bags of food, shouting at them to go back to Mexico, and pushing them into the swift waters of the Rio Grande.
“The situation in Del Rio is a humanitarian crisis that was avoidable,” Phillips said. For the past five years, advocacy groups like hers have been warning both the Trump and Biden administrations that a combined lack of viable asylum access at U.S. ports and a deteriorating situation in Haiti was a recipe for disaster. “They ignored us and continued to block our ports of entry to Haitian asylum-seekers.”
On Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited Del Rio to receive an “operational update” from local and federal authorities. “This is not the way to come to the United States,” Mayorkas told reporters. The secretary reported that 600 federal officials, from Border Patrol agents to Coast Guard personnel, are now aiding in a massive effort to expel the Haitians and any other foreign nationals who might be with them. Local officials in Del Rio declared a state of emergency Friday, while Customs and Border Protection closed the Del Rio International Bridge into Mexico’s Ciudad Acuña.
With 6,000 migrants already moved out of the Del Rio camp, Mayorkas said DHS is seeking additional assistance from the Pentagon to ramp up the operations even further.
“The situation in Del Rio is a humanitarian crisis that was avoidable.”
The sweeping expulsion campaign has left officials in Haiti scrambling and those caught up in the effort confused, horrified, and devastated.
“The Haitian state is not really able to receive these deportees,” Jean Negot Bonheur Delva, the head of Haiti’s immigration office, said as the first of the expulsion flights, which included babies and small children, touched down in Port-au-Prince on Sunday. Six more flights are scheduled for today and seven more for Wednesday. Haitian officials told the New York Times they are anticipating six flights a day for the next three weeks. “Only once since 2014 has the United States deported more than 1,000 people to the country,” the paper reported. On Sunday, Border Patrol Chief Raul L. Ortiz said that his agency was “working around the clock” to expel the people who remained — about 12,600 at the time — in the next week.
“Nobody told us we were going back to Haiti,” Sonia Piard, a 43-year-old mother of three whose family was part of the first wave of expulsions, told the Washington Post, adding that it felt as though they had been “kidnapped to be sent back to Haiti.”
Once on the ground in Haiti, the expelled families and individuals will find themselves in a country utterly devoid of resources and infrastructure to receive them. “When Haitians are arriving, they haven’t been fed, they haven’t been given water, they haven’t showered, they haven’t slept, and they’re terrified — they didn’t even know they’re going to be deported. Many have been away from the country for years,” Phillips said. Often, people arrive without cellphones, she noted. Haitian immigration processing policy requires that no arrivals leave their initial processing center without being picked up by a loved one or family member. Without phones or a warning that they are being expelled to the country that they fled, huge numbers of Haitians could find themselves stuck in a space designed to process dozens of people at the absolute most.
“They’re not able to handle hundreds, if not thousands, of people. There just isn’t the infrastructure in place,” Phillips said. “Not only is there not the administrative support for this, there’s also not the infrastructure to even receive them physically if their family members cannot come to pick them up, which is likely.”
In the past two and a half months, Haiti has seen its president assassinated by Colombian mercenaries, some with U.S. military training — the prime minister is now a suspect in the case — and weathered a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake in the middle of a global pandemic that was preceded by years of spiraling gang violence and government corruption.
The reasons so many Haitians ended up in Del Rio are rooted in a continuum of U.S. policy decisions. Since 2016, DHS has deployed a series of policies and strategies that have vastly diminished the potential for families or individuals to seek asylum at the nation’s ports. Under the most sweeping of those policies, known as Title 42, DHS has summarily expelled border-crossing individuals from the country without a hearing, regardless of whether they are seeking asylum — a right enshrined under domestic and international law — and without establishing whether being returned to their country of origin poses a risk to their safety. Ostensibly a public health statute, Title 42 was pushed through by Trump immigration advisor Stephen Miller over the objections of career public health professionals in March of 2020.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that the order does not grant the government the authority to carry out the expulsions. The Biden administration has appealed the ruling. DHS continues to use Title 42 as a basis in its mass expulsion operations. Despite the department’s stated concern for preventing the spread of Covid-19, sources told NBC News that in an effort to carry out expulsions as quickly as possible, U.S. officials will not be testing migrants for the virus before sending them to Haiti. Fallout from last month’s earthquake has significantly hampered Haiti’s vaccination efforts — as of last week, less than 1 percent of the country’s 11.5 million people had received the vaccine.
Lack of asylum access at the ports has fueled a backlog of asylum-seekers, in particular Haitians, in border cities across northern Mexico, where organized crime and collaborators in Mexican security forces routinely prey on migrants. Haitians, who stand out because of language and skin color, are particularly vulnerable. A report published last month by Human Rights First catalogued 6,356 reports of violent attacks — including rape, kidnapping, and assault — against people blocked from asylum access or expelled to Mexico in the first seven months of the Biden administration. The organization found that nearly 1 in 5 Haitian asylum-seekers were victims of police abuse in northern Mexico.
Phillips said that nearly every Haitian asylum-seeker she has spoken to on the border, from Tijuana to Matamoros, had experienced some form of violence, including anti-Black hate crimes and extortion.
U.S. policy has both escalated the danger for individuals hoping to exercise their right to seek asylum on U.S. soil and incentivized doing so between ports of entry as a matter of last resort.
The issue of physical safety is key to understanding the buildup in Del Rio. Contrary to popular misunderstandings, seeking asylum in the U.S. between ports is legal. While crossing the border itself without authorization is a federal misdemeanor, the low-level charge does not bar an individual from receiving asylum down the line. The resulting dynamic is one in which U.S. policy has both escalated the danger for individuals hoping to exercise their right to seek asylum on U.S. soil and incentivized doing so between ports of entry as a matter of last resort.
With asylum access at ports effectively dead, predatory criminal groups and cops stalking Mexico, and return home out of the question, it should come as no surprise that asylum-seekers seek alternative locations where they can ask for refuge. In recent weeks, word spread that Ciudad Acuña was one of those places, Phillips said. People who had spent months hiding out in Mexico, or who had been forced out of countries in South America and tried their luck in the Darién Gap, a notoriously treacherous stretch of Panamanian jungle where rape and robbery are common, heard there was a chance.
“It’s unclear how these rumors started,” Phillips said, but what is clear is that most of the Haitians who ended up in Texas are not recent departures from their country of origin — in fact, many have been trying for months or years to make a case in the U.S. Some came from states in southern Mexico, where immigration authorities, carrying out a U.S.-supported anti-migration initiative, last month attacked caravans of migrants headed north.
“The whole thing of ‘Why don’t they just come in legally?’” Phillips said, “they have been trying for years, and they have not been allowed to legally enter.”
Photos: John Moore/Getty Images
The speed and scale of the Biden administration’s new expulsion effort is without comparison in the 21st century, said Yael Schacher, an immigration historian and senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International. At the same time, she added, the government’s targeting of Haitians as a group has a long, dark history in the annals of U.S. immigration enforcement.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration pioneered the interdiction of migrants at sea through a sweeping crackdown on Haitian asylum-seekers. While most were promptly turned back, the rest were typically transferred to a Dade County detention center, today known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Krome Detention Center. The mass housing of migrants signaled that the administration had overcome fears, articulated by then-Deputy Attorney General Rudy Giuliani, that doing so “could create an appearance of ‘concentration camps’ filled largely by blacks.”
“Haitians have been the group that’s been the first target of what later becomes the sort of harsh treatment of asylum-seekers and immigrants,” Schacher told The Intercept. “The way we detain immigrants really started under Reagan, and it targeted first Haitians.”
Haitians were again used as guinea pigs for new get-tough immigration enforcement measures under the administration of President George H.W. Bush, which launched a policy of interdictions and forced returns without hearings, much like the Biden administration is pursuing today. “It was first applied to the Haitians, and then it was deemed legal for everybody,” Schacher said. In a precursor to his son’s turn in the White House, Bush detained tens of thousands of Haitians at the U.S. military’s base in Guantánamo Bay.
“Haitians have been the group that’s been the first target of what later becomes the sort of harsh treatment of asylum-seekers and immigrants.”
Last month, Schacher visited Texas and interviewed Haitians who had traveled through the Darién Gap and passed through Del Rio. What worries her now, she said, is the administration’s “sudden use and targeting of a specific group for this kind of expulsion.” Unlike Reagan and Bush’s interdictions at sea, the Haitians being expelled today have made it onto U.S. soil, Schacher noted. The Biden administration’s current program is thus more reminiscent of “Operation Wetback,” she argued, a notorious, militarized, and highly publicized enforcement campaign that was used to deport Mexicans en masse in the 1950s. It was, in Schacher’s words, “a stellar blitz where you’re trying to send a message.”
On the campaign trail, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden often tied his vision of immigration to U.S. history, arguing that President Donald Trump had “waged an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants.”
“It’s wrong, and it stops when Joe Biden is elected president,” the Biden team said in launching its immigration platform. “Unless your ancestors were native to these shores, or forcibly enslaved and brought here as part of our original sin as a nation, most Americans can trace their family history back to a choice — a choice to leave behind everything that was familiar in search of new opportunities and a new life.”
Last weekend’s images of lawmen on horseback chasing Black people seeking a new life through the Texas brush conjured other visions of the nation’s past. In one video, captured by an Al Jazeera film crew, a mounted Border Patrol agent is seen telling Haitian migrants, “This is why your country’s shit, because you use your women for this!” before directing his rearing horse toward a group of children. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, called the images “horrific and disturbing” in a statement Monday. DHS later announced the beginning of formal inquiries into the conduct of agents on the ground in Del Rio.
The Biden administration’s response to Haitians on the border is not just unconscionable, Phillips argued, it’s also contradictory. In May, Mayorkas announced a new 18-month designation of temporary protected status for Haitian nationals in the U.S., offering an avenue for protection from deportation on the grounds that Haiti is “currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Last month, DHS extended that protection to Haitians who had made it onto U.S. soil prior to July 29. In a notice filed in the federal register on August 3, department officials noted that Haiti is currently “grappling with a deteriorating political crisis, violence, and a staggering increase in human rights abuses.”
Those conditions have not evaporated in the weeks since the notice was filed, Phillips noted, and yet the White House and DHS are proceeding as if they have. For her, and for many others, the conclusion is crystal clear. “Our immigration system still has anti-Black racism that is fueling this Biden administration’s response to this Haitian migration problem,” Phillips said. “This is anti-Black racism in our immigration policy. Period.”