Conditions in Haiti are far too dangerous to receive the thousands of people the Biden administration has been sending there en masse, the former special envoy to the country told Congress on Thursday, adding that the removals could constitute a violation of international law.
In his first public comments since resigning in protest over the effort last month, Daniel Foote delivered a clear message. “Deportation back to Haiti is not the answer right now,” Foote told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a briefing. “Haiti is too dangerous. Our own diplomats can’t leave our compounds in Port-Au-Prince without armed guard.”
A career foreign service officer, Foote sent a scathing letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on September 22, reporting that he refused to be associated with the administration’s “inhumane, counterproductive decision” to rapidly expel thousands of Haitian migrants whom U.S. homeland security officials had corralled into a squalid camp in Del Rio, Texas. Images of Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing Black migrants had caused a national uproar in the days prior. In his testimony, Foote both explained the reasoning behind his resignation and his vision for what’s needed in Haiti now, which includes both U.S. training and aid for an elite anti-gang force and a willingness to allow Haitians to chart their own political destiny.
In the weeks since Foote’s resignation, the Biden administration has expelled more than 7,000 people, including children, to Haiti, marking one of the largest mass expulsion efforts in recent U.S. history. Despite the White House’s ostensible faith in his Haiti expertise, Foote said he was not consulted on the wisdom or risks associated with the mass removal campaign. “Nobody asked me about the deportations,” he said. “I found out about it on the news just like the rest of us.”
Using a controversial public health order known as Title 42 as the basis for the expulsions, the Department of Homeland Security has flown virtually all of those individuals to Haiti without an immigration hearing or interviews to determine whether expulsion could place them at risk of physical harm. As he searched for information, Foote concluded that the Biden administration planned to remove as many Haitians as possible without conducting those critical, and legally necessary, interviews. “That’s against international law,” he said. “It’s called refoulement.”
Implemented over the objections of public health professionals, Title 42 is the subject of ongoing federal litigation.
Foote recalled one of his colleagues at the State Department saying that the roughly 14,000 Haitians who had gathered under the bridge in Del Rio would be better off in Haiti than in Texas. Foote said nothing could be further from the truth. “The gangs run Port-au-Prince. It is in their control,” he said. “They are better equipped and better armed than the police.”
The Biden administration appointed Foote as special envoy to Haiti on July 22, two weeks after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Foote’s mandate included engagement with “Haitian and international partners to facilitate long-term peace and stability and support efforts to hold free and fair presidential and legislative elections,” and coordination of U.S. federal agencies and officials to “support the Haitian people and Haiti’s democratic institutions” in the wake of the president’s killing.
“The security situation, the economic situation, the health situation are all grave in Haiti right now,” Foote told Congress. Between the assassination, a recent earthquake, and an ongoing pandemic, he added, “Haiti can’t support the people it has there right now. The last thing they need is desperate people without anything to their names because they just spent everything trying to get to the states coming back — there’s no safety net. It’s just a recipe for human tragedy.”
Foote told the lawmakers that the administration’s misguided approach on the border was matched by a misguided policy in Haiti itself. He made the same point in his resignation letter, when he criticized U.S. support for Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry as the country’s next leader in possible upcoming elections. In recent weeks, Henry has been identified as a potential suspect in the president’s assassination.
“It’s critical that civil society has a voice in this new government,” Foote said. “It’s not critical that Ariel Henry and his administration has a voice in this new government, so I hope that our administration will stop imposing Ariel Henry on the Haitian people.”
A veteran diplomatic operator in Latin America and the Caribbean, Foote was a top counternarcotics official in Colombia before rising to become deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. For him, the Haiti assignment marked a return to a place and issues he had seen before: Foote served as deputy chief of mission in Port-au-Prince from 2011 to 2012. During his previous stint in the country, which came in the wake of the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, Foote said he personally witnessed key decisions about the country’s future made in rooms filled only with Americans.
“I can say that we know how not to fix Haiti,” he said. “I believe we need Haitians in the room and Haitian-led solutions.”
The State Department quickly responded to Foote’s letter last month. Spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement telling reporters that “all proposals, including those led by Special Envoy Foote, were fully considered in a rigorous and transparent policy process,” adding that it was “unfortunate that, instead of participating in a solutions-oriented process, Special Envoy Foote has both resigned and mischaracterized the circumstances of his resignation.”
Hours later, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told McClatchy that her disagreements with Foote stemmed from the special envoy’s proposal to send U.S. troops into Haiti. “It just was a bad idea,” Sherman said.
Foote did not issue a response at the time, but in his comments before Congress he sketched out his proposed security plan for Haiti, which included providing U.S. training and lethal aid to a small but elite task force of Haitian national police “with several components, including commandos, communicators, intelligence, people with the prosecutors.” Despite Sherman’s reported objections to his proposals, Foote said the State Department’s narcotics and law enforcement wing “is moving ahead with the security part of the training.”
The former special envoy pointed to a program that involved the NYPD training for Haitian police as a model for success. “When I left in 2012, they were an adequate police force of 14,000 members, and over the past four years, five years, the police has become politicized and political appointees from deceased President Moïse have developed ties with the gangs.”
Still, Foote said he believed that a security training model could work, arguing that suppressing the violence in Haiti would look different than other parts of the world. The real challenge, he said, is what comes after.
“There needs to be some economic viability for these disadvantaged military-age males,” Foote said. “It’s not even like you have choice. You either join the gangs, or you don’t have any income.”