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On Thursday, Daniel Foote, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, resigned from his position in protest of the “inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees.” He blasted President Joe Biden’s policy as “deeply flawed.”
It was a stunning moment in the rapidly escalating crisis at the border, and yet another sign that Biden is losing the support of people in his own party — and even members of his administration — over his hard-line approach to Haitian migrants.
Allies on Capitol Hill and beyond said they had high hopes that Biden would deliver on his promise of prioritizing refugees and asylum seekers through more humane immigration policies. Now, they’re distressed that that is not happening with Haitian migrants, who are being denied the chance to make asylum claims and, in many cases, are being sent back to Haiti under Title 42, a Trump-era order that, ostensibly due to the pandemic, allows immigration officials to quickly deport people crossing the border, typically without giving them a chance to apply for asylum.
Haitian asylum seekers and refugees — many who trekked thousands of miles across South America to cross at the U.S.-Mexico border only be deported back to Mexico — have been subjected to anti-Black discrimination and violence. At least 61% of Haitian asylum seekers blocked from U.S. asylum protections reported being the victim of a crime while in Mexico, including kidnapping, rape, and robbery, according to an April report.
“We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday in a speech on the Senate floor. “We must allow asylum-seekers to present their claims at our ports of entry and be afforded due process.”
Schumer, who represents the largest concentration of Haitian immigrants in the country, urged Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to cease the expulsion of Haitian migrants and end its use of Title 42.
Biden has yet to speak publicly about the issue, even after a photographer captured U.S. border agents on horseback, chasing migrants and appearing to whip them. Julián Castro, a member of former President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, called the president out for his silence in an interview with HuffPost.
“It is baffling and disappointing that President Biden himself has not clearly and forcefully spoken out against the mistreatment of Haitian asylum seekers. That seems like a no-brainer,” said Castro.
“There are so many folks in Washington that are afraid to touch this issue,” he continued. “What they don’t get is that this issue is going to touch them, whether they want it to or not. So they might as well speak to it in clear value-based terms.”
In Texas over the weekend, more than 13,000 Haitians, many of them families, were camped along the river in Del Rio, waiting to be processed by immigration authorities. Photos of Border Patrol’s response — agents on horseback whipping ropes at the Haitians — went viral online, prompting outrage from lawmakers and advocates alike. On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it had launched an investigation into the matter and called the footage “extremely troubling.”
“What I saw depicted about those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were was horrible,” Vice President Kamala Harris said on Tuesday. “And I fully support what is happening right now, which is a thorough investigation into exactly what is going on there. But human beings should never be treated that way.”
But that has not stopped the Biden administration from ramping up deportation flights, which began on Sept. 19, sending hundreds of people a day back to Haiti, the small Caribbean nation that is suffering in the aftermath of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August and political instability that led to the assassination of its president in July.
More than 2,000 people have been sent back to Haiti since Sunday, including more than 40 children, and more flights are expected to continue: up to seven flights a day with more than 100 people on each. DHS said the majority of Haitians were being removed under Title 42.
As of Thursday, the Haitian population in the Del Rio camps had dwindled to approximately 4,000.
The White House doubled down, defending its handling of the Haitian migrants and pushing back against criticism from Democrats and reporters over the deportations.
“First of all, they’re not deportations. People are not coming into the country through legal methods,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday when asked about the expulsion flights.
However, it is legal under international and U.S. law for those fleeing their home country to ask for asylum at a port of entry, no matter how they enter the country.
“Our policy process has continued to be the same with Haiti as it is for anybody coming through an irregular migration across our border,” said Psaki, who sought to shut down comparisons between the Biden and Trump administrations’ use of Title 42.
“We could not see it as any more different from the policy of the prior administration, which the president feels ― we all feel ― was inhumane, immoral, ineffective, [and] wasn’t operationally working,” she said. “And because of the dysfunction of it, we have led to a very broken system that we’re dealing with today.”
The Biden administration has defended its use of Title 42 as a public safety measure to slow the spread of the coronavirus, despite the fact that DHS officials acknowledged back in March that deported Haitian immigrants “may face harm” upon returning to their home country. Last month, the U.S. designated Haitians eligible for Temporary Protected Status due to the fact that Haiti was “grappling with a deteriorating political crisis, violence, and a staggering increase in human rights abuses.” Still, the U.S. had expelled over 3,700 Haitians under Title 42 by the end of August, and that number is expected to rise.
“We’re not living up to our obligation as a nation to be a place of refuge for people seeking a better life.”
Castro is concerned that, by appearing too much like Trump on matters of immigration, Biden might be taking a political risk that could result in the “Democratic coalition falling apart for 2022, and especially for 2024.”
There are other signs of discontent among Democrats.
Patrick Gaspard, the president of the Center for American Progress, a top Democratic think tank, visited the camps in Texas this week and released a statement on Friday calling on the Biden administration to “do more to protect Haitians” by immediately halting deportations and to “commit to a firm timeline to end Title 42.”
That same day, District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine, who is Haitian American, and 17 other attorneys general sent a letter to Biden urging the White House to reevaluate its policy plans.
“While we are confident that your administration will address the alarming practices recently used to apprehend Haitian migrants at the border, we remain deeply concerned by the administration’s continuation of a summary deportation policy,” they wrote.
“Individuals seeking asylum or other humanitarian assistance in our country deserve our respect and compassion, and they should not be treated differently from other migrants based on their country of origin. Haitians deserve the same due process as all others attempting to immigrate or flee to the United States,” they said.
Meanwhile, one DHS official told Buzzfeed News, “Honestly I don’t how much longer I can stay at DHS if this continues.”
Democratic lawmakers including Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), who serves as co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus, held a press conference outside the Capitol on Wednesday echoing calls to suspend deportation flights and demanding accountability for what she called “the cruel, the inhumane and the flat-out racist treatment of our Haitian brothers and sisters at the southern border.”
As immigration advocates continue to fight the Biden administration over Title 42 in court, White House officials are scrambling trying to repair the damage and hold meetings with Democratic and Black congressional leaders. The lack of clarity, upholding Title 42, and the hesitation to accept refugees have many in government beginning to doubt the White House’s efforts to “build back better” when it comes to immigration.
“We’re not living up to our obligation as a nation to be a place of refuge for people seeking a better life. And in the least, asylum seekers, whether they’re from Haiti, or from one of these Northern Triangle countries should be allowed to make their asylum claim, instead of being severely expelled from the country,” said Castro.
“This is not the change we were hoping for on immigration policy.”