They arrived back in Mexico without shoes, identification documents or even children’s diapers.
Held by U.S. immigration officials in detention over several days, the group of over 100 Haitian asylum seekers were sent back across the border earlier this week carrying little more than the clothes on their backs, according to immigration advocates and a memo shared with the Miami Herald.
The group immediately stood out as they arrived from El Paso in Juárez, one of Mexico’s most dangerous border cities under a public health measure known as Title 42 that the Trump administration invoked during the coronavirus pandemic, said Tania Guerrero, an immigration attorney in the area.
“Nobody was at the bridge to receive them,” she said. “They were just dropped there.”
Though President Joe Biden quickly issued an executive order halting all deportations for 100 days as one of his first acts in office, information from Haitian government officials, U.S. data and activists indicate the pace of removals has continued at a steady clip.
Less than a week after his suspension order, a federal judge in Texas barred the U.S. government from enforcing the president’s moratorium for two weeks. Officials in the Caribbean nation were notified this week to expect 14 flights in the first half of February — some as frequent as twice a day.
That’s far higher than the two monthly flights U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement chartered to Haiti back in March at the start of the pandemic, and about as high as during a peak period around last year’s presidential election.
Amid an uproar from Haitian activists, the Biden administration grounded two scheduled flights Friday that were supposed to arrive with 135 passengers each. It is unclear if the flights will be rescheduled or if 10 other scheduled flights will continue. The White House and the Department of Homeland Security didn’t respond to multiple requests seeking more information.
The removals underscore the challenges the new president will face in trying to push through a campaign promise to reduce deportations and transform the immigration system during a pandemic. Activists monitoring the removals say many are being done under Title 42, which allows federal officials to send migrants back to halt the spread of the virus. They say children and even infants have been aboard the removal flights.
“These are people who are asylum seekers, most of them have not had any credible fear interviews. They are just being placed in airplanes and sent back,” Marleine Bastien, a Haitian community activist said.
Deportations come as Haiti’s turmoil mounts
The latest removals are taking place as a brewing constitutional crisis, an uptick in kidnappings, gang violence and a severe economic contraction push Haiti into a new chapter of uncertainty.
Opposition political parties and civil society groups, including human rights organizations and the Catholic Church, contend that President Jovenel Moïse’s presidential term ends Sunday. He took office in 2017 after a chaotic general election marred by fraud allegations. Though Haiti’s presidential terms last five years, detractors say Moïse’s mandate technically started in 2016, when an interim government was installed for a year before an election redo.
Moïse disagrees. During an unannounced appearance in the northeastern city of Fort-Liberté Friday, the 52-year-old leader who has been ruling by decree since January 2020 told Haitians they are stuck with him.
“We’ve assassinated presidents. We’ve exiled presidents. We’ve imprisoned presidents,” he said, referring to Haiti’s sordid history. “But do not forget, there’s a last president that is stuck in your throats. You won’t kill this one. You won’t assassinate this one. You won’t imprison this one. You won’t throw this one in exile. It is stuck in your throats.”
The unrest has sparked concern among Haitian activists that migrants are returning to danger.
“This is a very fluid and dangerous situation,” Bastien said. “People’s lives are at stake; those who are deported across the border and those who are deported to Haiti, a country on lockdown, basically, are in great danger. We are asking DHS to stop and put a moratorium on all deportations.”
Tensions were further stoked Friday when the Biden administration announced it supports Moïse’s claim that his presidential term does not end for another year. State Department spokesperson Ned Price noted that the U.S. position was in line with that of the Organization of American States.
“The Haitian people deserve the opportunity to elect their leaders and restore Haiti’s democratic institutions,” he said. “We’ve urged the government of Haiti to organize free and fair legislative elections so that parliament may resume its rightful role.”
Stateless migrant, children among those deported
On the same day Biden issued his executive order suspending deportations, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary David Pekoske issued a memo listing the agency’s enforcement priorities as of February 1. The memo said DHS would focus its limited resources on national security, border security and public safety threats.
But the first roadblock came on Jan. 26, when a federal judge in Texas issued a temporary restraining order, barring the U.S. government from enforcing Biden’s deportation moratorium. Though the order blocked the moratorium, it did not require deportations to resume at their previous pace.
That is exactly what happened, say immigration and Haitian activists. Though many of those being removed fall under Title 42, some do not. On Tuesday, for example, Paul Pierrilus, a stateless migrant born of Haitian parentage, was deported to Haiti less than two weeks after his deportation was halted by immigration enforcement.
Pierrilus, 40, moved to the U.S. from the French territory of St. Martin when he was 5. He arrived in Port-au-Prince aboard an ICE deportation charter flight from Louisiana with 63 other individuals.
“We have seen a rush to deport as many people as possible during the 14 days of the Texas restraining order,” said Guerline Jozefa, the director of the San Diego-based Haitian Bridge Alliance, which works with Haitian migrants along the southern border.
Jozefa was among those frantically calling lawmakers and others to get the Biden administration to ground Friday’s flights.
In addition to the deportations and the expulsion to Juárez, about two dozen Haitians were also expelled to Tijuana, Mexico, on Monday, she was told. The group included an infant, who according to one of the migrants interviewed by the Herald, was transported in the back of a scorching truck driven by a U.S. immigration agent.
Unlike deportations, where migrants have had a chance to present a credible fear of prosecution or trafficking, expulsions of those caught in the process of crossing the border by foot or in cars happen quickly with no interview or due process. They were not part of Biden’s 100-day moratorium.
“Expulsions should have also been included in the moratorium from the start,” Jozefa said. “The moratorium did not provide protection or relief for some of the most vulnerable people under Title 42.”
Jozefa said she and others are calling on the Biden administration to receive asylum seekers with dignity. Activists also called on the administration to halt the flights and for ICE to carry out the spirit of Biden’s reform push, despite the Texas order.
A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said the expulsions of Haitians make up a small fraction of those taking place at the U.S.’s southern border with Mexico.
“Approximately 90% of the individuals expelled in the last three weeks were from Mexico or Northern Triangle countries,” the spokesperson said. “Haitians ranged from 2% to 5% of Title 42 expulsions in the last three weeks. The Haitian flights mostly involve individuals who were encountered within the last week while attempting to cross into the United States between ports of entry.”
Under the Trump administration, Mexico agreed to only accept migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador expelled under Title 42. Neither DHS nor the White House responded to questions about why the Haitians taken to Juárez, and a group that was expelled to Tijuana on Monday, were returned to Mexico instead of Haiti.
‘People’s expectations have to be in line with reality’
Ira Kurzban, a Mami-based immigration lawyer who sued the Trump administration in 2018 on behalf of Haitian migrants, said Biden’s desire to overhaul immigration is running up against the influence of former President Donald Trump and the chief architect of his immigration policy, Steve Miller.
“I think what’s going on is that Trump and Miller put in place a process to tie the Biden administration up as much as they could and I think they are getting the cooperation from the lower levels of ICE and [U.S. Customs and Border Patrol],” he said. “They now have the cooperation of the southern Texas ruling.”
Kurzban said the failure of ICE and CBP agents to use discretion on who they deport and how often they do, shows that Biden could be encountering a revolt within the ranks.
“People’s expectations have to be in line with the reality, which is they put in place all of these landmines and measures, which prevent real change to a humane immigration policy and it’s going to take the Biden administration some time to straighten that out,” he said. “For those people who thought everything was going to change overnight, I think they were unrealistic.”
Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said Haitian migrants are not the only ones being caught up.
In addition to Title 42 deportations, which are “happening en masse,” Altman said advocates are hearing accounts from across the country of ICE officers denying requests for leniency “for people who are clearly no longer considered enforcement priority under the new memo.”
“What we’re seeing is an alarming disconnect between the spirit and the letter of the policies that are being issued, and the suffering that people are continuing to endure on the ground,” Altman said.
Biden, she said, needs to quickly move in addressing issues within DHS.
“The last administration weaponized immigration law and policy to maximize cruelty and suffering and they did it quickly and effectively,” Altman said. “And this administration is going to have to act with the same speed and urgency and boldness, but in the opposite direction toward welcoming and respect for human rights.”
Rumors fuel migrant quest to cross border
In Juárez, Guerrero, the immigration attorney, said she began getting text messages late Wednesday afternoon that a group of Haitians had been dropped off in the Mexican city.
She said migrants had arrived without socks or shoes. There were babies with dirty diapers. Some said that their identification documents had been taken from them while in U.S. custody. Others were dehydrated.
Advocates said the migrants had been in another part of northern Mexico and decided to cross through Juárez after rumors spread that it was an easier way to get into the U.S.
U.S. government officials have tried to discourage Haitians or any other migrants from coming to the border. Roberta Jacobson, a top Biden aide on border issues, asked Spanish-language media last week to discourage audiences from coming to the U.S. border.
“It is not the moment,” she said, adding that the journey was “very dangerous, and we are in the middle of creating a new system.”
Despite Jacobson’s pleas, advocates said rumors are spreading quickly and many Haitian migrants who have been stuck at the border for months or years are anxious to move on.
Guerrero said the incident highlights the need for the Biden administration to act quickly.
“I understand we’re not going to fix four years in two weeks,” she said. “I get that. But please show some sense of humanity here. Please show you have a plan working forward; don’t give me empty promises.”