Is the Biden administration ready to respond to a Haitian immigration emergency?
A handful of barely seaworthy vessels were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard off the coast of Florida over the Thanksgiving holiday; four people were reported drowned and five others missing after one rescue on Nov. 20. By the end of the weekend, the Coast Guard reported repatriating or diverting hundreds of Haitian migrants who had been seeking to reach the United States.
They were the first such interceptions at sea in weeks, but they could portend a wave of attempted crossings to the United States now that fuel deliveries in Haiti have been restored. In September, a criminal gang coalition, known as G9, seized the Varreux Fuel Terminal in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, blocking fuel shipments and bringing the already embattled local economy to a standstill. The interruption in fuel deliveries also rendered asylum seekers, as well as human traffickers, unable to launch from Haitian ports.
But G9 finally relinquished control of the terminal to Haitian National Police on Nov. 4, and tanker trucks were quickly making deliveries of gasoline and diesel fuel again.
Jean Denis Saint-Félix, S.J., the Jesuit regional superior in Haiti, confirmed by email that gas stations in the capital have reopened. “It is not clear how it really happened,” he said. “According to many sources, some arrangements were made, as usual, between the government and the gangs.”
Although common people struggle to pay a fourfold leap in fuel prices, Father Saint-Felíx believes many are ready to leave. “The problem of insecurity is increasing,” he said. “Kidnapping and assassinations continue to rise.
“People are fishing for opportunities so that they can flee from [Haiti],” Father Saint-Félix said. “This is the crisis within the crisis—professionals, students and families are leaving the country.”
A ‘total breakdown’
Haitians have good reason to escape their homeland in its current state.
Jean Denis Saint-Félix, S.J.: “People are fishing for opportunities so that they can flee. This is the crisis within the crisis—professionals, students and families are leaving the country.”
Bill Canny, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Migration and Refugee Services, lived in Haiti for four years as the country director for Catholic Relief Services and has been regularly following conditions there. He has seen earthquakes and other natural disasters bedevil Haiti; he has experienced times in the recent past in Port-au-Prince when crime was ascendant and political chaos extreme. But he calls what he is witnessing today a “total breakdown…this is the worst it’s ever been.”
“We know the government is really not functioning in Haiti these days,” he said, “These people are in the midst of incredible civil unrest. It’s dangerous. There are multiple gangs operating.”
Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told reporters on Nov. 3 that Haiti was experiencing the worst human rights and humanitarian conditions in decades. “People are being killed by firearms; they are dying because they do not have access to safe drinking water, food, health care; women are being gang raped with impunity,” Mr. Türk said.
Cholera, first introduced by U.N. troops sent into Haiti in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 2010, has returned. Many slum dwellers, trapped by gang violence, are forced to use tainted water sources.
The cholera outbreak sweeping across Haiti is claiming a growing number of children amid a surge in malnutrition, UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, reported on Nov. 23. The deadly combination means that about 40 percent of cholera cases now involve children, with nine out of 10 cases reported in areas where people are starving. Cholera has killed more than 240 people and sickened more than 12,300 since the first deaths were announced in early October. According to the United Nations, a record 4.7 million people in Haiti—nearly half of the population—face acute hunger.
People who hope to escape Haiti’s cholera outbreak and life-threatening insecurity cannot wait for a more welcoming climate to emerge in the United States.
Mr. Canny believes the humanitarian need is grave enough this time to transcend bipartisan squabbles in Congress.
“We’re committed to looking for nonpartisan solutions...to our immigrant issues,” he said. “I think that at times immigrants are being used as a political football.... We need to make sure we’re focused on these people as human beings who have the same rights as all of us.”
He said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its domestic humanitarian arm, Catholic Charities USA, were standing by ready to assist migrants at the Mexico border, where Haitian asylum seekers have been frequently turning up, and in resettlement offices around the country.
Because of the crisis conditions in Haiti, the United Nations has urged states receiving Haitian migrants and asylum seekers not to repatriate them. “Haiti is on the verge of an abyss,” Mr. Türk said. “In this context, it is clear that the systematic violations of rights in Haiti do not currently allow for the safe, dignified and sustainable return of Haitians to the country.”
Return to Guantánamo?
The timing for a mass migration event from Haiti could not be worse, coming after a fractious midterm election in the United States overloaded with negative messaging about a migrant “invasion.” But deteriorating conditions in Haiti were not synchronized to the U.S. political calendar.
People who hope to escape Haiti’s cholera outbreak and life-threatening insecurity cannot wait for a more welcoming climate to emerge in the United States. With gasoline and diesel flowing again, migrant advocates expect a new flotilla of Haitians desperate to reach the Florida coast or migrant trails in Mexico.
Media reports detailing contingency planning by the Biden administration suggest that third-party states in the Caribbean and the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, may once again be put to use as “lily pads” for Haitian asylum seekers intercepted at sea.
Because of the crisis conditions in Haiti, the United Nations has urged states receiving Haitian migrants and asylum seekers not to repatriate them. “Haiti is on the verge of an abyss,” one official said.
Speaking for the U.S.C.C.B., Mr. Canny said the conference did not support the idea of any asylum seekers from Haiti—whether they land on U.S. shores or are intercepted at sea—“brought in and warehoused in congregate situations” like a camp at Guantánamo.
He said international and U.S. law requires that asylum claims be respected and applications quickly evaluated. He suspects that most migrants will be found to have legitimate claims based on Haiti’s disintegrating security conditions.
The idea of detaining Haitian migrants in third-party states or expanding the Migrant Operations Center at Guantánamo was quickly condemned by the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a national coalition of religious advocates and service providers for Haiti. In a letter to the White House, the alliance noted that the Guantánamo site had been used in the past to detain Haitian migrants and is now “associated equally with cruelty towards Haitians and more recently, lawlessness, torture, and executive overreach.”
“We call on your administration to prioritize protections for Haitian nationals,” the alliance said. “This includes halting returns and expulsions to Haiti given the life-threatening conditions there.” The group urged the creation of “swift, meaningful, and substantial safe pathways to protection for Haitians” and access to apply for asylum in the United States, “without discrimination, and regardless of whether people travel by land, sea, or air in search of refuge.”
A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined in an email to America to confirm the possible use of U.S. facilities in Cuba to detain Haitian migrants. But, he said, “the U.S. government always does contingency planning out of an abundance of caution and for a wide range of potential scenarios. These contingencies for migration existed long before the Biden-Harris Administration.”
Archbishop Wenski: “A short- or long-term stay in Guantánamo does not address in any positive way the rights or the dignity of the Haitian people.”
“We have not seen an increase in Haitian maritime migration, and no decisions have been made,” he added.
With more than 300,000 residents of Haitian descent, the Archdiocese of Miami hosts the largest Haitian community in the United States, and its archbishop, Thomas Wenski, has been especially attentive to the plight of Haitian immigrants. In an email response to questions from America, he urged the Biden administration to improve screening capacity for asylum claims ahead of a potential migration emergency out of Haiti. “A short- or long-term stay in Guantánamo does not address in any positive way the rights or the dignity of the Haitian people,” he said.
“I think first and foremost, we must follow the law of the land and implement screenings to ensure that individuals facing persecution in Haiti will not be returned summarily,” the archbishop said.
“Historically, Haitians have always faced a double standard in trying to make their claim for refugee protection,” he said. “This protection should be provided in a safe environment, on our shores, where there is adequate access to legal representation and to family and/or community support systems.”
He added, “For those who are already in the U.S. but who do not qualify for the current [Temporary Protected Status] designation, Haiti should be re-designated to include these late arrivals or at the very least provide them work authorization pending review of their individual asylum claims.”
The Haitian Bridge Alliance likewise urged the extension and redesignation of T.P.S. for Haitian migrants in a letter to the Biden administration, deploring its continuing efforts to repatriate Haitian migrants.
Whoops of joy filled the streets of Port-au-Prince when gas stations reopened in November. Haitians are hoping for a return to something closer to normalcy.
“Even though the Haitian government has been unable to safely receive and reintegrate its citizens,” the alliance said, “there have been over 240 deportation and expulsion flights to Haiti since September 19, 2021. Most of these estimated 25,000 individuals removed to Haiti were blocked from seeking asylum and other protection by Title 42 policies.
“These removals severely undermine the Administration’s promise to build a fairer and more inclusive immigration and asylum system for all.”
On Dec. 5 Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced a redesignation of T.P.S. for Haiti and an extension for Haitian migrants already residing in the United States for an additional 18 months, from Feb. 4 through Aug. 3, 2024.
A way forward?
Archbishop Wenski urged that new arrivals from Haiti should be quickly afforded the right to work. Providing work authorization, he said, is a win “for our own economy which desperately needs workers,” a win “for the asylum seekers who want nothing more than the ability to sustain themselves and contribute to the economy,” and a win “for controlled migration as an economically stable Haitian community here in the U.S. sends remittances home to their family in Haiti, reducing the need to migrate.”
“This last point, which seeks to address the root causes of migration, is the way forward,” Archbishop Wenski said. “The issues in Haiti must be addressed in a sensitive but meaningful way to rebuild Haiti and allow for a functioning government which can adequately address the gangs who now run civil society.”
Haiti may need help from the U.N. or other multilateral forces to do so, according to Father Saint-Félix.
Haitian police are “unable to tackle the security crisis,” he said, without “good and sincere” international assistance. As if to highlight the brazenness of Haiti’s gang leaders, the director of Haiti’s National Police Academy, Harington Rigaud, was gunned down on Nov. 25 at the doors of a police training facility. But two months after the Biden administration first proposed the deployment of a rapid reaction military force to Haiti, diplomatic momentum for the plan to intercede in Haiti is fading.
Whoops of joy filled the streets of Port-au-Prince when gas stations reopened in November. Haitians are hoping for a return to something closer to normalcy. But Father Saint-Félix finds himself wondering how the government will prevent gangs from taking over fuel terminals again. How long will the gas stations stay open this time?
Parents have begun a “timid movement” toward allowing their children to venture out onto the streets to return to school, he said, eager for any small sign of hope. “We will be following closely the outcome of this movement.”
With reporting from The Associated Press
This report was updated on Dec. 5 after the Department of Homeland Security redesignated Haiti for temporary protected status and extended that status an additional 18 months.