Washington, DC – Rights groups in the United States blasted the Biden administration for its planned expulsion of some 12,000 mostly Haitian migrants and asylum seekers who have been camped under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, after wading across the Rio Grande River from Mexico.
US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Monday that 6,500 migrants and asylum seekers have been taken into custody in advance of processing and removal from the US. On Sunday, the first flights carrying migrants landed in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince.
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“It’s completely unconscionable,” Steven Forester, immigration policy coordinator at the US-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told Al Jazeera. “There’s no way Haiti can handle the people that are in Haiti now given the conditions there. It can’t provide for these people.”
Images during the weekend showed hundreds of Haitian migrants trudging waist-deep across the Rio Grande while carrying their belongings over their heads to reach the US, heaping pressure on the Biden administration to rethink its immigration policies.
DHS said the vast majority of the migrants will be expelled under Title 42, a Trump-era health order that cites the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to quickly expel people seeking asylum at the US border.
“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned,” Mayorkas said during a news conference in Del Rio on Monday, adding that the US would conduct up to three deportation flights a day. “Your journey will not succeed and you will be endangering your life and your family’s lives.”
Rights groups say Title 42 is inhumane, not based on science, and a violation of the US’s own immigration laws – and they have been calling on US President Joe Biden to reverse the policy since he took office in January.
“They should stop deportations,” said Alix Desulme, who is Haitian and serves on city council in the city of North Miami, home to a large Haitian community. “It’s been a cry way before this happened,” Desulme told Al Jazeera, referring to the planned expulsions from the Texas-Mexico border encampment, “and Title 42 needs to be repealed.”
Political, humanitarian crises
The expulsions could not come at a worse time for Haiti.
Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in July, thrusting a country already grappling with political turmoil into deeper uncertainty. A month later, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck, killing over 2,000 people and devastating the southern region of the small Caribbean island.
Even before those events, the US had acknowledged the potential dangers Haitian migrants could face if they are deported back to their country.
On May 22, the Biden administration announced an 18-month Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians, shielding them from deportations. But the measure only applies to those in the US before July 29.
“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,” Mayorkas said in a statement at the time.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry said on Saturday that he was “very concerned by the extremely difficult conditions” Haitians were living through at the US-Mexico border, but said Haiti would support them upon their return to the country.
During a news briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki also said the US government has a “range of programme options as well as financial support in place” that would assist Haitian nationals as well as the Haitian authorities, without specifying further.
‘Nothing to go back to’
Nicole Phillips, legal director at the Haitian Bridge Alliance, another US-based support and advocacy group, said the situation in Haiti has grown worse since the TPS designation.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the south of the country are still without housing and have little access to drinking water after the most recent earthquake, Phillips explained.
The political situation also has grown more volatile with gangs in control of key areas and the country’s top prosecutor – who has since been sacked – last week asking the judge investigating Moise’s killing to charge Henry, the prime minister, for alleged involvement in the assassination.
“Many of these migrants at the border, their family members died in the earthquake and others their houses collapsed,” Phillips told Al Jazeera, “so there’s actually nothing for them to go back to. There’s no one to even pick them up at the airport.”
She added that many fled Haiti years ago and have been living in South America or waiting in Mexico for months or even years for an opportunity to claim asylum in the US.
Immigration at the US-Mexico border has been a major political challenge for the Biden administration.
Last month, more than 200,000 mostly Central American migrants and asylum seekers crossed into the US. The vast majority were expelled back to Mexico under Title 42, but top Republican leaders accuse Biden of not doing enough to stop people from coming.
Meanwhile, the thousands of Haitians who remain camped under the bridge are suffering in a scorching heat, with little access to food, water and sanitation, immigration advocates say. Many others, fearing deportation, have been returning to Mexico.
“The whole message is deterrence,” Forester said. “The idea that you sacrifice human beings to send a message is obscene and it won’t work.”