Thousands of Haitians were displaced amid escalating gang violence following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse on July 7th. Many of them are expected to seek refuge in the US, but while the Biden government has taken steps to take in some, it has threatened others with the prospect of repatriation and locked the door to those arriving over the southern border.
In addition to pledging millions of dollars in aid to Haiti, the Biden government will soon more than 100,000 Haitians facing natural disasters or armed conflict. It will allow these people to live and work in the US for at least 18 months after the government publishes a notice on the federal register that the White House says is expected "in the coming days".
But that won't help anyone who decided to leave Haiti in the face of the recent constitutional crisis and power struggle that has developed since Moassase's assassination, nor will it help the thousands of Haitians who have long been stranded in Mexico due to the U.S. pandemic are -related limit restrictions.
At the same time, the Biden government has kept Haitians and Cubans fleeing the communist regime’s recent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators from entering the US by boat. Those who try and risk their lives will be intercepted by the US Coast Guard and will not be allowed to enter the US, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a July 13 press conference.
"The time is never right to attempt ocean migration," he said. “For those who risk their lives in the process, it is not worth taking that risk. Let me be clear: if you go to sea, you are not coming to the United States. "
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that these individuals will either be returned to Haiti or, if they can demonstrate the need for humanitarian protection, relocated to another country. It echoes Bush and Clinton era politics in the early 1990s when the federal government intercepted Haitian boats detaining and trying HIV-positive Haitians in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely in a "prison camp" named by a federal judge to repatriate them.
Immigrant advocates see the Biden government's response so far as giving up their responsibility to Haitians seeking humanitarian protection.
"The message is, 'You are not welcome,'" said Denise Bell, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Amnesty International. “This is a message that the US is not fully complying with its human rights obligations regarding refugee protection. … We are deeply concerned that the US continues to outsource its human rights responsibilities. "
But there are ways the Biden government could open orderly, legal avenues for Haitians to get into the US and ensure they have an opportunity to file protection claims. It can unilaterally lift pandemic restrictions on the U.S.-Mexico border, guarantee Haitians can legally enter the U.S. on a parole program, and prevent detention in their home country and deportation in dangerous conditions.
End pandemic restrictions at the border
The US continues to reject the majority of migrants arriving at the southern border – including Haitians – under pandemic-related border restrictions, with exceptions for unaccompanied minors, some Central American families with young children, and people sent back to Mexico awaiting trial in the US.
Last March, at the start of the pandemic, then-President Donald Trump invoked Title 42, a section of the Public Health Services Act that allows the US government to temporarily ban non-nationals from entering the US “when so in the interests of "what is needed is healthcare."
Policy has allowed U.S. immigration officials on the southern border to quickly deport more than 844,000 migrants since the pandemic began. Though scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially opposed the policy, arguing that there were no legitimate public health reasons, then-Vice President Mike Pence ordered the agency to go ahead with it anyway.
Biden has not rolled back the policy despite outcry from immigrant lawyers and humanitarian groups who say they prevent migrants from exercising their right to asylum under US and international law.
"People who come to the US-Mexico border to seek asylum are not doing so illegally," said Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an organization that provides services to black migrants at the border a recent press briefing. "It's your legal right."
The Haitian Bridge Alliance estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 Haitians are still trapped in Mexico as a result of Title 42, and most of them wait between 18 months and five years to apply for asylum. They have reported facing discrimination in Mexican border towns where they feared retaliation from the police or local armed groups.
And although Central American families have crossed the border and been released to the United States, many Haitian families have been sent back to their homeland. Immigration officials have chartered 34 flights to Haiti since Biden's inauguration – including one the day before Moïse's murder – and pregnant women and infants were among the passengers, Jozef said.
Reinstating a probation program for Haitians that would allow them to enter the US legally
As of 2014, the Obama administration allowed around 8,000 Haitians to come to the United States as part of the so-called Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program. Certain eligible US citizens and green card holders could apply for a suspended sentence on behalf of their family members in Haiti who have already applied for a visa, but otherwise face years of waiting.
Parole is granted only in situations where the Department of Homeland Security determines or determines that it would be of great benefit to the public. The program was designed to help Haiti recover from a devastating earthquake in 2010 that displaced hundreds of thousands of people, in part by increasing the remittances Haitian migrants could send to their families back home.
However, the Trump administration ended the program in 2019. Biden's press secretary, Psaki, said the administration was considering reviving parole for both Haitians and Cubans. Over 130 human rights, humanitarian, immigration, and women's rights organizations have endorsed the idea, but the groups are also calling for an even broader parole program that would apply to any Haitian arriving at a U.S. border.
This would provide an option for both those who arrived in the US after the May cutoff and those who continue to arrive. In the meantime, however, according to Psaki, these migrants could apply for asylum or other humanitarian protection.
The reintroduction of a Haitian parole program would provide an orderly, legal route to those fleeing the country to get into the US that "would encourage people to use mechanisms that keep them safe," as opposed to one treacherous trip to the US by boat, Bell said. In 2019, 28 Haitians died at sea en route to the United States.
But legal avenues like parole "should always be an addition to your right to apply for asylum," she added. "It should not mean that someone who comes to the border and seeks asylum will be punished, but that he has other ways to find safety."
Stopping Haitian deportations and making asylum more accessible
The Biden government can unilaterally instruct immigration authorities to stop enforcement actions against Haitians and prevent their deportation. This would only require issuing guidance to U.S. immigration and customs officials, agents, and litigators.
It can also find ways to resolve unjustified deportations of Haitians that took place under the Trump administration. To this end, the Biden administration has already announced that it will review thousands of Trump-era expulsions – not just those involving Haitians – and bring some of them back to the US.
But the problem remains that Haitians are treated unequally in the asylum system. Haitians who are intercepted by US authorities at sea are subjected to what is known as a "shout test" – they can only receive a screening interview for asylum or other humanitarian protection if they express concern about returning to their home country or otherwise express it.
Additionally, Haitian Creole speakers are particularly at a disadvantage as the U.S. does not require translators to be present when boats are locked, so they may not be able to effectively articulate their fears.
“What really is a form of persistent inequality before the law for Haitians is how few are ever considered for relocation if they are intercepted at sea, and then for people who make it to the US – be it on the Sea or land on the southern border. "- How few are actually granted asylum," said Bell. “I don't think that's a function of the validity of your claims. I think it's a form of systemic racism. "