The U.S. Department of Homeland and Security has a warning to undocumented Haitians en route to its southwestern border with Mexico — turn around. Otherwise, you will be deported back to Haiti.
After a six-year moratorium on deportations to the earthquake-scarred country, the Obama administration is resuming them, citing “improved conditions in Haiti” since the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake and “a significant increase in Haitians arriving at the Southwest border in San Diego, Calif.”
“The United States has recently witnessed a sharp increase in the number of Haitian nationals taking dangerous smuggling routes to apply for admission to our country in the San Diego, Calif., area without advance authorization,” said an official with DHS, which announced the policy shift Thursday.
In fiscal year 2015, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol only apprehended 339 Haitians at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the world’s busiest border crossing, officials said. But that number jumped sharply from Oct. 1, 2015, to Sept. 4, with officials processing more than 5,000 Haitians at the California entry point, overwhelming the facility, which is undergoing construction.
“Effective immediately, enforcement decisions with respect to Haitian nationals should be consistent with the practice regarding other nationalities,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.
At the top of the deportation list are those apprehended at the U.S. borders or ports of entry that do not possess a credible fear of persecution or torture; convicted felons and those convicted of significant or multiple misdemeanors; and an estimated 2,000 Haitians with a final order of deportation already issued by a U.S. immigration judge.
Haitian nationals currently covered by Temporary Protected Status, an immigration benefit granted to tens of thousands a day after the earthquake, are not affected by the policy change. But the policy change will affect as many as 40,000 Haitiansin transit through other Central and South American nations from Brazil to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The announcement comes less than three weeks before Haiti’s Oct. 9 re-do of its controversial first-round elections. The possibility of having thousands of Haitians repatriated on the eve of the vote has raised concerns of its impact on elections, and also on Haiti’s unstable economic and political environment.
Warned of the policy shift ahead of Thursday’s announcement, Haitian government officials said that while they are prepared to receive those sent back, they will not accept them under all conditions.
Interim President Jocelerme Privert, who met President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations’ General Assembly in New York Tuesday, told the Miami Herald that the issue of migration was raised during their brief exchange. While the flow of Haitians wasn’t raised specifically, Privert said he knows that it’s a concern for many of Haiti’s neighbors.
“The solution to this problem is to create new conditions, new opportunities for people to work,” he said, noting that he recently created a commission in Port-au-Prince to look at the matter, including how to handle repatriations. “That requires political stability and elections that are honest, transparent and credible, which is what I am working for.”
The perilous journeys, which start in Brazil, have taxed not just U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials at the San Ysidro border entry near San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, but also “the capacities of the governments they’ve been transiting through.”
A Haitian-American activist who has been assisting newly arriving Haitians in San Diego had one word for the new policy: “Heartbroken,” said Guerline Jozef.
“Turn them back to what?” she asked. “The people risk their lives to get here in hope of a better life.”
In Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, a few dozen community activists, religious leaders and residents gathered Thursday afternoon at the office for Haitian Women of Miami to speak out against the policy shift.
Father Reginald Jean-Mary, pastor at Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church, told reporters he didn’t see the logic in sending Haitian migrants back when the country is still rebuilding: “Haiti is not ready to welcome deportees.”
Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, spoke of a recent trip to San Diego to interview Haitian migrants at the border, who have traveled across countries trying to get to U.S. soil — people who will now be turned away.
“They see and smell death at every step of the way,” she said.
DHS officials said that if Haitians, who are in transit, do not want to be repatriated to Haiti, they should return to Brazil, which in the aftermath of the earthquake gave Haitians special residency status for them to live, work and receive social services.
“Haitian nationals report that they are leaving Brazil in light of the economic downturn and lack of jobs,” a DHS official said. “We cannot remove folks coming from Brazil to Brazil without the cooperation of the Brazilian authorities. We are only able to remove them to Haiti. “
Earlier this week, Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela raised the issue with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, seeking his assistance with what he calls, “another migration crisis.” In May, Varela closed his Central American nation’s border with Colombia, stranding Haitian migrants along with others from as far away as Africa in Turbo, the last city before arriving in Panama.
Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís, who met last month with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, raised the issue in his General Assembly speech. About 80 to 85 percent of migrants stranded on Costa Rica’s northern border because they have run out of money or are trying to find a smuggler to get them through Nicaragua — which closed its border — are Haitian, he has said.
“It’s very difficult for us to handle the situation,” Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González told McClatchy news. “It’s very costly. Our communities, rural communities where they are located, are a bit tired after what happened with the Cubans who stayed here for about five months.”
State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said the administration is committed to working with regional governments on a coordinated solution.
“We are concerned for the safety of all migrants throughout the region — including Haitian migrants — who make dangerous journeys to reach the Mexico-U.S. border,” Toner said. “Our region faces the shared challenge of irregular migration for which we need shared solutions.”
Randy McGrorty, an attorney and executive director of Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami, said the resumption of deportations was disheartening and that the timing was bad. Citing humanitarian concerns, the Obama administration halted deportations on Jan. 13, 2010, a day after Haiti’s earthquake left 1.5 million homeless, more than 300,000 dead and an equal number injured.
“I don’t think Haiti is in any condition to receive deportees. This is way too soon with the situation,” McGrorty said. “Progress has been made, but it’s still a mess. The political situation is incredibly unstable. And on the eve of our election? It’s a problem.”
Doris Meissner, a former Immigration and Naturalization Services commissioner and current fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said the success of the policy shift will depend on the Haitian government, which hasn’t always been easy to work with when it comes to accepting returnees.
“It will most likely take some time to work out the mechanics of doing it,” she said.
Although Meissner stopped short of calling the Haitian surge “a crisis,” she said “it’s the kind of thing you have to jump on pretty quickly when it gets past the very small numbers. Once it gets to to be a couple of thousand, it’s a different thing. These things can become a new pattern quite quickly.”
Miami Herald reporter Joey Flechas and McClatchy Washington Bureau Latin American Affairs Correspondent Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.