Biden administration defends handling of Haitians amid uproar


The Biden administration on Thursday defended its handling of Haitian migrants at the U.S. southern border amid growing uproar among Democrats over the decision to expel Haitian nationals. 

The Department of Homeland Security said it has temporarily suspended the use of horse patrols in Del Rio, Texas, amid an investigation into border agents aggressively chasing Haitian migrants on horseback. 

Meanwhile, officials are rapidly processing and expelling thousands of Haitians on the border, in many cases doing so under the authority of Title 42, which has been used since the Trump administration to expel migrants during the pandemic without letting them apply for asylum.   

The White House insists that they are working to implement an “orderly and humane process” at the border and have pushed back against the notion that Haitian migrants are being treated differently than others at the border. 

“Our policy process has continued to be the same with Haiti as it is for anybody coming through an irregular migration across our border,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a briefing, noting that those who are not expelled under Title 42 are placed in detention or an alternative, including being released into the country with a notice to appear or register with authorities.

There were signs of discord within the administration over its handling of the situation. The special envoy for Haiti resigned over what he described as “inhumane treatment” of Haitian migrants, claiming that his policy recommendations had been ignored or dismissed by the administration. 

In a passionate letter, he said the country was in no position to accept the returning Haitians, given that the country is “mired in poverty, hostage to the terror, kidnapping, robberies and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government.” 

The State Department vigorously pushed back on his assertions, saying that the envoy, Daniel Foote, had ample opportunity to raise concerns about migration but never did so. 

“There have been multiple senior-level policy conversations on Haiti, where all proposals, including those led by Special Envoy Foote, were fully considered in a rigorous and transparent policy process,” spokesman Ned Price said. “Some of those proposals were determined to be harmful to our commitment to the promotion of democracy in Haiti and were rejected during the policy process. For him to say his proposals were ignored is simply false.”

The White House also rejected criticisms from some House Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.) who have likened its immigration policies to those implemented under the Trump administration. 

“We could not see it as any more different from the policy of the prior administration which the president feels, we all feel, was inhumane, immoral, ineffective, wasn’t operationally working, and because of the dysfunction of it, we have led to a very broken system that we are dealing with today,” Psaki said Thursday. 

With Foote now out of his post, the administration says they have diplomatic officials focused on Haiti to address the ongoing situation. Psaki pointed to the recent confirmation of Brian Nichols as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Career diplomat Michele Sison is also the ambassador to Haiti, though Biden has nominated her for a different role at the State Department. 

“Ambassador Foote is a career diplomat with a proven track record of speaking out against injustices around the world, and I was hopeful that a fresh perspective would help the United States reassess its policies towards Haiti. It is unfortunate that Ambassador Foote’s role is coming to an end so quickly and I join him in echoing his significant concerns regarding the U.S.’s policy approach towards Haiti,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

Numbers from Del Rio show the Biden administration is continuing to rapidly process the Haitian migrants, following a pledge from DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to increase “the frequency and number of the repatriation flights each day.”

A DHS official told reporters Thursday that 1,400 people have been returned to Haiti, while a population of an estimated 14,000 Haitians living under the bridge in Del Rio has dwindled to just over 4,000. 

The U.S. has some 3,200 Haitians in government custody but would not say how many had been released into the U.S.

Also unclear is how the U.S. is handling the treatment of Haitians who already have residency in other countries, with many making the journey to the U.S. after living in Brazil and Chile.

“There are some complicated issues related to whether they still have status in those countries that need to be worked out and how we verify the status in these countries and those discussions are ongoing,” a DHS official said on a call with reporters.

Critics of the administration’s current policy argue that the expulsions should be halted, citing the crises that Haiti is currently grappling with. The Haitian president was assassinated earlier this year and the country has been battered by not only the coronavirus pandemic but also a deadly earthquake that killed 2,000 people. 

“The government is in tatters,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said on CNN Thursday. “Why would you deport people back to a country that’s just trying as hard as they can to stay afloat and take care of the people that are there? They just experienced an earthquake and a major hurricane. It’s inhumane. The United States knows what to do. These are Black immigrants. Treat them the same way that you treat other immigrants.”

President Biden has remained quiet on the situation but Psaki signaled he could speak about it in the coming days. The White House says that Biden found the images of Haitian migrants horrifying and supports a swift investigation into the situation, which officials expect to be completed next week. 

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), co-chairman of the House Haiti Caucus and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, acknowledged on a phone call with reporters on a call Thursday that it “hasn’t been super easy to get the White House’s attention on Haiti.” 

While the White House hosted a meeting with Congressional Black Caucus members and senior officials on Wednesday, Levin said Biden should be most focused on getting his domestic economic agenda across the finish line.

“I’d love Joe Biden to come knock our heads and get the Build Back Better act across the finish line,” Levin said. “It’s a big world, there are many problems.” 

Updated: 7:17 p.m.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Andy Levin Frederica Wilson Jen Psaki Joe Biden Maxine Waters

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