Haitian advocates file lawsuit against Biden administration over Del Rio
A coalition of Haitian immigrant advocacy groups on Friday filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration, claiming authorities have not responded to freedom of information requests regarding the treatment of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, in September of last year.
The lawsuit comes a year after nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants encamped under a bridge in the remote Texas border town, attracting national attention with images of alleged abuse against the migrants by the Border Patrol.
“There is an urgent need for transparency about the manner in which the fU.S. government responded to the thousands of Haitian migrants who attempted to seek asylum at the border in September 2021, and regarding the government’s ongoing response to the migrants who continue to attempt to seek asylum at the southwest border every day,” the plaintiffs wrote in the complaint.
The suit was filed by Haitian Bridge Alliance, African Communities Together and Undocublack Network, advocacy groups who filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests shortly after the events in Del Rio.
A large majority of the Haitians who crossed into Del Rio to seek asylum were expelled to Haiti by the Biden administration under what’s known as Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows U.S. officials to skip statutory asylum screenings under guise of pandemic protections.
While Haitians account for a relatively small number of border apprehensions, they have accounted for a disproportionate number of Title 42 expulsions, in part because the current Haitian government is willing to take in its expelled citizens, unlike countries like Cuba or Venezuela.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs allege that the defendants — the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Bureau of Prisons — engaged in mistreatment of the migrants both during the crisis in Del Rio and after, by expelling them to Haiti, a country in serious danger of sociopolitical and economic collapse.
“In September 2021, approximately 15,000 Haitian migrants seeking asylum were sequestered by the United States government in an encampment near the Del Rio, Texas port of entry (hereinafter “CBP Encampment”); surrounded by armed guards; and given little or no access to basic necessities like food, water, shelter, and medical attention, despite triple-digit heat,” read the complaint.
“U.S. agents harassed and intimidated migrants, including through physical force. And then, abruptly, the government rounded up and expelled thousands of the migrants, forcing many to return to Haiti, a country that could not safely receive or protect them,” the complaint continued
The exact nature of the events at Del Rio has been a point of contention between human rights advocates and the Biden administration.
The plaintiffs in Friday’s suit filed a FOIA “requesting that [Defendants] produce records relating to the treatment of the migrants in Del Rio, as well as the government’s policies and directives on treatment and processing of migrants.”
A year later, the groups say they have received only one document from the Bureau of Prisons and nothing from DHS or its subsidiary agencies, CBP and ICE.
“Plaintiffs’ need for the requested information has only grown more urgent with each passing day, as more Haitian migrants seek safety in the United States and Plaintiffs advocate for their rights, and the rights of all Black migrants. Reports of mistreatment of Haitian migrants continue. Moreover, the government continues to expel Haitian migrants at record numbers: at least 25,000 in the last year, despite acknowledging the humanitarian crisis in Haiti,” wrote the plaintiffs in their complaint.
The Del Rio incident is perhaps best remembered by a news photo of a Haitian man being chased by a Border Patrol agent on horseback, where the agent’s flailing reins seem to show an attempt to whip the migrant.
In July, the CBP — the Border Patrol’s parent agency — put out a 511-page report that found “failures at multiple levels of the agency, a lack of appropriate policies and training, and unprofessional and dangerous behavior by several individual agents.”
Media attention was drawn to the fact that the report found that agents did not whip the migrant with his reins, but four Border Patrol agents were disciplined.
Still, Haitian advocates say the report was one-sided, as the CBP did not interview victims of the abuses certified in the report.
“We offered to help facilitate our clients’ participation in the investigation as long as CBP took reasonable steps to ensure their safety and to enable them to safely participate in the process, as is common in such investigations. CBP did not even respond, despite our repeated attempts to engage with them, and instead released their report without interviewing a single Haitian,” said Lauren Wilfong, an attorney with the Justice Action Center named as one of the litigators in the case.