Migrant advocates enraged over Biden’s slow Haiti moves
Pressure is mounting on the Biden administration to address worsening humanitarian conditions in Haiti and provide deportation protections covering tens of thousands of Haitians in the United States.
Activists stateside are demanding that President Biden redesignate the country for temporary protected status (TPS), a move that would give more than 100,000 Haitians the right to live and work in the United States.
Haitian migrants within the U.S. have long been demanding the country’s redesignation for the TPS program, but they say it has renewed urgency amid political upheaval in the Caribbean country.
President Jovenel Moïse is ruling by decree in Haiti and pushing for a constitutional referendum there, a move that supporters deem necessary but that opponents see as an authoritarian power grab.
Both Moïse’s government and its opponents are battling for attention in Washington, sending teams of lobbyists to Capitol Hill amid growing calls for action.
The Biden administration on Tuesday broke its silence on Haiti, with Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, delivering a scathing reproach of Moïse’s government.
“Legislative elections that should have been held in 2019 are long overdue. And, what has been the result of this delay? An unchecked executive power since January 2020, as the lower house no longer exists, and there are too few Senators to reach a quorum,” Chung said in a statement commemorating Haitian Flag Day.
“There is no separation of powers and no way for the branches of government to hold one another accountable. This situation calls into question the core precepts of Haiti’s democracy,” said Chung.
Still, advocates argue that after months of silence, such an assessment of a well-known crisis is not enough.
“At this point the best thing will be to see action. Rhetoric is absolutely fine and very much appreciated,” said Haddy Gassama, policy and advocacy coordinator for the UndocuBlack Network, a group that advocates for the rights of Black immigrants.
“The State Department finally getting on board and naming it is wonderful, but what would be more helpful would be to create a sense of safety for Haitian migrants,” Gassama added.
TPS allows foreign nationals of a designated country to live and work in the United States during natural or man-made disasters in their home countries. Haiti’s worsening political turmoil has led to massive protests, unrest and crime in the country, a situation Gassama called “a textbook case for TPS.”
Haiti has an existing TPS designation that protects around 55,000 people from deportation, but its status in the program is dependent on lawsuits that were filed against the Trump administration, which tried to terminate Haiti’s inclusion in TPS.
“The only reason TPS is still available … is because of lawsuits suing the Trump admin for anti-Black racism in terminating TPS against Haiti specifically,” said Nicole Phillips, legal director at Haitian Bridge Alliance, a human rights nonprofit coalition.
Phillips criticized the Biden administration over TPS as well as its deportation of Haitian nationals seeking asylum at the United States southern border.
While exact figures are unclear, advocates say the Biden administration has expelled more Haitians by citing coronavirus concerns since January than the Trump administration did from March 2020 to January 2021.
“It’s like [former Trump adviser] Stephen Miller’s ghost is still pulling the strings of Biden’s immigration policies. And the Biden administration needs to do more to root out Stephen Miller’s ghost,” said Phillips.
A TPS redesignation for Haiti could double the number of Haitian beneficiaries in the program, giving certainty to more than 100,000 people already in the United States who are technically at risk of deportation to their homeland amid political chaos there.
Advocates and lawmakers have expressed a combination of bafflement and anger at Biden’s slow movement on Haitian TPS, particularly as the administration was quick to issue the protected status to Venezuela and redesignate Myanmar and Syria.
“There’s a developing rift between members of the Congressional Black Caucus, one of the primary constituencies of the Biden administration in Washington, who are really very upset about the way the Biden administration is handling policy towards Haiti,” said José Cárdenas, a former U.S. diplomat and director at Visión Américas, a consulting firm that specializes in the Western Hemisphere.
Cárdenas pointed to a letter in which 69 House Democrats, led by House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to refrain from supporting Moïse and his referendum and to support redesignation of Haiti’s TPS status.
“In short it was basically that they were certainly not fans of the Trump administration’s policy towards Haiti to the extent that one even existed,” said Cárdenas. “They really let the [Biden] administration have it by simply maintaining this sort of benign neglect of what President Moïse was up to in Haiti.”
Democrats are even more baffled over the Biden administration’s inaction on Haitian TPS since Biden made a campaign promise to redesignate the country and Haitian Americans especially hold sway in the always-competitive state of Florida.
And there’s even bipartisan top-level pressure to redesignate Haiti, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) signed a letter earlier this month asking Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to sign the redesignation.
While urging the administration to take action on TPS, advocates for Haitian migrants also criticize treatment of those arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, calling it a jarring injustice against Haitian nationals.
For years, Haitians have been fleeing their country through Latin America, hoping to make their way north to apply for asylum at the U.S. border.
Since March 2020, asylum applicants at the border have been for the most part swiftly expelled under Title 42, a sanitary law put in place by the Trump administration that allows border officials to skip asylum proceedings and quickly expel foreign nationals back to Mexico or their home countries.
Title 42 was put in place during the coronavirus pandemic under the justification that it was necessary to prevent COVID-19 from entering the United States through infected asylum-seekers.
The expulsions, which migrant advocates have panned across the board, are especially jolting for Haitian nationals, who are screened for the coronavirus and, even if found negative, loaded on planes back to their homeland, expelled under the guise of preventing spread of the virus.
And while Mexican and Central American nationals are quickly expelled, expulsions of Haitians generally take weeks, which advocates argue undermines the sanitary rationale behind Title 42.
“There are Haitians expelled into Mexico, but most of them apprehended at the border are put into [Customs and Border Protection] custody, often even [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] custody, held for one to three weeks and put on a plane back to Haiti,” said Phillips.
Haitians expelled in this manner often lose contact with their acquaintances waiting in Mexico, who keep seeking asylum in the United States and often don’t know they will most likely end up back in Haiti, said Phillips.
“It’s generally understood this is not a public health issue. It’s yet another excuse to expel asylum-seekers and deny them their human right to seek asylum,” said Gassama.
A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said in a statement last week that the administration is “working to streamline a system for identifying and lawfully processing particularly vulnerable individuals who warrant humanitarian exceptions” under the health provision.