On Sunday, the Biden administration began its latest round of deportations—this time involving Haitian immigrants in South Texas—and immigrant rights groups are doing everything in their power to halt the process.
Since Sept. 19, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deported over 6,000 Haitian migrants from the U.S. The Biden administration claims it has made the decisions to ease the overflow of migrants in a makeshift camp in the southern Texas town of Del Rio. The Department of Homeland Security closed the Del Rio entry port after more than 14,000 Haitians crossed from Mexico and had camped out under a bridge, awaiting processing by U.S. Border Patrol.
In recent months, thousands of Haitian migrants have crossed the border fleeing political and environmental disasters. For decades, Haitians have lived with the daily devastation of gang violence, gas shortages, and blackouts, but things took a deadly turn when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July, prompting further instability. On Aug. 14, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed more than 2,200 people and left thousands homeless.
This mass deportation of Haitians elicited an outcry from immigration advocacy groups. This decision has particularly enraged immigrant rights groups after footage was released of a border patrol agent on horseback going back and forth across the river, swinging horse reins menacingly and trying to round up Haitian migrants who were bringing food and supplies across the border. The White House has said it is investigating the situation.
“The cruelty rooted in hate, white supremacy, and xenophobia that shaped U.S. immigration policies for years continue to brutally harm and oppress millions of people today,” said Denise Bell, a researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, in a statement. “The Biden administration has had months to reshape how the United States treats and welcomes people, and time and time again, it has failed. People seeking safety deserve much better than this from an administration that promised humanity and dignity. It’s well past time for the U.S. to uphold the right of all people to seek safety in this country and center the dignity and humanity of Haitians seeking safety.”
On Oct. 1, A coalition of advocates for Black migrants—Haitian Bridge Alliance, UndocuBlack Network and African Communities Together—filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request, seeking details on how federal and state agencies managed the encampment in Del Rio, including questions on how horses and vehicles were used to deter or threaten migrants, and whether any government agencies used water management powers to impede river crossings.
“The people that are being deported are the very evidence that we need to fight the government,” said Patrice Lawrence, executive director of UndocuBlack, a network of currently and formerly undocumented Black immigrants working on policy and advocacy. “You cannot deport the very people that were the witnesses of these abuses.”
Advocates are asking the U.S. government to stop deportation flights, rescind Title 42, and restore asylum-seekers rights for Haitians. Under Title 42, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control order, the government can expel migrants for public health reasons during the COVID-19 pandemic. It went into effect in March 2020 under Trump and is being upheld by Biden. Title 42 allows many migrants caught at the border to be quickly expelled without a chance to claim asylum.
Immigrant advocates have sued the U.S. government over the use of Title 42, but the Washington, D.C. circuit court granted the government’s request for stay in Huisha-Huisha v. Mayorkas, allowing the Biden administration to continue expelling families and children to danger under its Title 42 policy.
According to 2014 American Community Survey data, Haiti is second on the list of countries of origin for Black immigrants, making up 16% of the U.S. Black immigrant population. Advocates say Haitian migrants have suffered mistreatment by the U.S. government for decades. The Haitian Bridge Alliance and Human Rights First told VOA News that in 1978, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service established a program to expel Haitian asylum applicants as rapidly as possible, resulting in more than 4,000 Haitians being removed from the U.S.
Haitian migrants currently have few asylum-seeking options. Researchers from the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that in addition to granting the 155,000 Haitian migrants who have been in the U.S. since July 29, a Temporary Protected Status designation, Biden could use another form of relief known as Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), which similarly prevents the removal of certain migrants for a designated period of time. In 1997, amid political turmoil and the fallout from a U.S. military intervention in Haiti, President Bill Clinton used DED to grant a one-year exemption to roughly 20,000 Haitians.
The Biden administration’s decision to deport thousands of Haitians prompted the U.S. envoy to Haiti to resign in protest. Haiti is “a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs in control of daily life,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “Surging migration to our borders will only grow as we add to Haiti’s unacceptable misery.”
“Similar to how there was the war on terror and Muslim folks have been scrutinized and vilified, it’s a similar experience for Black folks,” Lawrence said. “We are abused, we are not believed, [and] we are singled out. That has been the case for folks at whichever port of entry they use to enter the United States, but especially true of migrants at the border because they stick out. They don’t speak the language. They’re of course facing wider discrimination [because] they look different.”
While the Biden administration cites an overflow of the immigration system as the reason for removing Haitian migrants from U.S. soil, advocates point to the success of the Afghan resettlement plan currently in progress.
“While there’s a lot going on behind the scenes with Afghan refugee resettlement, what it does show us, however, is that as much as possible when there’s political will, at this point,” Lawrence said. “If the Biden and Harris administration wanted to show care and compassion for Black migrants, it would.”
[Update 11/9/2023: A previous version of this article stated that footage of Border Patrol agents showed them using whips on Haitian asylum-seekers. We have updated the piece to more accurately reflect that the Border Patrol agents swung their horse reins menacingly.]