Advocates are concerned for the well-being of 10 Haitian migrants who were retrieved by Customs and Border Protection agents on the evening of March 8 on Desecheo, a desolate island off the western coast of Puerto Rico. The migrants were taken to Ramey Border Patrol station, where they were released after being processed that same night and having been stranded on Desecheo for at least three days with minimal food or water. Advocates say the delay in assistance reflects a harmful Department of Homeland Security policy of “prevention through deterrence,” which seeks to discourage migrants from attempting to reach the U.S. While the migrants were released with a notice of appearance in immigration court in San Juan, advocates with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) say there needs to be follow-through by organizers to guarantee the migrants are not deported back to unsafe conditions in Haiti. BAJI initially offered to provide legal support for the migrants.
“Our initial concern was that we were afraid they were just going to be sent back,” said Nana Gyamfi, executive director of BAJI. “So, we are glad to see that didn’t happen, but none of the 10 migrants that I know of has contacted our supervising attorney directly to say, ‘Hey, we want you to represent us.’”
While the migrants each received a notice of appearance, Gyamfi is concerned they will not be sent follow-up notices or any information to help ensure they are not deported for simply failing to appear at immigration court. According to research from the American Immigration Council, 83% of non-detained immigrants with removal cases from 2008 through 2018 attended all of their court hearings. Fifteen percent of those who received “in absentia” removal orders, meaning they were ordered deported because they didn’t appear in court successfully, reopened their cases and had their removal orders rescinded. According to the report from American Immigration Council, “the more an immigrant becomes invested in the court process through awareness of how the system works and familiarity with the procedural requirements, the less likely the person is to fail to appear.”
“It’s a ‘meant to fail’ process,” Gyamfi said. “When you don’t show up, then that means that you’re not capable of following the rules and staying here in their eyes.”
The migrants were initially spotted by a scuba diving and sailing boat on March 6. According to Catherine Edgerton, an abolition advocate who works with the crew that found the migrants, they were seen waving a red cloth from the island. The boaters were unable to approach the island themselves initially because the size of their boat and rough weather did not allow them to land, but they were concerned for the welfare of the migrants since the island is uninhabited with no access to food, water, or shelter. The captain called the Coast Guard to rescue the migrants, and the issue was turned over to the Customs and Border Protection, who waited three days to rescue the migrants. It is not clear how long they had been there before CBP received a phone call.
The Coast Guard initially instructed Edgerton to not approach the island or offer assistance. But, when days went by and the migrants remained unattended, she packed provisions, including water, and swam to the shore to deliver them. In a statement, Edgerton said one of the migrants was very ill, and all of them were very dehydrated, sunburned, and “desperate for help.”
“This should debunk any claim that it is not possible to reach these people and bring them to safety,” Edgerton wrote in a statement. “In light of the Biden administration’s ‘prevention through deterrence’ tactic, I believe this is not an act of gross negligence by U.S. government, but one of intention to use these human lives as an example to other Haitians seeking asylum in the U.S.”
According to Jeffrey Quiñones, public affairs specialist for U.S. CBP in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Caribbean, CBP agents were overwhelmed with an influx of Haitian and Dominican migrants who arrived over the weekend when the migrants were discovered on the island. According to documents from CBP, they were processing 52 migrants at the time.
In a statement made right before they were retrieved from the island, Quiñones said, “We are working with the U.S. Coast Guard to make the most secure retrieval possible ensuring both the safety of the migrants and the responders. This is quite a complex process and we have to leverage resources and assess risk.”
Quiñones said that during an interview after they were rescued, the migrants said they had been taken to the island by “smugglers” from the Dominican Republic. According to Quiñones, they receive frequent phone calls from park rangers at the nearby Isla de Mona about Haitian migrants left on the islands.
“People are not going to be deterred,” Gyamfi said. “Even if you tell us the place we’re running to is not that fabulous, that there [are] dangers ahead, people are going to choose to take their chances.”
The migrants were referred to San Mateo Church in Santurce where Haitian priest Father Olin Pierre-Louis is known for providing support to Haitian refugees. According to Pierre-Louis, seven of the migrants have already traveled to reunite with family in California and Miami. The rest do not have any family in the U.S. and are still staying at San Mateo Church. Pierre-Louis says his church provides shelter, food, accommodations, and assistance in navigating the immigration proceedings. BAJI has not heard from the migrants again, which is part of their concern for their well-being.
Gyamfi hopes the group of migrants is able to humanely exercise their right to request asylum. She additionally notes that the situation has sparked a need to figure out how else advocates and well-meaning people can offer support. While Edgerton’s crew meant well in calling the Coast Guard, Gyamfi said it could be equated to calling the military on Black people, which could have been deadly. Gyamfi says they are still brainstorming alternatives.
“People who mean well are trying to figure out ‘how can I help these folks,’ and if you leave them to die, that’s also not a good thing,” Gyamfi said. “We really have to be considering what [we can] do to develop systems that enable us to not have to reach out to the Coast Guard or anyone else to save our folks and at the same time, while we’re pressing the government to not put our people in those situations.”